Kobe's legacy in the NBA lives on in a new way. An Atlanta Hawks rookie bears his name

Kobe Bufkin hugs family and friends after being selected 15th overall by the Atlanta Hawks during the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 22, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

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

How fitting. Just like old times.

There will never be another Kobe Bryant, of course. And make no mistake — Kobe Brown and Kobe Bufkin would be the first two players at NBA Summer League to insist that 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 watching guys named Kobe again.

Brown is in Summer League with the Los Angeles Clippers. Bufkin is entering his rookie year with the Atlanta Hawks. Both were named for Bryant, who — for now — is the only player named Kobe to make it to the NBA. In a couple of months, that seems likely to change.

“It means a lot,” Brown said. “There’s definitely a target on my back, I feel like. 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’s impossible to know exactly how many people are named Kobe. It remains relatively unusual.

According to the Social Security Administration, there was a six-year stretch — 1998 through 2003, coinciding with Bryant’s early years 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 had Social Security card applications filed for them with that name.

The name still had a small following, maybe a few hundred babies each year, until 2020, the year that Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash on a foggy Sunday in Southern California. Another 1,500 boys were given that name that year, surely many in tributes to Bryant’s life and career; the most popular name that year for newborn boys, according to the government data, was Liam, which was used about 20,000 times. (There were also variations, such as Kobee and Kobey, and a few dozen American newborn girls were given the name as well in 2020.)

“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 as much when I’m actually on the court. But obviously carrying the name comes with a certain work ethic that you’ve got to try to match. And it’s hard as hell to match it. If I get halfway there, I’ll be all right.”

Case in point: The Hawks had a Summer League practice this week that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes, with a bit of shooting afterward. Most players were off the court after about an hour and 15 minutes.

Almost all of them had their sneakers off and were ready to head to the bus a few minutes after that, but Bufkin was still on the court, working on drives from half-court against a defender.

“Just trying to follow the blueprint,” Bufkin said.

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

Bryant jerseys are still extremely common among Lakers fans. Nike plans to re-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 there being the 24 that was one of Bryant’s two NBA jersey numbers. And there is another tribute of sorts coming at the Basketball World Cup; Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards is set to wear No. 10 for USA Basketball this summer, the number Bryant donned when he played for the national team.

“It just shows how much he inspired generations,” Bufkin said. “I was kind of part of the first generation to come behind 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 that the Clippers call home, as do the Lakers. It’s the arena — then called Staples Center — where Bryant played half his games in his 20 seasons with the Lakers, scored his career-best 81 points against Toronto in 2006 and called home for five championship runs and 18 All-Star campaigns.

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

Given that they’re both first-rounders, Bufkin and Brown seem like locks to be in the NBA when the new season opens this fall. Bufkin was drafted No. 15 overall out of Michigan by the Hawks — and also has a brother named for an NBA player in Isaiah Thomas. Brown was selected No. 30 overall out of Missouri by the Clippers.

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

“It’s an honor, just that so many people have been impacted, like all of us, by Kobe, that people are honoring their children and choosing 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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