Growing up with Kobe
On November 29, 2015, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from the game of basketball, effective at the end of the 2015–2016 NBA season.
That season ends today.
You can read Kobe’s full first-person retirement announcement here, but I strongly encourage you to instead watch the 5-minute YouTube video below, which is set to those words.
There’s been many great tributes to Kobe already. This ESPN video of Lakers fans’ thank-you to him. Jacob Rude of Lakers Outsiders, Daman Rangoola of Silver Screen and Roll, and Andrew Jones of Biggest Little Student Section all wrote fantastic pieces about their own Kobe experiences. After reading those, I knew I had to write something about what the Black Mamba meant to me.
Yet I couldn’t. For days and even weeks, I struggled to put into words what this man, who I have never even met, meant to my childhood as a Lakers fan since before I could remember.
Then ESPN produced another video, this one narrated by L.A. native (and one of my favorite rappers ever) Kendrick Lamar.
Listen to what Kendrick says, from about the 1:20 mark to the 2:00 mark. Especially this line: “Soon enough, he became our identity. If you wasn’t born here, never lived here… probably you’ll never understand.”
That nailed it, more than anything for me. I am by no means the most die-hard Laker fan in the world. If you know me, you know baseball and the Dodgers are my first love. Yet Kobe’s effect on my life was immeasurable just the same. To put into words it meant to be a kid who grew up near L.A. during the prime of the greatest player to ever suit up for its preimeninent sports team… is impossible. You just can’t.
I’m gonna try anyway.
I could describe the vast range of Kobe’s impact, but that should already be obvious. Kendrick is a short African American from inner-city Compton with more creative genius than I could ever hope for. I’m a tall, skinny white kid from the suburbs with a love of writing. Kobe didn’t just touch Los Angeles, either — his reach is worldwide. Of the three bloggers I mentioned above, Rude was born and raised in Indiana; Jones is from Utah; Ragoola is a native of Canada. And that’s just scratching the surface.
I’m younger than most who have shared their Kobe stories. I was born roughly a year and a half after he was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Lakers in the greatest draft day steal of all time. Before I had even taken my first steps, Kobe was already making his mark on the world.
It’s why I have no shame in saying that I can’t remember the first time I ever rooted for Kobe and the Lakers. It’s just like saying I can’t remember saying my first word or meeting my cousins for the first time. Bleeding purple and gold, to me, is just another basic aspect of life. It wasn’t a conscious choice, I was just born into that. And I wouldn’t trade it for the anything.
Of course, like any young boy, I treated my favorite athletes like superheroes. Kobe was at the top of that list. But unlike Peyton Manning or Eric Gagne, he was more than just a hero.
He was like family.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of gathering around my grandparents’ TV for family events, with an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins from all sides of the political spectrum. There was very little that could bind us together.
But there was Kobe.
There was Kobe, driving in and making flying acrobatic drives to the basket that didn’t seem humanly possible. There was Kobe, putting his team on his back night after night, carrying them to victory after improbable victory. There was Kobe, making crazy alley oops to Shaq. There was Kobe, inspiring an entire city, showing that anyone can be great if they believe in themselves and never, ever give up.
There was Kobe, leading a skinny white kid to go in his backyard with his little brother, often in jeans and sweatshirts and uncomfortable shoes, hoisting up “impossible” (read: 8–10 feet away from a 5-foot tall hoop) shots, always holding on to the childhood belief that he could be just like the black mamba.
I don’t remember the three-peat with Shaq, but I remember enough to know that I put #34 on a pedestal nearly as high as #8. I remember crying my eyes out when the 2004 super-team lost to the Detroit Pistons. I cried even harder when Shaq was traded that summer. It took me years before I realized how hostile my two basketball heroes were to each other during that time — probably a good thing, because I don’t know if 6-year-old me could fully understand the meaning of “I’ll f***ing kill you”. (The 6-year-old that still lives inside me is thrilled to know that they’ve since reconciled.)
