There have been several books written about basketball legend Kobe Bryant, and there will undoubtedly be several more.
None, however, will have his local connections leaping off the page like they do in The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality by Mike Sielski, a Bucks County resident and an uber-talented sportswriter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The book, released last month by St. Martin’s Press, deftly outlines Kobe’s childhood in Italy, where his father played professional hoops, and his teenage years on the Main Line, where he sought to lead Lower Merion High School, a moribund team at the point of his arrival as a freshman, to a state championship.
Sielski was the worthy beneficiary of a treasure trove of cassette tapes filled with never-before-heard interviews of the rising star as a high-schooler, and his words on those tapes laid the foundation for the book, which deserves immediate entry into sports canon. The tapes were provided by Jeremy Treatman, who, in the 2000s, was a titanic figure on the region’s scholastic basketball scene as the organizer of showcase events involving the area’s top teams and players.
Back in the mid-1990s, however, Treatman was an Inquirer freelancer who was hired by Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer as an assistant coach/publicist to handle the media onslaught generated by the future Hall of Famer. Treatman conducted the interviews with Kobe with the intent of writing his own book one day, but that day never came to pass.
So, as he was recently preparing to move from Manayunk to Boca Raton, Treatman discovered the tapes, more than a quarter-century old, then passed them along to Sielski. It’s hard to imagine them landing in better hands.
To label Sielski a mere sportswriter would shortchange his skill as a wordsmith, shrink his immense ability down to living size. His work, for sure, transcends the boundaries of sport, and in The Rise, he recreates Kobe’s formative years so well, and in such vivid detail, that it puts the reader right there with Kobe, his teammates, and classmates in the halls and classrooms of Lower Merion High.
Speaking of being there, I admittedly have a fascination with Kobe’s origin story. As high school basketball players in those mid-1990s, we were contemporaries — but, of course, far from equals. His Lower Merion Aces squared off against my Coatesville Red Raiders a total of three times during his junior and senior seasons. (I was two years younger than Kobe and on Coatesville’s freshman and junior varsity teams those years and, thus, never shared the court with him.) We lost all three games — the latter two in excruciating fashion at the famed Palestra — by a total of just 13 points. I had a front-row seat for the last one, a 70-65 loss in the 1996 District One Class AAAA semifinals that broke the hearts of everyone in Coatesville.
Sielski deserves credit for not deifying Kobe, which much of the media has done in the wake of his tragic death in January 2020. One thing the book makes abundantly clear — that Kobe did not somehow instantly become polarizing when, at 17, he made the controversial decision to skip college and enter the 1996 NBA Draft. He was one for years before he embarked on an illustrious NBA career that put him, alongside Michael Jordan and LeBron James, on the Mount Rushmore of modern-day basketball.
Sielski’s portrait of Kobe is rendered with all of his complexities and can best be summarized by this one, long, Nathaniel Hawthorne-like sentence:
“(Kobe) had traveled the redemptive narrative arc: ruining his good name and nearly his marriage and leaving a stranger scarred in that hotel room in Eagle, Colorado; destroying relationships with who knows how many coaches and players and peers before reconstituting them; somehow scrubbing away much of that grime to emerge as someone perceived to have matured, to have found the elusive balance between peace and ambition; persuading people that the arrogance and atrocious choices and actions of his past weren’t so relevant anymore; forging a new identity as an emotional and psychological touchstone, the possessor of a mentality that all should admire and emulate and adopt.”
The story of Kobe Bryant, indeed, has mass appeal and more value than even the author of this review could have ever imagined. Kobe was human, but his relentlessness and drive are so uncommon that he almost seemed inhuman. Kobe’s pursuit of excellence as a basketball player teaches us that we all have the potential for greatness, but it requires a single-mindedness, a focus that often feels otherworldly, but nonetheless lies within each of us.
The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality is available at Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.
Mike Sielski talks about Kobe Bryant and his new book in this episode of The Right Time.