Time isn’t always a fair bargain. You can’t control it. You can’t buy more of it. You don’t get any warning when it’s about to expire. Time definitely wasn’t fair to Kobe Bean Bryant, both in the chronology of NBA greats and the sudden, tragic manner in which the Lakers legend prematurely departed this Earth.
The 41-year-old Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others died Sunday when the helicopter they were taking to a youth basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, Calif. It’s an ineffable tragedy.
I’ve often thought Bryant was actually an underappreciated NBA icon. He had the misfortune of following in the Nikes of the incomparable Michael Jordan. There was no tougher act to follow in sports, and Kobe was subjected to endless comparisons from the moment he came straight out of Lower Merion High School into the NBA in 1996. I remain convinced that if Bryant had come before Jordan, those comparisons would have been flipped. Jordan’s greatness would have been measured through the prism of Bryant’s breathtaking exploits.
There is no greater compliment you can pay Bryant, no better testament to his greatness, than the fact that he escaped the longest shadow in basketball, in sports, Jordan’s. Kobe carved out his own one-name legacy and enduring legend in NBA lore and global pop culture, inspiring generations of athletes who wanted to be like . . . him, including Le-Bron James, whom many have been too quick to catapult past Bryant in the all-time hoops hierarchy.
“Kobe is their Jordan,” noted Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
How many other athletes have an entire frame of mind named for them? The relentless “Mamba Mentality” was the essence of Kobe, nicknamed the Black Mamba after one of the world’s most lethal snakes. He became more than a basketball player. He became the embodiment of an indefatigable mentality toward accomplishment recognized the world over.
How ubiquitous was Bryant? Soccer star Neymar saluted him by holding up two fingers on one hand and four on another to signify No. 24, Bryant’s final NBA jersey number, after scoring a goal for French soccer power Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday.
Kobe’s loss resonates worldwide like the deaths of Michael Jackson and Prince. It’s the extinguishment of a formidable creative fire prematurely.
Bryant was more than an all-time great, a basketball prodigy, a five-time champion, an 18-time All-Star, and the owner of the second-highest single-game scoring output in NBA history (81 points) next to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. He was an artiste, on and off the court.
Bryant wrote poetry and rap rhymes. He won an Oscar for the animated adaptation of his basketball billet-doux, “Dear Basketball.” He spoke fluent Italian from his father’s days playing overseas. He was a fan of Beethoven. He wrote a children’s book. Sophisticated yet relatable, he died on the way to coach his daughter’s team in a youth basketball tournament.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge Kobe fan. I grew up here rooting for the Larry Bird-era Celtics, detesting — but begrudgingly respecting — the Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. Kobe was the torchbearer for Lakers lore.
But from the moment I first read about Bryant’s high school exploits in a basketball magazine, I was captivated by him. Later on, I had the privilege of covering some of his games, including the epic Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals clashes in 2008 and 2010.
You could tell how much those series meant to Bryant, not just because in the first one he was trying to prove he could win a championship sans Shaquille O’Neal. He grew up a Lakers fan watching the Celtics and Lakers do battle for basketball supremacy in the 1980s. Here was his opportunity to leave his fingerprints on the game’s most storied rivalry.
The Celtics won the ’08 series as Bryant’s Lakers were blasted off the parquet in Game 6, suffering a 39-point beatdown. Kobe won his fourth championship — and first without Shaq — the next season, beating the Orlando Magic.
So there was a lot of anticipation in 2010 when the teams met for a Finals rematch. Question after question was asked about what it would mean to Kobe to win a fifth championship by defeating the New Big Three Celtics of KG, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Kobe parried them all away. Pure Mamba Mentality.
Then the Lakers won a ragged Game 7 at Staples Center, and Bryant finally came clean, admitting how special it was to beat Boston.
“I was just lying to you guys,” Bryant said. “When you’re in the moment, you have to suppress that because if you get caught up in the hype of it all, you don’t really play your best basketball.
“But I mean, you guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series that the Lakers have played in. I mean, I was just a Laker nut, and I know every Celtics series. I know every statistic.
“It meant the world to me as well, but I couldn’t focus on that. I had to focus on playing.”
That was Kobe.
I think even Celtics fans grew to appreciate the lionized Laker’s unique approach to the game. Basketball wasn’t just a vocation for Bryant. It was an art form, an outlet for his genius, curiosity, and creativity.
He could do the impossible, such as getting Celtics fans at TD Garden to serenade a Laker with “MVP” chants in 2007, when he dropped 43 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the parquet, draining 7 of 9 threes.
In death, there is often a rush to canonize the deceased, airbrush away all their faults and sins. But we’re dealing with three-dimensional people, not the two-dimensional image featured on a poster. You can’t talk about Bryant’s life without mentioning the sexual assault allegation he faced.
He was accused of raping a 19-year-old Colorado hotel employee in 2003. He admitted to infidelity but denied the sexual assault. The charges were dropped in 2004 after the alleged victim declined to testify. Bryant apologized and later settled a civil lawsuit. It’s the most troubling chapter of Bryant’s public life, one that soured some people on him permanently.
Bryant’s life was public from the time he was 17. (He attended his senior prom with R&B singer Brandy.) Kobe was like basketball Elvis. He evolved into different versions, donned different looks (wearing No. 8 and No. 24), but he remained an icon.
There was precocious, reedy, teen Kobe desperate to make his mark. There was mini-Afro Kobe who teamed with Shaq to form one of the most dynamic and fractious partnerships in NBA history, one that produced three straight NBA titles and constant drama.
There was Jordanesque Kobe, a one-man show who won back-to-back scoring titles in 2006 and 2007, and then captured an MVP award and two more championships when the Lakers pilfered Pau Gasol. There was Jedi Kobe, a bald-headed, blunt doyen who became a beloved basketball ambassador.
That Kobe went out as only he could in his final game in 2016, taking 50 shots and scoring 60 points against the Utah Jazz. It was a literal and figurative mic drop, as he famously said, “Mamba, out,” after addressing the LA crowd following that quintessential Kobe performance.
Now, it’s Mamba, out, forever. And that feels so wrong. But, in life and death, Bryant followed his own script.