Man, this is tough. I’m sobbing while I write this. You should still be here. Gianna too. As well as the other seven people who died on your private helicopter back on January 26th.
We can’t forget them and we won’t. Their lives matter just the same. Yet today, I want to talk to you, Kobe Bean Bryant.
I miss you already. You were my guy. My favorite basketball player and favorite athlete, on my favorite team, as you were to millions across the world. I’m probably not that much different than your other fans, who rooted, cheered and went bonkers over the artistic beauty you painted on the hardwood canvas for 20 years in Los Angeles. I never met you, but I feel like I know your career inside-out. If someone asked me to recite your stats every season off the top of my head, I could do it.
It still feels so surreal that you are not here anymore. Doesn’t make sense. In my lifetime, your shocking death is right up there with celebrities like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. Usually there are warnings, signs and self-inflicted wounds that causes the downfall of celebrities, but with you, it occurred so abruptly. Unexpected. It was a routine, short helicopter ride you’ve taken for years that ultimately took your life.
I’m still in disbelief because I always thought you were indestructible, kind of like David Dunn, Bruce Willis’ character in the film Unbreakable. You dealt with and overcame so many injuries in your career that you seemed like you could just about get through anything. Your force of will was unreal and the last person I thought this would happen to.
As shook as I am right now, in some crazy way, it still feels like you’re present with us. I’m serious when I say that. It just doesn’t feel like your gone. I don’t know why I feel that way but I just do. Even in retirement, you never seemed to fade away from the game. You were the only retired athlete in my life that felt like they were still playing mainly because you were constantly brought up in numerous NBA conversations and were greatly invested in the sport that you helped elevate.
You were an omnipresent figure, not just in basketball, but throughout the landscape of sports. You still felt connected to basketball because you gave so much back to it. Your influence and ‘Mamba Mentality’ reached many current players. You mentored the likes of Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry and more. You settled into the ambassador role, and quite well. You were the teacher and they were the students, just like you once were.
More importantly, the players were willing to listen to whatever you had to say. They reached out to you because you stayed accessible and were an open book of knowledge they were ready to absorb.
A lot of the greats aren’t like that. They retire and keep their distance from the very thing that shaped them. Not you.
I appreciated that about you Kobe. You understood the importance probably better than any current or past star of moving the game forward and honing the next generation. However, you will be remembered because your reach extended way beyond the realm of pro basketball. As big of a women’s basketball fan as I will claim to be, there was no basketball player that advocated more for women’s hoops — women’s college basketball and WNBA — like you did.
Women’s sports in general, especially basketball gets overlooked enough, but you admirably used your platform to praise, draw attention to and rightfully lift up, the women’s game.
Diana Taurasi, who you nicknamed “White Mamba,” Jewell Lloyd, Candace Parker, Sabrina Ionescu, Breanna Stewart, Arike Ogunbowale and many female ballers have all been impacted by your heavy support for them. Not only was basketball in your wheelhouse but you showed love, mentored and have greatly affected athletes from other sports like Alex Rodriguez, Novak Djokovic, Neymar, Nick Kyrgios, Lionel Messi and Carli Lloyd.
It’s amazing that your reach extended internationally in China, where you turned into a sporting icon and in European soccer, where you formed a connection with clubs like AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid through your zeal for soccer.
The respect you gave to them is the respect that they gave back to you. That’s what it’s all about. The world felt connected to you. Your star power was global. If that isn’t inspiring to people, then I don’t know what is.
Your game Black Mamba, oh my goodness. It was your game that stimulated me the most about you. Your scoring outbursts. Your lockdown defense. Your clutch gene. Your unwavering confidence. How you revived USA Basketball. You were a true artist on the court, in the same mold as prodigious soloists such as Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane were, as musician Flea once said. A throwback player from the ’80s and ’90s. You transcended efficiency and analytics, which too many experts drool over these days.
