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While the idea that a picture is worth 1,000 words is a bit of a cliche, there is something to be said for an outstanding sports photo. The game of basketball is defined by constant motion, so seeing a moment frozen in time can be jarring, albeit in a good way. Take, for example, the famous shot of Kobe Bryant after winning the 2001 NBA Finals.

The picture, which shows the legendary NBA star fully clothed and clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the shower, is often interpreted as a depiction of Bryant’s need to win. He was, in theory, so relieved to have reached his final goal that he finally could experience some catharsis.

In reality, though, things were a bit different. Kobe was actually experiencing some painful heartbreak. After winning an NBA title in his hometown, Bryant missed his father.

Kobe Bryant was crying tears of sadness, not joy, after winning the 2001 NBA title

From afar, it’s easy to imagine winning the NBA championship as the pinnacle of any athlete’s career. While that would make it seem like the postgame celebrations should be filled with unbridled joy, things were a bit different for Kobe Bryant after his Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001.

As mentioned above, LA won that championship, and, in the aftermath, Bryant retreated to the shower where he saw clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Although it was easy to project a variety of emotions onto the picture — you could read it as relief, a refusal to be satisfied, or pure exhaustion — there was something much more human at play. Kobe simply missed his father.

As Chris Ballard explained in a 2012 Sports Illustrated story, Kobe and Joe Bryant fell out early in the younger man’s career.

The falling out occurred in 2000, though neither Joe nor Kobe talks about it publicly anymore. At 21, Kobe got engaged to 18-year-old Vanessa Laine, whom he had met on the set of a video shoot when she was a high school senior. Joe did not approve. The problem, according to the Los Angeles Times, was that Joe was “uncomfortable that Vanessa, a Latina, is not African-American, and he is uneasy with [Kobe’s] selfless devotion to her.” When Kobe and Vanessa got married the following year, Joe and Pam didn’t attend the wedding. 

Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated

Then, when the Lakers faced the Sixers with the title on the line, Joe wasn’t there. Even Kobe, an unstoppable basketball force, was hurt.

“When the Lakers played three games in Philadelphia during the 2001 NBA Finals, Joe was nowhere to be found,” Ballard continued. “When, at the end of that series, the Lakers triumphed and Kobe was spotted holding the trophy in the shower and crying, everyone assumed it was out of joy, or relief. But he later told the Times, ‘That was about my dad.'”

And there you have it, straight from the man himself. At one of the brightest moments of his career, Kobe Bryant was hurting.

That reality provides a bit more humanity to the unstoppable Kobe Bryant

LA Lakers guard Kobe Bryant gestures during the 2001 NBA Finals.
Kobe Bryant during the 2001 NBA Finals. | Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images

When we remember Kobe Bryant, it’s easy to think of him as an unflinching competitor, unable to break through his ‘Mamba Mentality.’ The backstory behind his iconic shower picture, however, shows something more.

Bryant, for all his talent, burst into the NBA as a teenager. While he was an established star by the time he won that 2001 championship, the guard was still in his early 20s. He came home, won an NBA championship, and proved that he was capable of reaching basketball’s highest heights, and his father wasn’t there to celebrate with him.

That would hurt anyone.

That common humanity was also apparent when Joe and Kobe later patched up their differences. “Dads and kids fight,” Joe told his assistant, Michael Abraham, according to Ballard. “It just so happens that he’s Kobe.”

Once again, it’s easy to look at an NBA star and tie everything back to basketball. “Their life must be perfect because they make millions playing a game.” “They must be happy, upset, or whatever other emotion because of what just happened on the court.” Kobe Bryant, however, is a reminder that professional athletes are real people with ordinary problems.

If the Black Mamba, one of modern basketball’s most fearless competitors, can shed a tear over his personal life, then anyone can.

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