Death is a scary and sometimes mysterious thing, but it is certain. It’s going to happen. And when it happens, sometimes it makes you think of things you don’t think of normally. You maybe even think of some things you should be thinking of normally, things that shouldn’t require a tragic death happening to make you realize them. Which brings me to where I am right now. I’ve thought about and realized a lot of different things over the last less than 48 hours or so, and I believe I’m ready to let it all out there.
The first thing I have realized is what Kobe Bryant was for the game of basketball, what he was as a global icon, and how much Kobe Bryant made an impact on my life, even with me being a “mediocre” basketball fan at best.
I was born in 1994, so I wasn’t around/I don’t remember the glory and brilliance of the Jordan days. My first memory (and only memory, if we’re not counting the Wizards) was him leading the Tune Squad to victory over the Monstars. This might be the most miraculous comeback in all of basketball history, but that’s a talk for another day. The point is I know what Jordan was considered, and what he still is considered: the greatest of all time.
Kobe entered the league in 1996. My first memory of Kobe is him winning. Always winning. Three in a row, as a matter of fact. From then on, Kobe became a very big part of my growing up.
I remember seeing the Lakers logo everywhere, specifically him wearing it. Everywhere. He was always on the tv or in the stores, the face of the NBA for my generation. I remember buying NBA Live 2003 specifically to play as Kobe on the Lakers. Admittedly, I put him on the Bulls to take them to glory again. Looking back on it now, even though he almost got traded to the Bulls in real life and I would’ve lost my mind, seeing him in any other uniform just doesn’t make sense.
I remember going over to a friend’s house and playing basketball in the driveway, but putting the hoop all the way down so we could dunk. We would throw lobs up to each other and take turns slamming it down, pumping up the imaginary crowd in the imaginary stands. We called the game “Shaq and Kobe.”
I remember shooting hoops in my own driveway and mimicking Kobe’s follow through. I remember attempting the turn, spin, and shoot, as only he could. I played baseball, and did not think I would ever play organized basketball. But if I was going to, I was going to try to be Kobe.
Myself and millions of other kids my age remember balling up a piece of paper, standing up from our desks, and proceeding to shout “KOBE” as we launched a ridiculously stupid shot across the classroom attempting to make it into a trash can. Sometimes we asked if we could, sometimes we had the “Mamba Mentality” and went for it anyways. Either way, we knew that if we made it, we’d be a hero. We’d be Kobe. And if we didn’t, we’d be wiping down chairs after class. But, as Kobe said once about missing the last shot, “So what?”
I remember the the many highlights, everyday a new one it seemed. The 81 point game against Toronto, the 63 points at the Garden. I remember the buzzer beaters and the fist pumps. I thoroughly remember his last two championships. How happy he was to prove he could do it as “the man.”
I remember him tearing his Achilles, and then proceeding to go to the free throw line, hit both shots, and then walk himself to the locker room…. as if he were immortal. And I, along with many others, sure thought he was.
I remember how the Lakers struggled without him. Losing a dozen or so games in a row, and losing on the norm. I remember him going on Kimmel, Kimmel showing him a clip of his team celebrating a win like they won the Finals, and him being absolutely pissed about being associated with them because they had previously lost a million in a row.
I remember watching Kobe’s final season, his final appearances in arenas around the league. Every team doing something special to pay tribute to a legend calling it a career. A hall of fame career, an all-time great career. I remember watching his final game ever, dropping 60 points at home in front of the entire world. Not just the sporting world. The worlds of entertainment and even politics all came together to witness the spectacle that was the end of an era.
What I was watching, witnessing, and even participating in all these years was not what it seemed at the time. Everyone wanted to compare and debate his career with Michael Jordan. But perhaps Kobe Bryant was not trying to be or take the place of Michael Jordan, but rather, Kobe Bryant was being Kobe Bryant, my generation’s version of Michael Jordan as the torchbearer, the icon of the sport. The Man. And unfortunately, I’m just really realizing this now. Mind you, of course, we’ve only talked about his playing career.
Beyond Kobe’s playing career, especially in the last couple of years, we have been able to witness the brilliance and compassion of Kobe Bryant. He spoke multiple different languages, and was trying to become fluent in even more. He was always trying to expand his capabilities, always wanting to learn and apply things. He was a smart business man, making more money after his playing career than during his 20 year career. He spent time with former teammates and competitors, even training with them and their children in the gym. Why? Because everyone wanted a piece of that Mamba Mentality.
Most importantly in his post-NBA life, we have seen how he put family first. He was so proud of his daughters. He did anything and everything to give them success. He endorsed and exposed women’s sports to the globe for more attention because he knew his daughter Gianna was going to be something special. And it was working. He would do anything for anyone in his family, inner circle, and beyond. I will never be able to put words down that will do justice to the success Kobe had off the court after his career and the love he had for his family.
Which brings to January 26, 2020: a day I will never forget. I was in my kitchen prepping to watch a day full of sports. Tiger was in the hunt at the Farmers Open. Michigan State taking on Minnesota in basketball. The Pro Bowl only because I may/may not have wagered the over in total points. Then I get a text message at 1:45 CST: “…..also Kobe Bryant Died.. in a helicopter crash.”