I stayed loyal to the Lakers, stayed glued to my grandparents’ TV during family gatherings. I was so used to Kobe’s massive nightly point tallies that they almost became routine for me, just like seven-eight shutout innings from Clayton Kershaw every fifth day.
The great ones make the extraordinary become ordinary.
For the games I didn’t catch, I’d peel open the sports section of the newspaper and devour the box scores. I still remember one Monday morning after my family had just returned from a weekend getaway when I opened the sports section and felt my jaw drop. I re-read the headline three times to make sure I had it right.
I remember not being able to sleep when I heard that Kobe demanded a trade from the Lakers. My boyhood fandom had been through enough disappointments over the previous few years, and now Kobe might be gone? Looking back, knowing that he was wasting his prime years on a team that seemed to be destined for mediocrity, it made sense. 9-year-old me didn’t get that.
A few months later, at the 2008 NBA trade deadline, there was a cartoon in the L.A. Times Sports Section showing a buffonish Phil Jackson fill up a car with a Lakers logo from a pump that said Gasol-ine. I didn’t know what it meant until I saw the Spaniard for myself. Like Kobe, I fell in love with him quickly.
But the biggest change in the Lakers-what took them from mediocrity to three straight NBA finals-wasn’t Pau Gasol. Kobe reached down and found another gear in him, the mentality to be a leader and motivate a team around him rather than just carry it all by himself. He was the undisputed captain of those 2009 and 2010 championship teams. His fire is what lifted his teammates to immortality, even in that Game 7 against Boston when he had one of the worst shooting performances of his career.
In a way, Kobe’s career and my childhood are parallels. I grew up homeschooled with few friends. Kobe helped me embrace being a lone wolf. Then as I grew older and started socializing more, talking about Kobe helped me find common ground with other guys.
Just as Kobe started declining, I entered one of the toughest stretches of my life. I was a shy, sensitive kid, and some took advantage of that and bullied me for years. Making matters worse was that one of these kids was a Heat fan from Miami, and he would relentlessly mock my loyalty to the fading Lakers while Lebron and D-Wade led the Heat to their own pair of titles.
As that bullying got worse, I often found myself coming home from school or church and just sobbing. Not even the Lakers or any sports team brought me solace anymore. One day, about three years ago, I was on my living room couch sobbing into a pillow after another day of hearing what a piece of (trash) I was.
And then I saw it. The end of Kobe as we knew him.
But I also saw Kobe, in an era where players get helped off the court when they cramp up, sink two free throws with a completely torn Achilles and walk into the locker room under his own power.
And I knew I couldn’t give up.
There were many other people and things that contributed to my overcoming depression, but I would be remiss in saying that Kobe wasn’t one of them.
After the 2008 loss to the Celtics, I truly believed I would never get to witness (and remember witnessing) a Lakers championship. I believed that all the way until game one of the 2009 finals. And there was Kobe, dropping 50 on Dwight and the Magic and letting me know that all was right in the world.
That’s what Kobe did for me, more than anything: he helped realize everything was going to be ok. With family. With life. With working out and punishing my body even when every ounce of me didn’t want to. Because with what Kobe did and is still doing, what’s my excuse?
So tonight, as Kobe steps off the court for the last time and I lose my last link to lazy Sundays with my now-deceased grandparents and the joyful innocence of a kid, I hope you lucky jerks who sold your soul (and a kidney, probably) for a chance to be there in person send a message. Bring down the roof at Staples. Literally, bring down the roof. Blow out the ESPN mics. Let him know just how much he means to us. Let the two-syllable chant ring in the ears of everyone watching.
And to Kobe, I just want to say thank you. I turned 18 last February, and by some measures, that means my childhood ended that day.
Those measures are wrong.
My childhood ends tonight when the clock ticks down on your career and we have to face a future where you aren’t on our TV screens every night, reassuring us that everything was going to be ok…
We love you, Mamba. We'll love you forever.
Signed, a Kobe fan