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50 Years After His Death, Lee’s Legacy Inspires Generations Across Sports, Culture

  • The icon died from a reported cerebral edema on July 20, 1973, at age 32.
  • From martial arts to Hollywood and beyond, Lee's impact remains undeniable.
Bruce Lee's legacy is shared across generations.
Bruce Lee Family Archive.
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CLEVELAND — Several years ago, Shannon Lee and her party took a moment from their travels in Iceland for a few beverages at a roadside cafe.  

As Lee entered, she noticed two posters side-by-side on the wall. One was of a viking, the other of Lee’s father, Bruce, from a scene in one of his most popular and profitable films, “Enter the Dragon.”

“And there was a tip jar under each poster with a note that said to put your tip in the jar on whomever you think would win in a battle,” she said. “And I was like, ‘You know where my tip is going.’”

Lee says she’s often reminded about her famous father’s legacy in her travels, and this remote dining spot on a Nordic island in the North Atlantic Ocean was just another example.

Actor, philosopher, and martial arts icon Bruce Lee died from a reported cerebral edema on July 20, 1973, at age 32. Fifty years later, he remains popular and an inspiration throughout sports and culture. 

Lee is found on video games, NFTs, and merchandise and has influenced everything from sneakers and mixed martial arts to hip-hop, social activists, and actors. 

“It’s pretty phenomenal and mind-blowing that he remains a relevant part of the conversation today, and that his teachings and practices and the way he lived his life continue to be relevant,” Shannon Lee said. “He was amazingly ahead of his time, and extremely dedicated in terms of his commitment to himself and to his work and to his art. And that has stood the test of time and continues to be inspiring.”

Financially, Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive of CMG Worldwide, a business agent for the heirs of deceased celebrities, estimated in a recent Los Angeles Times article that Bruce Lee could generate a yearly licensing fee in the seven-figure range. 

According to Forbes, Lee’s biggest posthumous year was 2014, when he earned a reported $9 million through marketing and licensing deals and royalties on his work. 

Nike released The Kobe V Bruce Lee shoe in 2010, inspired by Lee’s films “Game of Death” and “Enter the Dragon.”

The shoe, now on the collectors’ market, made a comeback in 2020 and commands between $500 and $1,300. Li-Ning also released a Bruce Lee shoe — Way of Wade 9, inspired by former NBA player Dwyane Wade.

Shannon and her mother, Linda Lee Caldwell, founded the Bruce Lee Foundation in 2002 to help keep his legacy alive by sharing Bruce Lee’s teachings through exhibits around the world and in youth camps. The foundation hosts community connectivity and healing programs, as well as initiatives for mental wellness.

“The exhibits are a way of sharing with the general public who Bruce Lee is in a deeper way,” Lee said. “The camps provide a fun and active way to encounter my father’s philosophies through activities in art, writing, or games.”

The rise of an icon

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940. His father was a Cantonese opera singer from Hong Kong who traveled to California as part of a tour. Lee would spend his childhood in Hong Kong before relocating to the United States, where he attended college and eventually opened a martial arts school.

In the late 1960s, Lee was discovered by a television producer while demonstrating martial arts at a tournament, and that led to the role of Kato in “The Green Hornet” television show. After the show was canceled after one season, Lee appeared on various other television shows. 

Lee returned to Hong Kong, starred in three films, and also began work on a fourth, “Game of Death.” His fifth and final film, “Enter the Dragon,” was released a month after his death. Among the highest-grossing films of 1973, it helped popularize martial arts in the United States and established Lee as an iconic figure.

In Hollywood, Eddie Murphy claimed Bruce Lee inspired his acting. In hip hop, Public Enemy’s Chuck D told Front Office Sports that rap’s attraction to Bruce Lee was easy. 

“Rap took on all of those things we respected in the community for doing some kick-ass stuff,” he said. “Bruce Lee is revered because he represented the underdog, and he grew into a legend because he was considered invincible.”

Lee’s NBA popularity is credited to his clash with Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Game of Death.” During the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League opener, Abdul-Jabbar was seen wearing a t-shirt with his and Lee’s image (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs Bruce Lee). No current NBA players were even born when Lee graced the screen, but he’s a hero. Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon has posters of inspirational figures in his personal gym, including Bruce Lee. 

“Bruce Lee remains an icon for many reasons,” said Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry, at his Underrated Golf Tour in Akron earlier this month. “He’s still relevant because of his martial arts, and his strong mental approach is still helpful today.”

Among Lee’s most famous philosophical quotes — expressed during the Pierre Berton talk show in 1971 — is referred to as “Be water, my friend.”

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Four years ago, protesters in Hong Kong rallied behind Lee’s quote, just another example of Lee’s enduring influence around the world. 

Fifty years from now, for the 100-year anniversary of his legacy, Shannon Lee hopes her father remains a bonding force. 

“I hope in the next 50 years that these teachings and programs through the foundation are still going strong, and that my father continues to be a symbol for optimism, self-cultivation, and harmony among our human family,” she said. 

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