My response: “Uh, what?” What does one do for news now? We go to Twitter. Twitter wasn’t loading. Which means it’s busy. Which means something is happening. When it loads, everything was confirmed. And now I’m watching this unfold in real time.
People were finding out at the Pro Bowl right as the game was starting. The stadium was silent. Announcers were fighting back tears. Players on the sideline in shock. At the Farmers Open, Tiger was hearing people say “Do it for Mamba” and chanting “Kobe” and he had no idea why until after his round. Teams were prepping for NBA games and finding out one of their own, one of their heroes, their Superman figure, was just all of a sudden gone.
Seeing all of these reactions and people’s tributes, it just didn’t seem real. It really still doesn’t feel real. I did not expect to feel so emotional, but how can you not? I began to think of all the things I have done that were because of Kobe. And I thought of the lives lost, such young lives lost. And not just the Bryant’s, multiple families lost multiple loved ones. Unfortunately losing loved ones is something that happens every day in many different ways, but this particular instance includes a global icon, a hero to many.
Every NBA player that played that day/night was visually upset. Guys sobbing on the sidelines. Nobody wanting to play, but knowing they had to. Realization set in that these guys are not just players. They’re human. Like us, like me.
And after hours of sadness and reflecting, watching all of this unfold and thinking all of these thoughts and feelings about Kobe and his family, his accomplishments, his controversies, his achievements, there then came one thought that absolutely froze me, for the 400th time that day:
Oh my God, Lebron.
If you have known me for as long as ten years or as short as a week, you would know my disdain for Lebron James. I have told people before that I have Twitter “only to yell at Lebron.” I’ve referred to him as “LeFraud,” among other crude things. I have turned everything he does into a negative thing. Why did I do this? Because he was being compared, debated, and linked to Michael Jordan, even skipping over Kobe to get there. And I would not allow him to breathe the same air.
Now you insert a tragedy taking away the life of Kobe Bryant, and I realize how unimportant and shallow all of this hate is. Vanessa Bryant woke up next to Kobe on Sunday morning, and then he was gone. Lebron got a text from Kobe Sunday morning, and then he was gone. His brother, his icon, his friend. Again, theses guys are not just players. They’re human. And nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.
In the midst of debating who is the greatest, or what qualifies as greatness, we are missing the opportunity to just watch and APPRECIATE greatness happening before us in the present tense. Taking a look at Kobe’s career, it seemed like it was never enough until the end. But every challenge Kobe faced or was given, he conquered. When he was drafted, people wondered if he would be an all-star. When he became an all-star, people acknowledged it, but wondered if he could be an every day starter. When he became an everyday starter, people wanted a championship. When he delivered a championship, people wanted more. When he delivered three in a row, people said he couldn’t do it without Shaq. Then he did it without Shaq. Twice. And when his career was over, he didn’t just fade off into the sunset. He still went after more. He was always hungry for more.
Granted, Kobe was going to push himself far beyond anyone else’s standards regardless. His expectations for himself far exceeded any that could be given to him by anyone else. But still, at what point should we have just sat back, and watched Kobe do the things he did without the “Well…” Would we have appreciated it much much more and much much sooner?
In the same aspect, Lebron has gone through the ringer with guys like me. Idiots like me. Yeah, you made it to the finals, but you lost. Michael never lost. Oh, you’re going to Miami? Michael didn’t have to leave to win a championship. Oh, you won two in a row? You also lost 2, Michael never lost. Oh, back to Cleveland? What happened to championships 3-7 you promised Miami? Oh, you got Cleveland one so now you’re bailing for Hollywood to make your stupid movie? Michael has 6 rings and the movie.
Whether it is something as big as a personal relationship gone bad or as small and unimportant as hating an athlete on an opposing team, Jay Williams said it best in an interview after Kobe passed. About the petty things like that in this world, he said “just let that shit go.” And he’s right.
In this very small and unimportant instance, let’s recap. Michael Jordan was great. He then passed the torch to Kobe Bryant, who was great in his own way, on his own unique path. Kobe has passed the torch to Lebron James, and he is great, in his own way, on his own unique path. And someday, Lebron will be done, and he will pass the torch to the next great. And then the next, and then the next. And this is not to REPLACE, it is to KEEP THE LINE MOVING.
Lebron, I am sorry I never wanted to appreciate you, and I’m sorry it took the passing of an icon, a hero, and one of your brothers for me to realize you are not Michael, nor are you Kobe, but you are Lebron, attempting to be the torchbearer of this generation. From this day forward, I will be watching and appreciating this generation’s torchbearer.
Kobe, thank you for the memories you’ve given myself and the rest of the world. Thank you for your drive and toughness that has inspired billions to be and have the same Mamba Mentality. And thank you for these lessons and things you have taught me not two days after we tragically lost you. I am sad we missed out on what was to come, but so glad we got the time we did to watch you truly change the world. You and Gianna successfully fulfilled God’s purpose for you on this world, and have been called home.
Rest In Peace. Mamba Out.