‘No, no, no, that doesn’t make any sense,’ I thought to myself, as I checked a text at 11:49am during a church service on January 26. The headline read “Kobe Bryant ‘dies in Calabasas helicopter crash.’” I was confused and it felt disorienting. That’s not supposed to happen to Kobe! He’s supposed to live forever. Not to the guy who tore his achillies and then stayed in to make both free throws before leaving the court under his own power. Longtime head coach at Lower Merion High School, where Kobe played, said on Monday in a statement, “He was our superman.” He was superman to millions of people. And he wanted to be. He wanted to dominate opponents, score the most points, win more championships than Jordan, and most importantly, take the last shot in a tight game. He seemed indestructible. He was larger than life. That’s what makes this hard to accept.
As I wandered outside in front of my church, heading toward a table, out of the corner of my eye I saw my friend Ben and he asked me how I’m doing. I told him “I just heard the news about Kobe,” and he said he did too. He sat down next to me and we consoled each other. He told me about seeing Kobe for the first time in 2011 and the joy it brought him. I texted my dad the news at 11:55-three minutes later he texts, “oh my god.” He calls me a couple times but I didn’t notice the calls. I call back and he asks how I’m doing. He says he knows this is a tough loss for me. He was pretty emotional, too. I sat back down, still in utter disbelief. Mom texted me-she said she was crying, too. At 12:05pm I call my close friend Ian, who’s also a big basketball fan. The first words he said when he answered were: “I heard.” Realizing I was calling, he knew what I was calling about and he was in shock too. Shortly after 1pm, news outlets began reporting Kobe’s 13-year old daughter, Gianna (nicknamed Gigi), was with him and died in the crash as they were on their way to one of Gianna’s games at Mamba Academy. That’s when I started feeling sick to my stomach. Then we learned seven others also died in the helicopter crash. Five families destroyed forever.
The tributes for Kobe and Gianna were relentless starting Sunday, and lasting throughout the week. Every NBA team that played on Sunday, and the teams who didn’t play until Monday night, committed a 24-second shot clock violation or an 8-second half court violation—or both — to start their games to honor Kobe (Bryant wore #8 the first ten years of his career and #24 the last ten years). It was so moving. When fans realized what their teams were doing, entire arenas gave a standing ovation. On Sunday, Trae Young, young star for the Atlanta Hawks, who wears #11, ripped off his warmups to reveal he wore #8 on the day his hero died. On Monday, during introductions of their starting lineup, the entire Detroit Pistons roster all wore a #8 or #24 jersey with the name Bryant on it. Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid wore #24 on Tuesday night-and he had to receive permission from former Sixer Bobby Jones to do so because the 76ers retired his number long ago. On Wednesday the New Jersey Nets honored Kobe and Gianna by keeping the two court-side seats they sat in during a Dec. 21, 2019, game empty. The Nets put bouquets of purple and yellow flowers on the seats. Since Tuesday, many players around the league announced they’d change numbers to honor Kobe. On Monday head coach of the men’s Angolan national team said before their game in Dubai, there was a moment of silence and video tribute for him. ESPN reported on Monday night that every Italian pro basketball game will observe a moment of silence for him this week. His death led newspapers across Europe. A massive, beautiful mural of Kobe and Gianna was painted in the Philippines. His life, death, and legacy transcended Los Angeles and even America. The entire world mourned the loss of Kobe and Gianna and found beautiful ways to and honor them this week.
Kobe Bryant attended Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia and was a superstar there. As a high schooler he would attend Philadelphia 76ers practices and, at times, challenge their players to one-on-one. He claims Jerry Stackhouse — 76er rookie at the time, who was a good scorer and athlete — never beat him. “If he tries to lie, Tom Thibodeau and John Lucas were there,” he once told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. When he announced he would go straight from high school to the NBA, people thought he was insane. He wasn’t the first, of course, but it wasn’t normal for a guard to skip college. Tuesday on TNT’s Inside the NBA, Jerry West, the man who traded for Kobe and thought of him as a son, talked about Kobe’s pre-draft workout. West brought Michael Cooper, one of the NBA’s best defenders ever with him for the workout: “I brought Michael Cooper and after 10 minutes I said, ‘stop this.’ He was embarrassing Michael.” In the 1996 offseason West was trying to sign Shaquille O’Neal, one of the league’s most dominant players, to pair with Kobe. He told Shaq on the phone: “‘We took the best player in the draft. I know you have some good players down in Orlando but we have better players, and we have one who’s gonna be the best in the league one day.’ Pretty bold statement to make, but to me it was obvious,” West said on the telecast.
