Kobe Bryant’s legacy: For first time since Black Mamba retired, NBA roster to feature players named after Lakers icon

LAS VEGAS — There is Kobe, wearing the uniform of a team from Los Angeles. There’s Kobe, the last one on the court for practice and getting yelled at because the buses are waiting for him.

How appropriate. Just like the old days.

Of course, there will never be another Kobe Bryant.

And make no mistake — Kobe Brown and Kobe Bufkin would be the first two players in the NBA Summer League to insist there will never be another Bryant. They would never pretend otherwise.

But for the first time since the Hall of Famer retired in 2016, the NBA is about to have fans see guys named Kobe again.

Brown is in the Summer League with the Los Angeles Clippers. Bufkin enters his rookie year with the Atlanta Hawks. Both were named after Bryant, who – so far – is the only player named Kobe to make it to the NBA. In a few months, it looks like that will change.

Kobe Brown (left) was drafted 30th overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2023; Kobe Bufkin (right) was selected 15th overall by the Atlanta Hawks.

AP photos

“It means a lot,” Brown said. “There’s definitely a target on my back, I feel. A lot of guys, when they hear the name Kobe, they think of Kobe Bryant. Obviously, I’m not him by any means. But I try to keep that edge and play as hard as I can, just like he did.”

It is impossible to know exactly how many people are named Kobe. It remains relatively unusual.

Babies named after Kobe

According to the Social Security Administration, there was a six-year stretch — 1998 to 2003, coinciding with Bryant’s first year in the NBA and first three championship seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers — when the trend of giving babies that name peaked; the most was in 2001, when 1,552 baby boys applied for Social Security cards for those with that name.

The name still had a small following, perhaps a few hundred babies each year, until 2020, the year Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash on a foggy Southern California Sunday.

Another 1,500 boys were given that name that year, probably many in tribute to Bryant’s life and career. The most popular name that year for newborn boys, according to government data, was Liam, which was used around 20,000 times. (There were also variations, such as Kobee and Kobey, and a few dozen American newborn girls were also named in 2020.)

Mamba inspiration

“It’s never affected me too much when it comes to playing ball,” said Bufkin, who was born in 2003. “I try not to think about it too much when I’m actually on the field. But obviously, that carrying the name comes with a certain work ethic that you have to try to match. And it’s hard as hell to match that. If I get halfway there, I’ll be okay.”

Case in point: The Hawks had a summer league practice this week that was scheduled to last 45 minutes, with some shooting afterward. Most players were off the field after about an hour and 15 minutes. Almost all of them had their sneakers off and were ready to go to the bus a few minutes after that, but Bufkin was still on the court working on half-court drives against a defender.

“I’m just trying to follow the plan,” Bufkin said.

The popularity of the Los Angeles Lakers great is still overwhelming 3 1/2 years after his death.

Bryant jerseys are still extremely common among Lakers fans. Nike plans to relaunch the Kobe brand this summer, and Bryant is the cover athlete for two editions of NBA 2K24 — “NBA 2K24: Kobe Bryant Edition” and “NBA 2K24: Black Mamba Edition,” with the tie-in being the 24 that was a of Bryant’s two NBA jersey numbers. And there will be another tribute of sorts at the World Cup of Basketball; Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards is set to wear No. 10 for USA Basketball this summer, the number Bryant wore when he played for the national team.

“It just shows how much he inspired generations,” Bufkin said. “I was part of the first generation that came after him, and it’s crazy that our parents were willing enough to name us after him.”

Brown has never been inside Crypto.com Arena, the building the Clippers call home, as do the Lakers. It’s the arena — then called Staples Center — where Bryant played half of his games in his 20 seasons with the Lakers, scored his career-best 81 points against Toronto in 2006 and called home five championship runs and 18 All-Star campaigns.

“It’s definitely a blessing,” Brown said. “I’m excited to go into the building, see it, actually play where he played for all those years and did so much for the city of Los Angeles.”

Considering they’re both first-timers, Bufkin and Brown seem like locks to be in the NBA when the new season opens this fall. Bufkin was drafted No. 15 out of Michigan by the Hawks — and also has a brother named after an NBA player in Isaiah Thomas.

Brown was selected No. 30 overall out of Missouri by the Clippers.

They are not Kobe Bryant. But they represent a new way for the Kobe Bryant legacy to live on.

“It’s an honor, just that so many people have been affected, like all of us, by Kobe, that people honor their children and choose that name,” said Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, who was Bryant’s agent. “And we’ll probably see more and more of that, because it’s such a special thing.”

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