Can a hoop-sized hole be blown through the soul of the game?
My heart, shattered like a backboard, says yes. But the love and legacy of Kobe Bean Bryant is too big, too vital, too legendary to lose. Legends don’t really die, do they? They just shed their physical uniform ... I think.
Sunday, Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed in a California helicopter crash. Gianna, like her daddy, loved the game. They were on their way to Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where he coached her team.
But if ball is life and Bryant is ball, and she was ball, then they live forever through the game, right?
Sunday night as Lizzo opened the Grammys, she said, “Tonight is for Kobe.” Alicia Keys soon followed. Standing on stage at the Staples Center, the Grammy host said, “We’re all feeling crazy sadness right now. We’re literally standing here, heartbroken, in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Bryant was bigger than basketball. It’s not just the NBA world mourning him. It’s not just Lakers Nation grieving a Laker legend. People around the world are mourning the muse, period.
I don’t have an iconic Fadeaway. My basketball skills consist of a once-in-a-blue-moon lucky layup. I follow basketball shoes a lot more closely than I do the NBA. From Jordans to Questions to the Shaqnosis to the Reebok Pump, my closet has shelved them.
But I never wanted to be “Like Mike.” Kobe, however, Kobe the Black Mamba was goals.
He had my attention from the moment he declared, “I have decided to skip college and take my God-given talents to the NBA.” He was just barely older than me.
That moment in 1996 meant something, seeing him believe in himself so big in a world that works overtime to make us feel small. To see him bet on himself and grow into one of the greatest of all time was inspiring.
You don’t have to be a basketball fanatic to respect that kind of commitment and work ethic. Your heart doesn’t have to pump purple and gold to admire his tenacity and resilience. He treated basketball like a science. He made it his craft to master. Even when the court was surrounded with booing fans and the world hated him, he kept chasing the ball.
And I chased the words. I entered the newsroom young. I was a columnist way too soon. I, too, grew up on the job. Kobe, I could never be, but I still called my editor Phil Jackson. I would never get a ring or be an All-Star, but I love language the way he loves the game.
A decade later in 2006, his first Nike commercial aired, and he walked head first into the hate. By that time, I was dealing with my own small bubble of trolling from readers.
“Love me or hate me,” Bryant said in the ad. “It’s one or the other. Always has been. Hate my game, my swagger, hate my fadeaway. Hate my hunger. Hate that I’m a veteran, a champion. Hate that. Hate it with all your heart. And hate that I’m loved for the exact same reasons.”
I know he was flawed. I have not forgotten the 2003 rape allegation, the vicious victim-blaming, dropped charges, and the public apology before the civil suit and settlement.
I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.
That, too, is part of his legacy. My love for him is complicated. I know that.
Yet he still drives me. I’m still thinking of his gritty work-study “Mamba mentality” that pushed him through 20 seasons, made him an 18-time All-Star, earned him five rings, and two Olympic gold medals. I’m still thinking about the fierce feminist he raised in Gianna. When fans told Kobe he needed a boy to carry on the legacy, she let them know nah, no male necessary. She was the heir.
Kobe, like Harry Potter whom he loved so much, made magic. He inspired not just this generation of ball players and athletes, but he is the muse for go-getters everywhere.
When President Barack Obama spoke at his eighth and final White House correspondents’ dinner in 2016, he closed his short speech by saying “Obama out,” mimicking Bryant’s “What can I say? Mamba Out.” Bryant’s reach feels immeasurable.
Saturday night, LeBron James jumped over Bryant’s No. 3 spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. But he took Bryant with him. He wrote on his LeBron 17 kicks, “Mamba 4 Life” and “8/24 KB.”
“It’s cool to know that you have the support of one of the all-time greats that ever played this game,” James said of Bryant in an interview Saturday night. “You don’t have that much time to play this game and if you are to be remembered for the great things that you did ... that’s a pretty cool thing.”
He didn’t get to play this life game long. But we remember him.
Kobe Bean Bryant shed his uniform. But he is still here. In every tap of a basketball, in every swish of the hoop, in each squeak of the kicks when the footwork gets fierce, in every kid with a dream so big that they bring it to life in everyone around them.
Mamba is not out. Mamba is for life.