I started watching Kobe Bryant around age 6 or 7. I fell in love with basketball, and Kobe, then. Of course, it’s hard not to when your team is in the midst of winning three consecutive championships, played in four NBA Finals from 2000–2004, and had two of the top five players in the league. Kobe was with me my entire childhood and throughout my early years as an adult and I’m not the only one. Eddie, a longtime friend and varsity boys basketball head coach at Los Alamitos High School, texted me on Sunday, “He really was the only icon for me growing up that transcended to my adult life and still carried the same weight.” The league is littered with guys who, since Sunday said “he was my hero as a kid,” or “I started playing ball because of Kobe,” or “everything was Kobe for me growing up,” or “[he’s] one of the reasons that I am here today,” or “we wanted to be like Kobe,” or “he was just such a huge part of my story as a basketball player, as a person.” His impact and admiration wasn’t just felt by NBA players or other athletes. Anybody 30 and under who threw a piece of trash away in a trash bin and made it yelled, “Kobe!” If you’re 30 and under — even if you weren’t an athlete or played basketball on a team — and have or used to have a basketball hoop or played at a park, you imitated him. You’d try patented his fadeaway jumper. Even I did.
Kobe was not without his flaws on and off the court. The public trade request he made in May 2007 scared the fanbase. He said on ESPN Radio, “I would like to be traded, yeah. Tough as it is to come to that conclusion there’s no other alternative, you know?” He said he wanted to be traded because he had been lied to and because he wasn’t confident in the team’s ability to surround him with appropriate talent. The following February, help came-in 2008, the Lakers traded for 27-year old star forward Pau Gasol, who was a 3-time all-star in his 6 full seasons as a Laker. Worse than the public request for a trade, in April 2011, the NBA fined Kobe $100,000 because he called a referee a “faggot” after receiving a technical foul. He appealed the fine but the league office rejected his appeal and then NBA Commissioner David Stern said, “Kobe Bryant’s comment during last night’s game was offensive and inexcusable. While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated.” Gay-rights groups immediately issued statements condemning his language including the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization. By 2013, he learned from his mistake. He admonished a fan on Twitter for using “you’re gay” as an insult. He tweeted “using ‘your gay’ as a way to put someone down ain’t ok! #notcool delete that out ur vocab.” When someone tweeted him back and reminded him he used the word “faggot” and implied he may not be the right person to scold others on this issue, he replied, “exactly! That wasn’t cool and was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others.”
In July 2003 Kobe Bryant was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year old in Eagle, Colorado. On September 1, 2004, the charges were dismissed because his accuser was unwilling to testify. The state court mistakenly released her name and she received at least two death threats and constant media attention. The day the criminal charges were dropped, Bryant released a statement apologizing to her, though not admitting any guilt: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” In August 2004, his accuser filed a civil lawsuit against Bryant over the incident. District Judge Terry Ruckriegle at one point said, “It will of course always leave a question in the mind of everyone because as several of the [prospective] jurors have stated, only two people know what happened.” In March 2005, they settled the civil suit out of court. Long before Kobe passed away, but after the #MeToo Movement swept across our nation in 2017 I had reflected upon the accusations and the 20-month long scandal that hovered over him. I admit, since the #MeToo Movement, contemplating this part of his life was extremely difficult. Because to reconcile this horrible thing he was accused of, yet at the same time, still feeling admiration and love for him to this day is confusing and challenging to grapple with. How do you reconcile these accusations with somebody you grew up idolizing and who brought you so much joy? I don’t know. This paragraph is not meant to denigrate the dead. But I think to remember Kobe without mentioning this would be a disservice. Ignoring it would feel dishonest. He was an NBA legend, a 5x champion, a beloved husband and father, a storyteller, an inspiration to so many, but this is also unfortunately part of his legacy. I doubt I’m the only one since the #MeToo Movement took off that has reflected upon Colorado, but this is what I know: I can reflect and ponder all I want but it is not for me to judge. That’s left up to God. James 4:12 says, “God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?” Kobe also believed in God and one of the last things he and Gianna did together before taking off in that helicopter Sunday morning was take part in Communion. And that brings me some comfort.
