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At this point in time, Kobe Bryant’s basketball story is well established. He was the son of Joe ‘Jellybean’ Bryant, who spent time in the NBA before bouncing around Europe. Once in the Association himself, Kobe became a sponge, following in Michael Jordan’s footsteps and learning from veterans like Gary Payton.

Based on those realities, one of those men had to be the key to Bryant’s basketball career, right? While they all played a role, they don’t get the lion’s share of the credit. That honor, instead, goes to a man by the name of Sharif Butler.

Although Butler might be relatively anonymous in the world of sports, every basketball fan owes him a debt of gratitude. Without him, Kobe Bryant might not have ever blossomed into the star we all knew.

Kobe Bryant learned a great deal from losing to Sharif Butler

In the NBA, Kobe Bryant established himself as one of the modern game’s most fearsome competitors. Growing up, however, the guard had to take his lumps.

“Pam [Bryant, Kobe’s mother] came from basketball talent,” Chris Ballard explained in a Sports Illustrated story. “Her younger brother is Chubby Cox, a guard at Villanova and USF before a seven-game NBA stint with Washington in the early 1980s, and her nephews include John Cox, who is now a pro in France, and Sharif Butler, who played at TCU in the mid-’90s. It was Sharif, Kobe’s older cousin, who relentlessly beat him at one-on-one. ‘He’d terrorize me,’ says Kobe.”

As you might expect, those showdowns left quite an impression on Bryant.

“I think that’s part of what made Kobe who he is,” says John Cox. “Losing those games to Sharif.”

Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated

And, if you want to (indirectly) hear from Bryant, he name-dropped Butler during an old interview with Ahmad Rashad.

“When I asked Kobe where he learned his moves, thinking he was going to tell me from some great NBA player,” Rashad explained on an episode of NBA Inside Stuff preserved on Youtube, “he said he learned them from his cousin, Sharif Butler back in Philadelphia, who used to wear him out on the court.”

Sharif Butler didn’t match Kobe’s resume, but he did play college basketball

Kobe Bryant stands amid the confetti after the LA Lakers won the 2010 NBA title.
Kobe Bryant celebrates winning the 2010 NBA title. | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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As Ballard mentioned, Butler’s basketball accomplishments weren’t limited to sparring with Kobe in Philadelphia. He did play college ball at TCU, although he didn’t leave behind much of a legacy.

Both Sports-Reference and TCU’s athletics website only have one season’s worth of stats on Butler, who’s listed as a 6-foot-5 guard. During the 1995-96 campaign, he appeared in 30 games and averaged 7.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per outing. The Horned Frogs went 15-15 that year in what, as far as the records indicate, was a fairly unremarkable campaign.

While that might not have been enough to earn Butler a place in basketball lore, his influence on Kobe does make him an important, if unknown, figure. Without their one-on-one games, fans around the globe might not have ever gotten to know the Black Mamba.

That’s certainly something worth remembering.

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