Smithsonian museum displays Kobe Bryant's 2008 Finals jersey

Christopher Brito

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture is now displaying an NBA Finals jersey worn by the late Kobe Bryant, the museum announced on Monday. The NBA icon was killed in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven others this January.

Bryant donned the white jersey with yellow panels and purple piping during Game 5 of the 2008 Finals between his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Boston Celtics. Bryant won a league MVP award that year. He donated the jersey to the museum in 2017, the museum said.

Dr. Damion Thomas, who is the museum's curator of sports, told CBS News they were initially going to put the jersey up in March but postponed the decision due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thomas said the museum saw it as a way to help Bryant's fans grieve over the basketball legend and explore his legacy.

"The reason we decided to put the jersey up was because we had seen that people were coming to the museum, and we have this big picture of Kobe Bryant, and people were kind of mourning and commemorating him and his life and legacy," Thomas said Wednesday. "I think one of the things the Smithsonian can do, at its best, is to help people contextualize and to see bigger pictures. We wanted to kind of help people do that with Kobe and his sort of legacy."

Kobe Bryant smiles in the final seconds against the Boston Celtics in Game Five of the 2008 NBA Finals on June 15, 2008, at the Staples Center. / Credit: Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty
Kobe Bryant smiles in the final seconds against the Boston Celtics in Game Five of the 2008 NBA Finals on June 15, 2008, at the Staples Center. / Credit: Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty

The jersey is part of the "Sports: Leveling the Playing Field" gallery, which also features a pair of LeBron James 15 "Equality" sneakers. It includes an inset about Bryant's legacy in basketball, which highlighted his jump from high school to the NBA.

Thomas also discussed the cultural impact of Bryant beyond the sport.

"Kobe Bryant is sort of representative of a particular generation, typically, people who came of age during his career," Thomas said. "And in particular with this idea of the 'Mamba mentality.' Kobe Bryant was someone who was always a bit impatient, always pushing to reach his potential, even when other people told him he should be deferential or work within a structure...but he was someone who always was striving to be his best. And sometimes that made other people uncomfortable."

"And I think a number of people in the larger culture took that to heart and sort of apply those ideas and that mentality to places far beyond the playing field," he added.

Smithsonian museum honors Kobe Bryant by displaying his game-worn Finals jersey.  / Credit: Robert Stewart
Smithsonian museum honors Kobe Bryant by displaying his game-worn Finals jersey. / Credit: Robert Stewart

Bryant was a founding donor of the museum and urged his Twitter followers to visit the museum in 2016. The Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation contributed at least $1 million, according to the museum.

Thomas met Bryant for 45 minutes during opening night for donors and took him around the museum. He told CBS News that Bryant prided himself on was "being a historian of the game."

Aside from the jersey, Bryant also donated sneakers to the museum, Thomas said.

Spencer Crew, interim director of the museum, said in a statement that Bryant's "contributions on and off the court are remarkable."

"As a founding donor, he understood the significance of this museum to the nation and the world," Crew said. "After postponing the March installation due to COVID-19, we believe now is the perfect moment in history to honor his memory by placing his jersey on view."

The announcement comes less than two weeks after Bryant's former team beat the Miami Heat in the Finals. Several Lakers players, including superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, dedicated the championship season to his memory.

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