As an upset 14 year old, I watched us lose the 2008 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics — our rival dating back to 1960 — including an embarrassing 39-point loss in game 6, only to see us win back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. The 2010 championship win against the Celtics brought a feeling of revenge and relief that the fans, the franchise, and Kobe desperately desired. The two titles in ’09 and ’10 were also more meaningful to me — and Kobe, too — because he proved he could win without Shaq. After the duo split following Shaq being traded to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2004, Kobe always wanted — no, needed — to prove to the fans, those who covered him, and maybe himself that he could win a championship as the unquestionable #1 star of the team. Fair or not, the cloud of “he’s great but he can’t win without Shaq,” persisted, especially after Shaq won a title without Kobe with the Heat in 2006. He, as usual, proved everybody wrong.
On January 22, 2006, I watched his 81-point game live with my dad. It was actually a horrible game throughout the fast half if you were a Lakers fan; the Lakers were losing by 14 at halftime and the roster was atrocious that season. As he got into the 50s and 60s in the second half, you just wondered, ‘can he get to 70? 80? 90 doesn’t seem impossible!’ Anything was possible for Kobe because of the confidence he showed in taking any shot. He made you believe he could do the impossible because he often did. He drained ridiculously hard shots and glided to the basket making insane layups, contorting his body to avoid defenders. The astounding thing about the 81-point game is that in 2006, offenses weren’t like they are today. Teams play at a much faster pace now, shoot a lot more threes, and the spacing is a lot better, creating more open shots for players than in the mid-2000s. It’s a miracle to me that they even made the playoffs that year. Kobe hated losing; he single-handedly willed his team to the playoffs that year and in 2007. The transition period between the Kobe/Shaq and the Kobe/Gasol teams were tough. He averaged 35.4 points per game in the ‘05-’06 season and was responsible for nearly 36% of the Lakers points per game. Kobe scored 50+ points in a game 6 times during that regular season including 62 points in just the first 3 quarters against the Dallas Mavericks, a team that would advance to the NBA Finals, on December 20, 2005. Kobe outscored the entire Mavericks team 62–61 through three quarters. None of his teammates scored 10 points that night.
On April 13, 2016, I watched his final game, in which he miraculously scored 60 points in a come-from-behind 101–96 win. At 37 — with twenty years in the league, including seven NBA Finals appearances, two Olympic teams, and over 57,000 career minutes — his body was pretty broken down. This team was a complete train wreck. The 2016 Lakers set a franchise record for fewest wins with 17. The only thing that mattered as a Lakers fan in 2015–2016 was Kobe. Then head coach Byron Scott said his goal all season was to ensure Kobe was healthy and able to play that final game at home in front of the fans who cherished him and he did that by resting Kobe 16 times — a couple games at a time, here and there — throughout the season. His final season, especially the final couple weeks or so, he shot the ball extremely poorly, so we all wondered if he had anything left to give the fans at Staples Center and the millions of fans watching around the world who hoped he had one last special performance. He started off 0–5 and it did not look good. The shots he attempted were good shots but he missed them badly. After the awful start I remember feeling worried that his final game would be disappointing. He proceeded to make his next five shots, and with each one I jumped up with excitement. The Lakers were losing to Utah throughout until the final minutes of the game-they were down 96–86 with 2:36 left and Kobe scored 13 straight points, to put the us in the lead until the buzzer sounded.
Rewatching it on Monday night was emotional and weirdly surprising because I forgot how tired and physically drained he looked. But each time he got the ball there were bursts of energy and for fleeting moments throughout the game he looked like he was 28-year old Kobe again. Coach Scott’s plan for the final game was to play him 36 minutes — he’d play the entire 1st and 3rd quarters and play the last six minutes of the 2nd and 4th quarters. But with the Lakers down by 9 going into the fourth quarter, Kobe started the fourth quarter. He would not leave until the Lakers had sealed the win with 4 seconds left on the clock. He ended up playing 42 minutes. The fans wanted one more classic Kobe game and he gave it to them. Nobody could have envisioned Kobe scoring even 30 points, let alone getting to 60! That night didn’t feel real because of the sheer impossibility of the feat. It was magical. He gave us everything he possibly had left to give us on that night.
Here are some stats to further tell the story of Kobe’s career: he is the Lakers’ career leader in games, minutes, points, field goals made and attempted, 3-pointers made and attempted, free throws made and attempted; Kobe is tied for second in career All-Defensive selections, with 12, and tied for first with nine first team All-Defensive nods; Bryant scored 40-plus points in a game 122 times, third most in league history behind Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan; he scored 50-plus points in a game 25 times, also third most in league history; Kobe scored 60-plus points in a game six times, second most in league history behind Chamberlain; Bryant ranks in the top five in career playoff minutes, field goals made and attempted, and points. Only LeBron, Jordan, and Abdul-Jabbar scored more points than Kobe in the playoffs. Shaq ranks fifth. Kobe is also 4th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 33,643 points. One horrible irony of Kobe dying on Sunday is it happened the morning after LeBron James passed him to be 3rd on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, in Philadelphia where Kobe went to high school. Just 12 hours before Kobe died, he congratulated LeBron on the achievement by tweeting, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏽 #33644.”
