The NBA’s Upcoming Kobe Generation — Andscape

LAS VEGAS – According to the Social Security Administration, babies are being named “Kobe” started to peak around 2000.

Coincidentally, 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 skilled — and popular — players in the league, all before he turned 24.

The decisions that thousands of parents made in the early 2000s are finally becoming a reality in professional basketball: During the NBA draft in June, two players with first names spelled the same as the five-time champion and 2021 Basketball Hall of Famer – inductee – Atlanta Hawks point guard Kobe Bufkin and 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 is a renaissance of his first name: We have reached the Kobe era.

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 aren’t both technically named after Bryant.

Brown’s father, Greg, met Bryant’s father, then-La Salle University assistant coach Joe Bryant, when Joe Bryant recruited one of Greg Brown’s high school players in the early 1990s. While visiting 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 one game, Greg Brown was sold.

“If I ever have a kid, Joe, his name will be Kobe,” Greg Brown recalled 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 said Bally Sports after the draft.

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

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

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

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

Growing up with the name was “all positive” for Bufkin, though Brown faced his fair share of haters. “You think you’re 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. “Neither are they. Nobody is 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 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 be mistaken for him being a fan of the team. He was an LA Clippers fan. Regardless, he cheered on Bryant’s team, that is until Bryant retired.

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

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

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

In summer league, Bufkin (Kobe 11 Elite Low “Fade To Black”) and Brown (Zoom Kobe 6 Protro “All Star”) wore versions of Bryant’s acclaimed Nike sneaker line; though, due to lack of the shoe between 2021 and 2022, Brown wore Kevin Durant’s line while at Missouri until receiving 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 a few more at a decent price, 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 8,” Bufkin said.

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

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Future athletes being named after famous players is not unique to Bryant.

There was a Harvard University study dedicated to the rise 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 namesincluding New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson and Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown.

Bryant’s name has held just as much significance 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 athletics (Kobe Cox of South Alabama, Kobe-Jordan Rhooms of Morgan State, Kobe Simpson of Maryland) has had its share. Hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bufkin was one of five Kobes to play high school basketball in western Michigan in 2020. (A sixth player is named Koby.)

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

Charlotte Hornets’ Kobi Simmons looks to be the first NBA player with a name similar to Bryant’s to come to the league. “I can’t put into words the impact you had on me. I was named after you with a change at the end. I grew up playing the game and wore 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 January 26, 2020.

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

“Those are big shoes to fill,” Bufkin said. “I just try to get halfway if I can. I try not to think too much about it because it’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 all the history, that’s definitely a plus, but I’m just happy to be here,” he said.

They agree 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 is [Bufkin] is too,” Brown said. “We carry a special name and we are proud of it.”

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

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