There are days when the sports world just stops, when scores and statistics feel meaningless and feuds and rivalries pointless, when your heart aches and your eyes well because well, there is no longer a game to be played but a death to be mourned.
The news that Kobe Bryant was among nine people killed in a California helicopter crash Sunday hit us all with the force of a sucker punch to the gut, and that his teenage daughter was also among the victims made that punch extend to our deepest souls. The loss of the 41-year-old Bryant is a devastating blow to the basketball community, to an NBA that saw him retire from the league only a few years ago as its third-leading scorer and one of its all-time most popular stars. It is a blow too to the sports community at large, one that suddenly finds itself drawing on the tragic memories of Roberto Clemente or Thurman Munson or Len Bias, young lives also taken too soon.
But the loss is so much bigger, a reflection of a modern-day society that has allowed athletes to take their sporting forum and move it to a much bigger stage. Bryant’s switch from the basketball court to the boardroom came with enviable ease and success, his foray into filmmaking landing him an Oscar for animated short only two years ago, his list of new off-court business ventures as impressive as it was long and diverse. Podcasts, young adult novels, he was into it all, making a post-sports transition that has felled many a superstar before him.
Of all the new adventures though, Kobe clearly had a favorite new title: Basketball coach to his daughter and her standout AAU team. Gianna Maria, known as Gigi, was with her dad on that helicopter as it reportedly was making its way to a team practice at the Southern California basketball academy Kobe had opened, and she died in the crash along, reportedly, with at least one other team parent and player.
A day to stop us in our tracks? We can barely breathe.
Fatherhood seemed to be the job Kobe was made for, and one that deserves all the honor and respect a day like today can afford. Did you see the one where he sat courtside at a recent Brooklyn Nets game, excitedly diagramming a play to his seat mate, Gigi? Or the time they attended a UConn women’s game together so Gigi could get a glimpse of the future she dreamed for herself? Or the appearance he made on Jimmy Kimmel, smiling his way through a discussion of his daughter’s skills and future, laughing off the men he would meet who would urge him to add a son to his four-daughter clan so someone could carry on his legacy, knowing that was already covered?
“She’s like, ‘Oh wait, I got this,’ ” Kobe said, that signature smile lighting his way. “And I’m like, ‘That’s right, yes you do. You got this.’ ”
This is the Kobe who stopped basketball short Sunday, who inspired teams to take intentional 24-second shot clock violations to open their games in honor of his most famous jersey number, who left Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers breaking down at the prospect of addressing his team and asking them to play a game amid their grief, who turned the lights of his rival Madison Square Garden arena purple and gold in his memory, who inspired bereft fans to flock to the doors of his Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., or his Staples Center in Los Angeles to share their pain and leave their tributes.
That is the Kobe who eclipses that basketball star he once was, even if that basketball star defined basketball for a generation, even if that basketball star left the likes of Jayson Tatum reminding us it was Kobe who inspired him to play, even if that basketball star filled the record books with his statistics and the championship trophies with his name. After Michael Jordan but before LeBron James, Kobe was his own unique talent, more than intelligent enough to play college ball before the pros, but more than savvy and skilled enough to make what was then a rare jump straight to the NBA.
He was a high school phenom who stood out from any crowd, impressing the toughest prep coach I ever knew in two head-to-head matchups back in the mid-1990s.
“We were blessed to get a chance to get to play against him twice in high school, his junior year at 28 School in Jersey City, and his senior year when we went down to St. Joe’s [University] in Philly, and he was absolutely the best player we ever played against and we played against a lot of good players over the years,” Bob Hurley said over the phone Sunday, having just left a game coached by one son, UConn’s Dan, and having just watched a game the previous night coached by his other son, Arizona State’s Bobby, but moved mostly by the memory of an opposing player, who — after losing for the second time to a deeper team under an eventual Hall of Fame coach — asked Hurley how he could get better.
“I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it, and I remember I said, ‘Kobe when we went up at halftime and you didn’t come out in the second half to fire up the guys on your team and they needed you to fire them up (he was the maestro and they were just playing with him), you can never not be the leader that you can be,’” Hurley recalled. “They went on to win the state championship that year, and I think he scored 50 in the game.”
Those memories came flooding back after Hurley left UConn, only to receive a phone call from his daughter-in-law with the news.
“You’re riding home, thinking about the game, and it puts your whole life in perspective,” he said. “Danny’s team has just lost [their] fourth straight game, all of them at the end of the game, overtime, every game they could have won. We talk about every possession like it’s the last moments of your existence and then you find out about something like that, it puts sports into the proper perspective.”
Kobe seemed to understand this, his final entry on social media underscoring how much he had learned over the years.
When James, the sport’s undisputed current supernova, passed Kobe for third all-time in scoring on Saturday night, Bryant tweeted this classy handoff: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644”
The game will have a hard time moving forward from this one. On Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, our sports world stopped.