By KYLE KERSEY
Jan. 26, 2020: Inside a local Panda Express, my friend Alex, a Houston Rockets fan, laments the death of Kobe Bryant by comparing him to some of the NBA’s greats. “This has to be the worst day in the history of basketball,” he says. “This would be like if LeBron or Michael Jordan died.”
Truth be told, I loathed Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers growing up. Like many of you, I grew up rooting for those hyper-fun Phoenix Suns teams that always seemed to be full of young, exciting talent and yet never able to get over the hump of an NBA championship. Among the teams standing in their way were Bryant and the Lakers.
One of my earliest sports memories is watching Bryant’s two buzzer-beaters against the Suns in Game 4 of the 2006 opening round of the NBA playoffs. I remember watching him drop 37 points in Phoenix during the series-clinching Game 6 of the 2010 Western Conference finals, all en route to winning his fifth and final NBA Championship. I actively cheered for the Boston Celtics when they defeated the Lakers in the 2008 NBA finals, only for him to lead the Lakers to two consecutive titles in the years that followed. The Lakers were to basketball what the New York Yankees are to baseball: an evil empire of championship dominance and historical brilliance, and at the forefront of it all was that arrogant, unstoppable Mamba Mentality.
But then something changed.
Later in his career, when he was far past his prime, Bryant’s persona began to change. As the cliché goes, he was older, wiser; by most accounts a devoted family man. This softening public perception of the Lakers superstar culminated in his final game, where he scored 60 points in his final game inside the sold-out Staples Center, including 11 in the last 2 minutes to lead the Lakers to a stunning comeback victory. The camera cut to his family in the crowd, joyously cheering on their beloved patriarch. As he came off the floor for the last time, he embraced his former contentious co-star Shaquille O’Neal, followed by all his teammates and coaches. After the game was over, he was given a microphone, where he thanked the fans, players and coaches who had helped him, as well as his wife of , before declaring “Mamba out.”
It was a storybook ending to one of basketball’s most successful careers; the kind of ending they only write in Hollywood. The kind of ending that makes the helicopter crash that took Bryant’s life, as well as his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven more souls, all the more tragic.
When asked in an interview with Rich Eisen in 2018 about the possibility of returning to the game of basketball as a player, Bryant responded.
“For us athletes, it’s really hard to transition [from playing]. I was really personal about it when I wrote ‘Dear Basketball,’ but that is the true challenge of finding what comes next, and finding something that you love to do every bit as much as you loved your first passion. That’s a challenge for us … Unfortunately for us athletes, we’ve been pigeonholed into thinking that we can only be one thing. When I retired, everyone was saying ‘He’s too competitive, he’s not going to know what to do with himself. He’s gonna have to come back.’ I took that as a personal challenge of them thinking I’m this one-dimensional person. That all I know is how to dribble the ball, shoot the ball, to play basketball and compete at that level. I will never come back to the game. I’m here to show people we can do much more than that.”
For a majority of superstar athletes, the end of their playing career is the end of their public prominence and achievements. Perhaps they end up in a coaching or executive role, perhaps they even succeed, but very rarely do they find a similar success in a field outside their respective sport. Bryant was breaking that mold: living proof that basketball players didn’t need the game to survive. Less than two years after he announced his retirement, Bryant made history becoming the first African-American to win the Academy Award for his short film “Dear Basketball.” He wrote an acclaimed autobiography and was one-half of a lucrative venture capitalist fund. He also kept his foot in the game by coaching his daughters and taking them to basketball games, imparting his years of wisdom unto them and passing on a legacy of greatness not fully defined by his years in yellow and purple.
Talking with those who watched him play as kids, his effect is tangible. For my generation, even though many didn’t want to admit it, he was our Wilt. He was our Magic. He was our Jordan. When he entered the league in 1996, he was the youngest player to ever set foot on the NBA hardwood, and his lack of maturity was often apparent. He wasn’t perfect, evidenced by his troubles with infidelity, the law, selfish playing tendencies and well-documented feuds with opposing players and teammates alike. But while we grew up, we watched Bryant grow as well; as a player and as a man.
With Bryant’s death, the NBA and the sports world at large loses not only an icon or international ambassador for the game, but a model of how to make one’s post-playing career his finest hour.