Despite all the scoring — or misses, 1,064 more than second-place John Havlicek in NBA history — two of Kobe’s most memorable and triumphant moments are passes. One was a lob to Shaq in game 7 against Portland of the 2000 Western Conference Finals with 40 seconds left. The lob culminated a historic comeback — they outscored Portland by 18 in the fourth quarter — on the way to their first title together. The other was in game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, with one minute left. The Lakers were up by just 3 and Kobe, at the top of the arc, was about to be double-teamed. He kicked it out to Ron Artest (just 1–6 from beyond the three-point line until that point) who drained a three-pointer with a hand in his face. The Lakers won 83–79.
Kobe’s work ethic and toughness is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in basketball, and maybe all of sports. The stories and news reports about him working on his game for hours on end, constantly tweaking and improving aspects of his game, are legendary. An athletic trainer who advised Team USA once said Kobe worked out from 4:15am-11am, refusing to leave until he made 800 shots. In high school he’d play teammates one-on-one to see who’d get to 100 first. In his worst game he still won 100–12. Former teammate-and later, his coach-Byron Scott once said that at 18 Kobe would take shots two hours before practice started in a dark, empty gym. J.A. Adande said on a podcast following his death that from a very early age Kobe would leave the arena with a VHS—and later, a DVD—of game film to study opponents and improve his game. “After the games, it was more work for him,” said Adande. At 36, on a 12–31 team, during a meaningless January game against the New Orleans Pelicans, he injured his right shoulder. He later returned to only shoot left handed. Yes, his basketball talent was also incredible but his work ethic is what made him special and vaulted him to become an NBA legend. There are players with the same level of talent or less who never work as hard he did. His insane work ethic is part of what made him loved so deeply by Los Angeles residents. Kobe showed you could be the greatest at your craft whatever that may be and that inspired many people. Kobe once said, “The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great at whatever they want to do.”
In the ‘07-’08 season he suffered an avulsion fracture of his right pinky finger but did not miss a game after that. In January 2009 he dislocated his finger during a game and trainer Gary Vitti popped it back into place. Kobe said after the game that the pain is “probably the most I’d ever played with,” but he did not miss any games after the injury. On December 19th, 2010, he fractured his right index finger and played with a splint for a while after. As ESPN noted, “Bryant had a 10-game stretch right after the injury in which he averaged 36.8 points on 131-for-269 shooting (48.7 percent) and the Lakers went 8–2.” Miraculously, he played better than usual for two weeks with a fractured finger on his shooting hand. There’s the infamous sequence in which he tore his achilles in an April 2013 game at age 34 while getting fouled. After grimacing in pain for a few minutes, he proceeded to slowly hobble to the free throw line (in the NBA if a player is fouled he must shoot the free throws or he cannot return to the game, even if injured) and made both shots before reluctantly agreeing to leave the game. Then Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said Kobe told him, “Maybe I can run on my heel.” He wasn’t joking.
Kobe’s popularity and global superstardom is unrivaled, which only became more obvious during his final season. ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst spoke about Kobe on a podcast following his death. He said the first or second road game following Kobe’s retirement announcement, the Lakers were in Washington playing the Wizards and despite having no connection to Washington whatsoever, the fans’ “outpouring there was like he had been a concrete hero of the Wizards franchise!” Windhorst said he was by far the most beloved American basketball player in China ever. He recalled that in the summer of 2019 while in China—he was there for the FIBA championship—Kobe held a press conference and took questions by journalists from Poland, Croatia, Greece, France, etc. They asked him questions about their country’s team. Windhorst said Kobe “very eloquently” would say, “I’m excited about your young guard” or “I’m excited about that young big man you have.” Not only was Kobe informed on some of the other country’s best players, but journalists from those countries waited with bated breath to hear his thoughts. Even three years after retirement, Kobe was an ambassador for the game of basketball.
