Numb. That’s the first word I can think of when I saw the news about the passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Ironically I was sitting on a couch in Northwest Philadelphia, about 15 minutes from Lower Merion High School, where Kobe had first made a name for himself as one of the best high school players ever. At first, I didn’t know what to think, since TMZ had been the only source reporting and they had been wildly inaccurate in the past. But then more reports were coming out, and soon enough, it was a running story on Fox News. I just stared into the television as more details were being released, and tears began to run down my cheek. I kept staring. Hard. Trying to process what was going on. I could not. I could feel two of my friends simultaneously watching the report and me to see if I was ok, but I couldn’t look back at them because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get any words out. It’s been that way since. Normally I don’t stop talking and always have an answer for everything. I’ve found it insanely hard to muster the words to describe how I (and a lot of others worldwide) am feeling. I’ll give it my best here…
When I think of Kobe Bryant, the first word that I think of is “hero.” Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions for the word, such as “an illustrious warrior” or “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities,” and “one who shows great courage.” If I had to add to that definition, I would say a hero is someone “who inspires people.” I think that Kobe was a hero to a lot of us in one way or another. At many points in time throughout his career and post-playing days, Kobe had embodied all of those traits, and then some.
He was a hero and a warrior in the way he attacked each practice, each game, and each day with nothing less than 100% of his very best. He was (is) admired for those qualities, along with many adoring how much time he spent around his kids (especially coaching Gianna) since his retirement. Kobe showed great courage fighting through each injury and obstacle in his playing career. And he inspired. He inspired people to pick up a basketball and play. Kobe inspired an entire generation of players to get up at 4 am instead of 6 am, to work out three times a day instead of two; to maximize the absolute most out of each day to get better. In the last phase of his post-basketball life, he inspired athletes and non-athletes alike to be better parents. To spend as much time as possible with their families. To help inspire the next generation of children to find their passion and succeed in whatever they wanted to do.
My first memories of the NBA were of watching the Lakers with Kobe and Shaq winning three straight titles from 2000-02. I liked Shaq a ton, but there was something about Kobe and his big poofy afro that I gravitated towards. He had style, flair, and an edge to him. He instantly became my favorite player. While I was too young to remember a ton of games and moments, I always knew there would be a good chance to see him hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come June. When Shaq was traded after the 2003-04 season, after months (and really years) of highly publicized drama between the two, I became an even more loyal fan of Kobe. It felt like it was him against the world, which is something I have felt that at times in my own life. It can be a dark and lonely place, but also one where you grow and learn about your own strengths and weaknesses.
Kobe spent the next three years taking on the NBA as a villain. He was booed in every arena, hated by so many opposing fans. Not every hero’s journey is clear and simple. He didn’t care. He thrived off it. Kobe never smiled. He just kicked everyone’s ass. I loved it then and even more now as an adult. It is good to have that edge. It helps you focus and tune out distractions. He used that focus and drive to score 62 points in just three quarters against Dallas in December of 2005, and 81 points a few weeks later in January of 2006 against Toronto, the second-highest in league history for a single game.
I remember the Lakers finally getting back to the Finals in 2008, only to be absolutely destroyed by 39 points in game six against the hated rival Boston Celtics. Most people stop watching when it gets that bad or turn it off right as it ends. Not me. I watched the whole celebration by Boston, soaking in the pain as a 14-year-old because I knew Kobe was doing the same thing and was going to stew about it for a while. I knew he would come back better. I was right. I remember just how fun and sweet the next two years were when he helped Los Angeles win back-to-back titles, including a seven-game revenge-series thriller against the Celtics. Game seven remains my second-favorite game ever to this day (you’ll see my favorite shortly).
The final steps in his career saw him not win titles but hit milestones. He passed his idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. He hit the 20-season mark with one team, the most ever at the time until Dirk Nowitzki passed him last year. In his final game against the Utah Jazz, I will remember sitting in my bedroom at my college apartment (alone with the door locked so as not to be disturbed) as he scored an unthinkable 60 points on 50(!!) shots, the most ever by anyone in their final time on an NBA court. That night was when he epitomized being a hero the most. Heroes leave it all out there. Kobe could barely catch his breath when the game was over. He truly gave all he had. That last 3 min and 20 seconds of his career is something I will never forget. My favorite game/sporting event, ever.
Outside of the game of basketball, Bryant was just as much a hero. He performed hundreds and hundreds of Make-A-Wish visits and had raised a ton of money for young kids and families in need with The Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation. He had four wonderful daughters (although I’ve joked many times about the need for a Kobe Jr.), and was an adoring father to them, doing all the dad duties even after he’d have a primetime game on national television. Post-basketball, he did what all of us dream to do if we were fathers – he took his kids to school every day and coached them in sports. He became a huge ambassador to women’s basketball as Gianna came to love and play the game. You have seen all the clips of them at NBA, WNBA and women’s college hoops games. I think that’s what I will remember the most. Despite all the time I spent watching Kobe play, re-watching highlight videos and interviews, the lasting images in my mind will be him and his family at all the events mentioned above, or just goofing off in their house or him coaching his daughters. Because it shows that despite the wall that was put up and the hardened exterior scowl, Kobe was in the end, just like us. I think that’s what is most important.
