On Sunday, January 26, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant passed away in a helicopter crash that took the lives of seven other people in California. Around the world, tributes have poured in for Kobe, Gianna, assistant girls basketball coach Christina Mauser, Orange Coast baseball coach John Altobeli, his wife Keri, their daughter Alyssa, and the pilot, Ara Zobayan.
For me, Kobe has a special place in my basketball heart. I became familiar with the NBA towards the tail end of Michael Jordan's reign with the Chicago Bulls, but I didn't give basketball much of my time and energy nor did I know much about the league outside of the Bulls and Utah Jazz. Most of my interests as a third and fourth grader centered around the WWF (now WWE) and WCW. That all changed for me in a flash in 2000
That game and that play were experiences where you remember exactly where you were and the excitement it brought. I went from casually watching the NBA to becoming hooked in an instant, which led to me loving the league and making it an essential part of my life now.
Bryant was someone I instantly took a liking to. His last name similar enough to my first name. He wore number 8. I was born on the 8th. He was tall and skinny. I was tall and skinny. He could be a bit of a weirdo at times. I tend to veer on the weird side every now and again myself. Everything lined up perfectly for him to be my favorite player as a kid and one of the guys who helped grow my love of this game.
As a kid, seeing how he carried himself on the court and the "I'm gonna get it done no matter what" belief he brought to the court made me a fan of his and led me to try to stay up late and watch as many Lakers games as I could on TNT/TBS/ESPN. As a near 30 year old adult, that relentless work ethic he had is something I've brought into the work I've done in my own life and community. In watching him from afar and seeing the people up close in my life, I developed that drive and will to do everything I can to accomplish my goals. It's led to me crashing and burning on more occasions than I'd like to admit, but with good people in my life, I always get back up and get back in the fight.
When I think back at his career, so many regular season and playoff moments come to mind. The back-to-back 40+ point games against Sacramento and San Antonio in the 2001 playoffs. Shutting down the Alamodome in 2002. The 40 point streak in 2003. Putting up 55 points the last time he played against Michael Jordan. The game winner vs the Suns in 2006. 2008 vs. Spain. The dunk at Barclays Center his first time playing in Brooklyn. But one moment in 2013 will always stand out to me.
If you've ever worked at a crappy job, then you can relate to the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers. Despite a lofty mission statement and super idealistic goals, NOTHING worked. Coworkers were always arguing. A bunch of dudes weren't as good as they used to be. None of the strategies proposed to reach organizational goals worked. The boss wasn't willing to adjust their approach. There was a sudden change in leadership that rocked the foundation of the company. And a dude you thought you'd like to work with had you out here looking bad for recommending him in the first place. But through it all, there was one person that kept the whole ship afloat.
That year, Kobe was astounding. In his 17th season, he carried a burden few players have ever had to in the NBA, ABA, or WNBA. He carried the entire organization on his back and almost got them to the finish line and into the playoffs until he could no longer walk.
That level of dedication and determination is jaw-dropping and remains one of the most incredible seasons I've seen in my life. ConVersely, the resignation in his face as he realized even he couldn't beat this obstacle is still one of the sadder things I've seen in the NBA. It made the fact that he got back on the court in less than a year all the more mesmerizing.
There's been discussion and reflections on the sexual assault case he was involved in from 2003. In moments like this, I think it's important to remember that for as much of a hero as he was to many of us, there is one person out there for which Bryant is a clear, no doubt, undisputed, villain in her life's story. That shouldn't be minimized no matter how much he meant to the rest of us.
As he got older, he found ways to do good for himself and others. When he said something homophobic towards a referee, he acknowledged where and why he was wrong, apologized for it, and worked towards being more inclusive in how he spoke and approached things. He was a champion for the WNBA and women's basketball in ways lots of people who are in and cover the NBA do not. And, he was a dad that was his kids' biggest cheerleader. As he was entering the third part of his life, it would've been exciting to see where he would've gone next and how he would've continued to grow.
One of the things that impressed me the most about watching Kobe throughout his life was his fearlessness when it came to facing challenges. Even as his body broke down and his game wasn't the same, he still fought hard and did the best he could regardless of circumstances. It didn't matter that he wasn't the same player or the fact that he would likely get cooked by younger, better players, he went out and fought anyway. And even when we all that Musecage was weird as shit, he somehow made it work. It takes a hell of a lot of confidence to get out here in this damn white outfit.
That ultimate confidence and trust in your self is one of the things we got to witness from when he was a 18-year-old kid going toe-to-toe with Karl Malone and John Stockton in a road elimination game all the way up to a fully formed, wiser, Oscar winning adult.
The day he died is still such a blur. It was a regular, non-descript Sunday afternoon when I saw my man Pooch tweet that it couldn't be real, but didn't specifically mention what at first. That sentiment was all up and down my timeline, and when all of us found out, a collective wave of sadness hit us like a ton of bricks.
I didn't realize just how much he meant to my life until he was gone. I didn't to experience Mike at his very best and I gradually made my way to LeBron as I got older, but Kobe was the man when I came into the league and was one of the guys who shaped how I see the game.
I've been thinking a lot about the suddenness of his passing, and this great article, and this section in particular, from Candace Simpson spoke to me:
Of course, we always know that these things are possible. We know what kind of world we live in. We know the risks. And yet, deep down, there is some very tender human part of us that wishes it would not happen this way. There is a part of us that hurts because we love. We get disappointed because we hope. It is the worst part of feeling human. It is exactly why parents dread getting their children a pet. Because the death conversation is one that even adults struggle with. How do we explain what death is, what it means, why it happens, how to avoid it, how to embrace it?
I don’t have answers. I’m still dealing with what death means to me. I’m still dealing with how this moment has reminded me of all the grieving I have swept into the back room of my heart. I’ve closed the door and pretended like the mess wasn’t back there. It’s time to go back there and at least sweep.
The finality of death is so sudden, so harsh. We don't have the answers as to why things like that happen, but we owe it to ourselves to tell and show the people we love just how much we appreciate them every single day.
As we think about life, the game, and everything else now that Kobe is no longer with us, it's caused us to be more reflective of what we mean for the people in our lives. Live your truth, fight as hard as you can for the dreams you hope to reach, and tell the people in your life you love and cherish them. We owe that much to ourselves.