Looking at Kobe's Back in time for the NBA All-Star Game

Profile Picture: Nicolle Neulist

March 5th, 2021

The NBA All-Star Game is coming up March 7. Basketball's best will be ready to put on a show, and the standout player will receive the Kobe Bryant MVP Award.

The All-Star Game was Kobe Bryant's playground. He was voted to the team 18 times, more than any player other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19). He won four All-Star Game MVPs, which is tied with Bob Pettit for the most. As of 2020, he has been the namesake for that trophy.

It is also the time of year when we begin to meet the newest stars of horse racing. Two-year-olds are preparing for the first baby races of the year. It will not only be a test for racing's newest runners, but also its latest generation of sires.

One of those retired horse racing stars whose first foals turn pro this year is a thrilling grey son of Flatter named after the Black Mamba — Kobe's Back.

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Kobe's Back wins the Palos Verdes S. in 2016. (Photo by Benoit Photography)

Bryant got a fast start. At Lower Merion High School, he starred on the varsity squad for four years, graduated as Pennsylvania's all-time leading scorer, and won a state championship his senior year. He went straight to the NBA in 1996, when it was uncommon for players to go prep to pro.

Was Kobe's Back as fast a starter as his namesake? 

It depends on how you look at it.

Those who followed his racing career may laugh and dismiss the thought entirely. He was almost always the slowest horse out of the gate, and it was a tendency he never outgrew. He broke slowly in his first race, his final race, and most of the races in between.

But Kobe's Back went prep to pro just like his namesake. Most horses run in at least one maiden race before they graduate to stakes company, but trainer John Sadler debuted him in the Willard L. Proctor Memorial Stakes at Hollywood Park on June 15, 2013.

Though he broke in the air, jockey Rafael Bejarano did not panic. He let Kobe's Back settle, got him moving around the turn, and let him fly outside his foes in the lane. He rolled right past a field that included eventual Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) winner California Chrome. He went from unraced juvenile to 3 1/2-length stakes winner in just five and a half furlongs.

Kobe's Back's name was inspired by owner Lee Searing's faith that Bryant would return from a torn Achilles tendon in April 2013 to star in the NBA once more. 

Bryant's injuries never dulled his competitive drive. He recorded two triple-doubles in the 2014-2015 season and passed Michael Jordan for third in all-time NBA scoring. He remains fourth all-time in NBA points, behind only Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, and LeBron James.

Though Bryant's time in retirement was cut tragically short in 2020, he made the most of it. He spent his life after the NBA building his legacy around the court and away from it. He coached his daughter Gianna's basketball team, trained with NBA pros during the offseason, and wrote both books and films.

RELATED: Kobe Bryant's memory lives on in horse racing

Like his namesake, Kobe's Back persevered, as well. He never let his gate issues stop him from being a sprint division star. He never raced in anything but stakes races and won five times, including back-to-back victories in the Palos Verdes (G2) and San Carlos (G2) in 2016. His competitive spirit always showed best in the final furlong or two, as he dared his foes to underestimate him, after his inevitable tough start.

Now, Kobe's Back has his chance to influence the next generation of his sport. He stands stud at Bonita Farm in Maryland, and his first 18 foals turned two this year. They were bred mainly in Maryland and West Virginia, so look to the mid-Atlantic to see how he leaves his racetrack legacy. If his foals are anything like their sire, wait until the stretch run, and you'll see them coming.