Kobe—from day one, at age 17—played with a level of confidence, tenacity, and intelligence that hadn’t been seen since Michael Jordan (and arguably does not exist in the league today). When you watched him you thought he could make any shot, get every loose ball, and stop any player while on defense. He spoke about being an enormous Lakers fan while growing up in Italy as a pre-teen. He said he knew every player who ever wore a Lakers uniform and when he was traded to the Lakers at 17 he vowed to become the greatest Laker ever. He entered the league as a teenager envisioning he would be as good or better than Jordan. He didn’t just want to win more championships than Jordan— there is a story that as a kid his dream was to win eight. But he fell one short of MJ. Imagine having that level of audacity and confidence. But a lot of his career did go according to his plan. On a podcast following his death J.A. Adande, who covered Kobe for his whole career said, “He foresaw all of it, planned it, and was determined to make it happen and wouldn’t accept anything less.” On the same podcast, Dave McMenamin—who covered Kobe in the last several years of his career — said, “Derek Fisher once told me this was all pre-ordained in Kobe’s head. Derek had a conversation with him as a rookie and he laid out all his plans. And then he did it.” Tuesday on TNT’s Inside the NBA, former teammate and longtime friend of Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal said the first time they met in 1996 he asked 17-year old Kobe, “What do you wanna be known for?” and Kobe said, “I’m gonna be the best player in the world and off the court I’m gonna be bigger than Will Smith.” The audaciousness yet total self-confidence of this 17-year old who had accomplished nothing not saying, “I want or hope to be X and Y…” but instead saying, “Im going to be X and Y” and then actually doing those things is remarkable. It’s what people loved about him. As Ramona Shelburne—who covered Kobe most of his career — wrote in her piece following Kobe’s death, “He didn’t just have an iron will or unyielding confidence in himself. He believed he could bend the universe to his will. And damn it, he often did.”
He had plans for his post-basketball life, too. He already won an Oscar for his short film, “Dear Basketball” in 2018. He had a show on ESPN+ called “Detail” in which he’d analyze men and women basketball players. Before he died he was in the midst of co-writing a children’s book about how underprivileged children could overcome adversity through sports. His co-author Paulo Coelho deleted the draft after Kobe died. “This book has lost its reason,” he said. He also created a musical-sports podcast for kids called “The Punies” about a team of neighborhood friends who play a variety of sports together. He loved kids and after retiring in ’16, he cherished being a father to his four daughters Natalia, Gianna, Bianka, and Capri. He was also a gifted storyteller and he loved the art of telling stories. In a 2015 press conference in which he announced his retirement he was asked if he knows what’s next for him. “Absolutely. I’m a storyteller. I love, love, love storytelling. I love framing stories that inspire.” We’ll never see him grow old, watching the Lakers court-side decades from now. We’ll never see him be there for his own statue in front of Staples Center just as other legendary LA athletes have statues such as Shaq, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wayne Gretzky. We’ll never see him create more inspiring books or films for children. We’ll never see him cheer on Gianna, a 13-year old basketball star already, who he had a special bond with.
Gianna “Gigi” Bryant (May 1, 2006-January 26, 2020) was, by all accounts, a basketball star in her own right and it was her dream to play for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team (the UConn Huskies are the most successful women’s basketball program in the nation, having won a record 11 NCAA Division I National Championships). In 2018 when Kobe appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Kimmel asked him if Gianna wanted to play in the WNBA and he replied, “She does for sure.” He told Kimmel fans come up to him and say, “You and V gotta have a boy, someone to carry on the tradition and legacy. But Gigi would interject and say, ‘Oy, I got this. We don’t need a boy for that. I got this!’” Kobe would say, “That’s right! Yes you do, you got this!” Gigi frequently sat court-side with her mom and older sister Natalia as a young child to many of Kobe’s games in the latter half of his career and it’s because of her love for the NBA that they would sit court-side together at numerous games in the last couple years. She clearly had an infectious smile and passion for basketball and loved her family. When the two of them attended the 2019 Las Vegas Aces’ WNBA opener, Gigi said in an interview with Las Vegas’ CBS affiliate, “I try to watch as much film as I can. More information, more inspiration.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? If Gianna could have lived to write her own story, she would have grown up to have a beautiful family of her own. She would have been unstoppable in her quest for dominance, like her father. She could have been the best women’s basketball player ever. She would have outsmarted and outworked everybody and would have willed herself to greatness. We know she wouldn’t accept anything less, just like her dad didn’t. This is what we know about Gigi. But we will never witness it. The only silver lining — if we can allow there to be one at all—is Kobe and Gianna were together at the very end of their lives, on their way to share something they both loved and had a passion for: basketball. Now they are in heaven together.
Originally published at https://camscorner47546243.com on January 30, 2020.