NBA Superstar LeBron James wrote “Mamba for life” on his sneakers as he passed Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Not even 24-hours later, that phrase has a new meaning as Kobe Bryant, 41, passed away Sunday morning with his daughter Gianna Marie Bryant, 13, and seven other passengers.
I, like many others, was shocked by the news of Bryant’s death. Seeing his life span written on the bottom of the SportsCenter screen was jarring. Seeing his daughter’s life span was downright heart-wrenching. Gianna Bryant was 13-years-old. When I was 13, I wanted to be like her dad every time I shot a crumpled up piece of paper into a garbage can. The deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant is one of those events that seem so surreal that It leaves you in disbelief.
I’m a sports fan through and through. I’ve spent more hours debating basketball than I have on homework. After I learned of his passing, the hours I’ve spent arguing over who’s better between Kobe and LeBron or Kobe and Jordan seemed so pointless.
The 20 year NBA legend was what I grew up on when I first got into basketball. The number 24 is iconic. Like so many others, I would ball up a piece of paper, shoot it like a basketball and yell “Kobe.” Kobe is to my generation what Jordan was to the generation before me.
My first NBA Finals that I remember watching was in 2010. My uncle and oldest cousin are Laker fans, so I paid attention to the Finals that pitted them against the Celtics. Throughout the series, I remember Bryant’s mannerisms. The nimble footwork he had in the post, the jersey chewing, and the confidence he had in each jumper.
I caught the tail-end of Kobe’s career. Don’t get me wrong, he was still the same killer on the court as he had been in his younger days, but this was a different Kobe. Bryant’s career – heck, Bryant’s life Ð was fascinating in that he lived two lives simultaneously. Bryant wore two jerseys throughout his career, representing two different Kobe Bryants.
The #8 version of Bryant was one that wanted admiration, respect from his peers. His fearless pursuit of Jordan’s legacy fueled him. It’s no secret that Bryant wanted to reach six championships. Chasing Jordan seemed like a pipe-dream. That didn’t matter to Bryant. He was hell-bent on trying to pass Jordan. Banners were always at the forefront of his mind. He was arrogant, but he backed it up.
#24 was an elder-statesmen of the league. His perseverance and dedication to the craft of basketball allowed the Laker legend to play 20 years in the NBA. Bryant played long enough to play against those who grew up idolizing him and talked trash to him.
“If you weren’t born when I started playing, then you can’t talk trash,” Bryant once said.
The athleticism waned but his attention to detail remained the same. That laser-sharp focus allowed him to play at a high level until the Torn Achilles Heel injury he suffered during the 2012-2013 season started his decline. He was no longer the youth who could jump as soon as he walked into the gym. He honed in on his postgame to make up for the lack of athleticism. Bryant attacked the competition as vigorously as ever. Reinvention would become the theme of his life.
After his legendary retirement that brought out the A-list celebrities of Hollywood, Bryant dedicated his second-act to his media career, his family and the youth. Bryant was as dedicated and driven to writing the next great children’s novel as he was to beating the Celtics during the 2010 finals.
Bryant was truly larger than life. In this age of social media, there aren’t many celebrities that we don’t know in some sense. LeBron James is one of – if not the greatest – basketball players to ever do it. However, there’s a humane side to LeBron that Bryant rarely let us see. It was only in retirement that Bryant showed us the human side of him.
What was most admirable about Bryant was his passion for learning and growing as a person. Bryant was an accomplished writer. The lifetime Laker wrote and narrated Dear Basketball; his ode to basketball that won an Oscar. No other athlete has an Oscar and an NBA championship. Bryant worked for ESPN on the series “Detail,” which was his way to stay connected to the league he loved.
The bond that Bryant and his daughter Gianna shared was precious. The two were videotaped continuously together at NBA games, WNBA games, women’s college basketball teams and training. Kobe was the coach of her basketball team. Gianna, or Gigi, was going to carry her father’s torch. She was going to carve out her own niche as a basketball player. Each picture of them together is hard to look at without getting emotional. Bryant was just getting started in the second phase of his life while Gianna Bryant was just starting her life. A life that she will no longer get the chance to experience.
Now we can only imagine how good of a basketball player Gianna would have become.
When people brought up the possibility of Kobe having to have a son to carry that legacy, she reminded them that she was going to carry that legacy. Kobe Bryant’s teammate of 13 years, Derek Fisher, said that Gianna Bryant and her father “have similar demeanor and mentality.”
If you watched Gianna Bryant’s clips on Youtube, it would take you all of two possessions to realize that she was going to be a great player.
Oregon basketball player, Sabrina Ionescu, was in tears after hearing the news. Kobe was a huge advocate for the advancement of women’s basketball.
Former WNBA player Rebecca Lobo said via Twitter, “No @NBA player supported the @WNBA or women’s college basketball more than Kobe. He attended games, watched on TV, coached the next generation. We pray for his family.”
Bryant went as far as to support the WNBA by saying in an interview with CNN, “I think there are a couple of players who could play in the NBA right now, honestly. There’s a lot of players with a lot of skill that could do it (…) Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne. There’s a lot of great players out there, so they could certainly keep up with them.”
Kobe had become the elder statesmen of the league. He wasn’t one of the veterans who resented the new generation and the way the game was played. He embraced the women’s game and supported young stars who perform the game that he played for so long. He wanted future generations to captivate audiences the way he had with performances like the 61 points Bryant scored at Madison Square Garden.
It’s fitting that the last public words we received from Bryant were of encouragement to LeBron James on Twitter. Bryant had become the type of person to celebrate the generation who he helped usher in.
For all of their similarities, Kobe Bryant was not Michael Jordan. The two shared a similar mentality to winning, a tireless work ethic, and an iconic fadeaway that many replicated, but their personalities were different.
As Jordan faded into seclusion as he transitioned into his role as an owner, his availability was few and far between. Bryant left the court but never the spotlight. His decision to step back into his role as a father and not fade away from the spotlight added to the admiration that fans had for him. Bryant was a mentor to players like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Dwyane Wade. Leonard and Kyrie both called Bryant after their respective championship wins.
Thank you, Kobe, for the memories. Thank you for inspiring a generation of hoopers around the world. Thank you for your impact on the growth of women’s basketball. Thank you for showing us how far work ethic can get you in achieving your dreams. Thank you for being your authentic, audacious self.
The world lost an icon on Sunday. Vanessa Bryant lost her husband and daughter. His three remaining daughters lost their sister and father.