The word “confidence” gets paired with Kobe Bryant often. As a five-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe was never afraid of taking the big shot and rising up to any challenge in his path. The belief is his abilities can be traced back to his high school days, where a 15-year-old Bryant was so disappointed in himself for not winning the MVP award at a basketball camp, he apologized to the camp’s founder.
Kobe Bryant was invited to the national ABCD Camp
Bryant was a great high school basketball player, but he was not yet a household name. However, his father Joe had carved out a solid career in the NBA and overseas. More importantly, his career had helped him create connections with people who could help put his son on the map.
Joe reached out to Sonny Vaccaro, an old acquaintance who was in charge of the ABCD Basketball Camp. The camp, which began in 1984, showcased the top 125 high school basketball players in the nation. Over the course of its history, the ABCD Camp featured high school talents and future lottery picks like LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, and eventually, Kobe Bryant. But Kobe getting into the camp was far from a slam dunk.
“I’d never heard of Kobe Bryant,” Vaccaro said in the book Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty. “No one knew who he was, what he could do. But I felt like Joe and I had a history, and maybe he was telling the truth [about Kobe]. So I told him, ‘Okay, I’ll let him in.'”
Vaccaro took a chance on Bryant, who reported to the Fairleigh Dickinson University campus in Teaneck, New Jersey in July 1994. He was one of four high school juniors in attendance, and at 15 years old, he was among the youngest players at the nationally recognized camp. But that didn’t stop Kobe from believing he was destined to walk away with the camp’s coveted MVP award.
Bryant apologized after not being named MVP
At the ABCD Camp in 1994, most of the attention was on two guards from New York City. The first was Stephon Marbury, a star at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and eventual fourth overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. The other was Shammgod Wells from La Salle Academy in Manhattan, another player who went pro in 1997. But Bryant did everything he could to outshine them.
Bryant went head-to-head against Marbury and Wells, as well as future lottery pick Tim Thomas from Paterson, New Jersey. He battled against the future NBA players for a full week, but it wasn’t enough to earn MVP honors. Marbury took home the senior MVP award, while Thomas claimed the MVP for underclassmen. Following the camp’s conclusion, Bryant walked over to Vaccaro and tapped him on the shoulder (h/t: Three Ring Circus).
“Mr. Vaccaro,” [Kobe] said. “I want to apologize to you.”
“What do you mean?” Vaccaro said.
“I’m just telling you, next year I’ll be the MVP here. I’m sorry I let you down.”Jeff Pearlman
Kobe’s gesture stuck with Vaccaro for years. It was also a big reason why the former Nike and current Adidas executive knew he had to sign Bryant to an endorsement deal with his brand.
“His mindset was not ‘Hey, thanks for having me,'” Vaccaro later said. “It was, ‘F*** that, I’m going to be MVP.’ Call it what it is — confidence, arrogance, self-assurance. He knew he’d be great, and at that moment I knew he’d be great.”
Kobe delivered on his promise to win MVP
After a productive camp, Kobe dominated in his junior year at Lower Merion High School. He averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists en route to becoming Pennsylvania’s Player of the Year. The next summer, Bryant was invited back to ABCD Camp … with no help from his dad required.
The ABCD Camp in 1995 welcomed back Thomas and featured future NBA All-Star Jermaine O’Neal from Eau Claire High School in South Carolina. But Kobe was ready for whoever stood in his path. The 16-year-old averaged 21 points and seven rebounds to earn MVP honors for the senior class.
Winning MVP at the camp meant a lot to Bryant. In fact, he held the ABCD Camp in such high regard, his uniform number ‘143’ was the inspiration for his decision to wear number 8 (1+4+3) upon joining the Lakers.
It’s clear that even if the camp goers weren’t aware at the time, #143 knew he was destined for great things.