I never met Kobe Bryant.

I spent much of the past 20 years watching him play basketball, and I probably spent more time rooting against him than I ever did cheering for him.

My most resonant memory of Bryant was Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals when he hit an off-balance three-pointer against my beloved Detroit Pistons, sending the game into overtime and a Pistons loss.

But like so many Americans, when I saw the news that Bryant had died Sunday, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in Southern California, I felt gut-punched — as though I knew him personally.


Superstar athletes — so capable of doing the seemingly impossible on a field of play — are supposed to be indestructible. They are not supposed to die in a helicopter crash in the prime of life.

If one ever needed a reminder of our fleeting mortality, it’s when an individual whose exploits made them seem immortal suddenly and senselessly passes away.

What took Kobe to heights of acclaim and superstardom — aside from the effervescent smile and otherworldly basketball skills — was the way he played the game. He was the ultimate juxtaposition to the behemoth with whom he won his first three NBA titles, Shaquille O’ Neal. Shaq was a man among boys; an athlete so large it didn’t seem possible for anyone to stop him.

Shaq rumbled; Kobe glided. He floated up and down the court, effortlessly swishing jump shots or climbing among taller trees for fearsome dunks. Like the player whose game he most closely imitated — Michael Jordan — Kobe made it look far easier than it really was. Also like Jordan, his competitive fire could was unmatched. This is a player, after all, who sunk two free throws after rupturing his Achilles tendon.


That aforementioned 2004 game-tying three-pointer inspired not just a spew of profanity and frustration, but the kind of grudging respect that only a great athlete could inspire. If you’re going to lose a big game, better to be beaten by the best.

Of course, no honest recollection of Bryant’s life can fail to reckon with felony sexual assault charges levied against him in 2003 — accusations that, if true, were horrific. The charges were dropped at the request of the accuser after Bryant released a public apology. Later a civil suit was settled out of court.

But part of what rehabilitated Kobe at the end of his career — and in the midst of the #MeToo movement — is the lengths he seemed to go to repair the damage that he had done. He became an active philanthropist and a booster of women’s basketball and the Women’s National Basketball Association, which was a by-product of Gianna’s emergence as a budding basketball star. He even coached her middle school team. The cynic will argue that he was merely seeking to buff up his image — and surely that was part of it. Like Jordan, there was an aura of artificiality around Kobe; a sense that what you were seeing was the well-manicured persona of a superstar athlete, rather than the complicated person residing underneath.

But the images that splashed across social media on Sunday — of him playing basketball with Gianna — belied the notion that this was all for effect. Maybe he knew the cameras were on him when, while seated court-side at a game at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, he was caught on film lovingly explaining the intricacies of a play to her. But likely not.


The man once accused of rape had become a doting father to four daughters and for many (though admittedly not all), achieved some level of redemption and forgiveness.

Of course, it is Gianna’s death that so compounds this tragedy. Many of Kobe’s fan were excitedly waiting to see what he did in his second act, post-basketball. But we will never see Gianna’s first act.

One doesn’t need to be a Kobe Bryant fan or even a basketball fan for his death to be a reminder that life is extraordinarily short. In an instant it can all be over. None of us, even the transcendent who walk among us, or in Kobe’s case float above us is invincible.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.