Let me clarify something for those who have read this thinking that I only embraced a one-sided view of my all-time favorite athlete after all of these years. Kobe was not perfect. At times he was the farthest thing. He had flaws on and off the court that people have pointed out from the time he started playing up until just the other day. I see them on Twitter and other sites all the time. I hear them from my friends. He didn’t pass enough. He was a jerk to his teammates at times. He had too big of an ego. He cheated on his wife and was in court for over a year regarding sexual assault, although those charges were dropped. And you know what? Usually, they were absolutely right. That’s what makes Kobe’s life and legacy with basketball so personal and relatable. He had more ups and downs than almost any superstar athlete, and yet when he retired in 2016, he was absolutely beloved and adored by fans, opposing players, former teammates, and coaches alike. Trust me, you don’t get a farewell tour if you’re 1. Not insanely great and 2. Not very well-liked by the fans. His career arc and life journey were at times like a roller coaster, and I think that’s something everyone (celebrity or not) can really relate to.
Life throws a ton of challenges our way almost every day. It is up to us and only us to be our own heroes and find a way to get through the obstacles. To show courage when facing something we are afraid of doing or experiencing. To be warriors for our family and friends when things go wrong or help is needed. To inspire each other with acts of kindness and love. The tools are all there for it. Kobe showed us the blueprint. It’s our turn now.
These next few weeks are going to be rough for a lot of people like me. It is unavoidable. It would be unhealthy to not be upset and show emotion. By now you have all witnessed the scenes outside of Staples Center, Lower Merion High School and various other locations, where fans have gathered to pay their respects. It’s unreal to see the support and random strangers coming together. No one is arguing online about basketball and who deserves to be ranked where all-time or what team is better. It’s been a community, a brotherhood coming together as one to mourn, but also to remember the good times.
I’ve gone years without crying in most situations. I take pride in it. When everyone else cries I toughen up. I’ve always thought crying was a huge sign of weakness and something I hated doing. Well, I’ve cried about 15 different times in the past three days. I cried every 20 minutes driving home from Philly on Sunday. I could barely see the road. I cried at work and again watching ESPN last night. It’s one of the few times in my life I feel I have no control over my emotions and what I am feeling. I don’t expect the rest of the week to be any different. It just wasn’t supposed to be this way.
If you’re made it this far and are thinking “Weren’t there seven other people involved whose families are now dealing with the same thing?”, you’re absolutely right. I feel as awful for them as I do for Kobe and Gianna. Out of respect for the families, I don’t want to write or say too much about people that I am not fully knowledgeable on. I hope their families and friends are able to find peace in time. No one should lose a spouse, parent, child or sibling this young. It’s cruel, but we can take some comfort knowing everyone from that helicopter is together right now, just like they were before the crash. They’re watching over us.
The most common thing I have seen former teammates, coaches and celebrities say about Kobe Bryant is how shocked they were because they thought he would outlive them all. He seemed invincible on the court and capable of outliving us all just because it would be a challenge, and he loved challenges. That’s what makes this so hard. I never met Kobe Bryant. I saw him play three times in his career. Twice in his prime (at NJ and Philly), and once in his final season at Madison Square Garden. I cherished each game I was able to see. And yet, I feel like I have lost someone so close to me. Anyone who’s ever known me has heard me talk about him in the first five minutes of meeting me. It became part of a joke. Friends would introduce me by saying, “Hi this is Jordan and he is a big Kobe Bryant fan”. That happens when you spend 20+ years idolizing and watching every highlight of someone’s life. That’s what happens when you have a hero.
I thought about making this my last post ever. I really thought about never watching or caring about basketball again. I thought it would bring me too much pain. I’ve decided not to do any of those things, because of what I’ve seen from Kobe. It’s always cliché to say “well this person would have wanted us to do this”, especially with a celebrity we have never met. But in this case, it’s actually true. In almost every interview I have ever seen from Kobe Bryant, he always passionately explained how he loved working on his craft or improving his skillset. Whether it was on or off the court, Kobe preached have a desire to get better each day and wanted his daughters and everyone to do the same. He called it “Mamba Mentality”. He literally said it all the time. So that’s what I am going to do. I’m going to get better at something every day. Whether that is doing a workout in the gym, learning something by reading or self-reflecting to better handle my emotions, I am going to do it. I encourage everyone to do the same. Let’s be better as people, as communities, and as a world. Let’s have that Mamba Mentality.
The Lakers postponed their game Tuesday against the Clippers for obvious reasons but will remain home for the Trail Blazers on Friday. The maximum capacity for a basketball game inside Staples Center is approximately 19,067 people. There will be two more in the arena that night, in the rafters, looking down, smiling at everyone. A 41-year-old legend and his 13-year-old Mambacita. Kobe and Gianna Bryant. They’ll be watching, discussing, and learning about the game just like they always have, as father and daughter. What a spectacle it will be. Mambas out.