I’ve always thought if you played Mike one-on-one to 21 (with three’s counting as twos), both at your peak, 1991 Michael versus 2006 Kobe, that you’d win. By a hairball, but you’d pull it out something like 21–19. I still believe that.
If there was one trait I wish I could adopt from you, it would be your mental fortitude. How you were able to travel back-and-forth from the courtroom to the basketball court while your sexual assault case was going on in the 2003–04 season — during your fall from grace — and still raise your game, to me, is still incomprehensible and my view, your most impressive feat.
We all know you had your flaws, but who doesn’t in this imperfect world we live in? The point in living is to be a positive force in society and I believe you did just that. The pros completely outweigh the cons with you.
You were authentic to the core with the media, unapologetic on the court and gave it to us straight from the day you were drafted. From the very beginning, you let the sports world know you were consumed with one thing only; being recognized as the best to ever put on a pair of basketball shoes.
Some think you reached those heights while others think you came up just short. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is you had the audacity to go after what few others wouldn’t have.
That singular-minded focus to push the limits of basketball was evident from this 60 Minutes interview in 2001 when you were just 22-years-old.
I admired the plan and vision you had for your career from the get-go, determined to not let anything get in the way. I respected your attention to detail and that you cared more about being feared than liked. You embodied talent and hard work like no athlete I’ve ever seen. You were destined for greatness my man. Destined to be followed and immortalized.
You succeeded. I think it’s appropriate that your former coach Phil Jackson said you were “A Chosen One.” I couldn’t agree more.
I saw you play once in person. January 29, 2002 on a Tuesday night versus the Atlanta Hawks at Phillips Arena. I actually skipped middle school basketball practice without telling my coach, just to watch you, Shaq and the Lakeshow. No regrets at all (and don’t worry, I didn’t get into too much trouble). Just some extra suicide runs the next day. No biggie.
You dropped 32 points that night and got the W.
There was so many layers to you Kobe that made you so fascinating to follow.
There was the No. 8 version of Kobe. The No. 24 version of Kobe.
There was Afro Kobe, then bald Kobe.
Great Western Forum Kobe and Staples Center Kobe.
Only you could conquer the basketball world and get two different jersey numbers retired for the same franchise.
You were a real interesting dude. I love that you were a Harry Potter fan like me. I heard you played the Harry Potter Sorting Hat game and were sorted into Slytherin, which you totally fit in. I played and got put into Ravenclaw. I like that fit for me.
Your intellectual side was always noticeable. You were fluent in Italian and Spanish. You compared yourself eloquently to Mozart and Secretariat. You were inspired by giants of their craft outside of sports like Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and J.K. Rowling. I always thought that was cool.
You were a man for all seasons Kobe.
The thing I marveled in was the way you attacked your second career as a businessman, girls AAU coach, storyteller, author and an Academy Award winner with the same fervor you attacked basketball. That takes mad focus and you had it.
But what’s so heartbreaking in all of this since your passing is that we lost Gigi too. She had so much promise. She was on her way to being the next great women’s player. When we saw highlights of her, we saw you. Your light shed through Gigi and the plain fact that you or the world won’t be able to see what she could have become is gut-wrenching. My heart aches every time I see a picture of you and her together.
I’m sad Kobe because you won’t become old and grow into an NBA legend where players walk up to you, embrace and thank you for what you did for the game.
I’m sad because we won’t get to hear your Hall of Fame speech.
I’m sad because as a sports journalist rising through the ranks, I’ll never get to meet you personally and have a reporter-to-player dialogue like many others have.
I’m sad because I’m gutted for your wife, Vanessa and your three daughters Natalia, Capri and Bianka. Losing you and Gigi will be harder on her than anyone.
Yet, if there’s one thing I will take solace in, it’s that you accomplished so much on and off the court in your 41 years of life, and had a bountiful of wonderful moments with your family that I know you were deeply proud of.
I’ll miss you Kobe.
Basketball, the NBA, will never be the same for me again. Ever. I’ll hold onto the memories though.
As you would say: Mamba Out!
From Yours Truly,