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The NBA’s coming Kobe generation — Andscape

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LAS VEGAS — According to the Social Security Administration, babies being named “Kobe” began to peak around 2000.

Coincidentally enough, that was the same year that NBA star Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers won the first of three consecutive NBA championships, cementing Bryant as one of the most accomplished — and popular — players in the league, all before he turned 24.

The decisions that thousands of parents made in the early 2000s are finally materializing in pro basketball: During the NBA draft in June, two players with first names spelled the same way as the five-time champion and 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee — the Atlanta Hawks point guard Kobe Bufkin and the Los Angeles Clippers power forward Kobe Brown — were selected, making them the first players with the Kobe name to play in the NBA since Bryant retired in 2016.

Nearly 20 years after Bryant was drafted, and seven years after he left basketball, there’s a renaissance of his first name: We’ve reached the era of Kobes.

LA Clippers rookie forward Kobe Brown looks on during the 2023 NBA Las Vegas Summer League on July 8 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

While Bufkin (drafted 15th overall) and Brown (30th) share the same name, they’re not both technically named after Bryant.

Brown’s father, Greg, met Bryant’s father, then-La Salle University assistant coach Joe Bryant, when Joe Bryant was recruiting one of Greg Brown’s high school players in the early 1990s. While on a visit to La Salle with the player, Joe Bryant invited Greg Brown to come watch his teenage son Kobe play in high school. After watching Bryant play just one game, Greg Brown was sold.

“If I ever had a kid, Joe, his name is going to be Kobe,” Greg Brown recalled to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2020.

Bufkin, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. While Bryant was his parents’ favorite player, and Bufkin’s brothers are named after Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan, they claim Bufkin’s name was chosen because “Kobe was just a cute name,” Bufkin told Bally Sports after the draft.

Regardless, as the two Kobes grew into their names and desired to be basketball players, their parents instilled Bryant’s (in)famous work ethic — the Mamba Mentality — onto their budding young men. If they wanted to be like the Kobe, they’d have to put in the reps like the Kobe.

Greg Brown had his son doing basketball drills before he was 6 years old, which he questioned at the time. But he gets it now, though he hasn’t yet matched Bryant’s intensity when it comes to practicing his craft.

“I’m not that level yet. I’m trying to get there,” Brown told Andscape at the NBA summer league. “But he’s one of a kind.”

The Kobe name, though, is not a burden. Bufkin and Brown say it’s a motivator to be the best possible competitor.

Growing up with the name was “all positive” for Bufkin, though Brown faced his fair share of haters. “You think you Kobe?” he was asked rhetorically when people learned his name.

But Brown always had a comeback ready. “I never tried to be Kobe,” he said. “They ain’t either. No one’s ever going to be Kobe.”

Atlanta Hawks guard Kobe Bufkin (right) handles the ball during the 2023 NBA Las Vegas Summer League on July 9 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas.

Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

They embraced the name … and the man: Bryant was their favorite player growing up.

“I had the name, I had the jerseys, I had all that,” Bufkin told Andscape.

Brown grew up watching Bryant and the Lakers “before I knew the rules of basketball.” But don’t get that confused with him being a fan of the team. He was an LA Clippers fan. Regardless, he cheered for Bryant’s team, that is until Bryant retired.

“When he left it was, like, ‘All right, I’m just watching the game,’ ” Brown said.

Each has his own way of trying to honor Bryant. Bufkin wears an armband just below his elbow as Bryant did for most of his career. Brown, like many young men yelling “Kobe!” while shooting a wad of paper into a trash can, imitated Bryant’s iconic spinning fadeaway jumper when he was younger.

The pair are in sync about two things: Bryant’s sneakers and his jersey number.

At the summer league, Bufkin (Kobe 11 Elite Low “Fade To Black”) and Brown (Zoom Kobe 6 Protro “All Star”) sported versions of Bryant’s acclaimed Nike sneaker line; though, due to a shortage of the shoe between 2021 and 2022, Brown wore Kevin Durant’s line while at Missouri until he received the “All Star” pair after the draft as a gift.

Will he continue to wear Kobe’s sneakers?

“If I can get my hands on some more at a decent price, for sure,” he said.

Both have paid tribute to Bryant on their jerseys. Brown wore No. 24 for all four years at Missouri and before that at Lee High School (He wore Bryant’s No. 8 in rec league or AAU games if No. 24 was already taken). Bufkin wears either No. 2 or No. 4, as he did at Michigan and Grand Rapids Christian High School, respectively, as a nod to Bryant’s two pro jersey numbers (2 x 4 = 8).

“But I never do 24, never do 8,” Bufkin said.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (right) dribbles against Indiana Pacers guard Jalen Rose (left) during a game on March 2, 1997, at Market Square Garden in Indianapolis.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Future athletes being named after famous players isn’t unique to Bryant.

There was a Harvard University study dedicated to the increase in babies named after Bryant’s former teammate Shaquille O’Neal. There are currently at least seven NFL players with some version of the name Shaquille or Shaq. Former NBA player Jalen Rose spawned a whole collection of copycat names, including New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson and Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown.

Bryant’s name has been just as impactful in the sports world. Former college basketball players Kobe King (Valparaiso), Kobe Webster (Nebraska), Kobe Wilson (Alcorn State), Kobe Dickson (Cornell), among others, all share the name. College track and field (Kobe Cox of South Alabama, Kobe-Jordan Rhooms of Morgan State, Kobe Simpson of Maryland) has had its share. Bufkin, who hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was one of five Kobes playing high school basketball in western Michigan in 2020. (A sixth player is named Koby.)

There are a few Kobes in the pipeline: Ja’Kobe Walter will play basketball at Baylor next season, while Kobe Black, a rising senior high school defensive back, has offers from Ohio State, Texas, Alabama, and other programs.

The Charlotte Hornets’ Kobi Simmons appears to be the first NBA player with a name similar to Bryant’s to make it to the league. “I can’t put into words the impact you had on me. I was named after you with a change to the ending. I grew up playing the game and wearing 24 when I was younger to be like you,” Simmons wrote on Twitter after Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.

Bufkin and Brown are proud and honored to be named after Bryant, but neither one feels the expectations or responsibilities of living up to a basketball legend.

“Them big shoes to fill,” Bufkin said. “I’m just trying to get halfway if I can. I try not to think about it too much, because that’s a lot of pressure.”

Brown isn’t sure if it’s destiny that got him to this point — with this name — but he’s trying to cherish the current moment he’s living in as a first-round draft pick.

“It’s cool that I came to LA named after Kobe and the whole story, that’s definitely a plus, but I’m just happy to be here,” he said.

They agree that it’s special to be the first players named after Bryant after his illustrious 20-year career.

“I’m happy to be here, and I’m sure he [Bufkin] is too,” Brown said. “We wear a special name, and we’re proud of it.”

Added Bufkin: “Our parents, even if they say they don’t, they took after Kobe, and it was legendary enough to get a kid named after him. So, it’s cool to see.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, “Y’all want to see somethin?”





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