I wasn’t a Kobe Bryant fan. Not at all. In the first-ever NBA game I watched in 2008, he was the villain leading the Lakers against my Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, and the Celtics won. The next year, he handily defeated my new favorite team (and the one I have called my team since), the Orlando Magic, in five games in the Finals. The Lakers were always my least favorite team, even though my Magic played in an entirely different conference, and Kobe was reason number one. I couldn’t imagine myself wearing a Lakers jersey. To me, he was the NBA’s incarnation of Tom Brady: a player who won too much, who had questionable character, and that I loved to root against.
During his playing days, I rooted against him. Today, I miss him.
News broke midday Sunday that a 41-year-old Kobe Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and multiple other passengers, died in a helicopter crash in California.
I learned of the news only after hearing the reaction of other members of a group chat. When I saw the news, I thought it was a hoax, an inkling that was supported by the news’ source, TMZ. Then ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed Kobe’s passing, and I, along with not just the NBA community, not just the sports landscape, but the whole world, was left grappling with absolutely wrenching news.
Kobe meant so much to the game of basketball, no matter one’s rooting interest. He was a winner, taking three titles in a row with Shaquille O’Neal at his side and then two more of his own in the late 2000s. He was a scorer, demolishing the defense in almost any way imaginable and routinely showing up in the clutch. He was a warrior, building the “Mamba Mentality” brand that displayed his unparalleled devotion to the game. He was an all-time great.
That translated into the stands. Few athletes have ever been as universal as Kobe, who won over the hearts of fans across the globe and had countless wannabe Kobes shouting his name as they launched their own fadeaway imitations. Maybe even more impressively, he won over Los Angeles in his 20 seasons with the Lakers.
It was a life well-lived, but one far too short. Years after his career ended, Kobe won an Oscar for his short film “Dear Basketball”. I remember reading a profile about his aspirations as a storyteller across a variety of mediums — dimensions rarely seen from a professional athlete, let alone one as accomplished in one profession as Bryant was. It is incredible, and devastating, to imagine what could have been next, for him and for his daughter Gianna.
To see the impact of Kobe’s death on someone who knew him well was heartbreaking. Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who grew up playing with Kobe and coached him with Team USA, learned of Bryant’s death hours before tipoff of the Ohio State-Northwestern game and had to coach through an emotional 71-59 defeat. By the press conference, Collins was broken, saying that “to have something happen like this is not fair” and apologizing for not being able to speak amidst the tears. If anyone needed a hug in the world at that time, it had to be Collins. That’s what the loss of Kobe meant.
I haven’t comprehended it. Seeing the headlines doesn’t make me believe that Kobe is really gone. His loss crushed me, a fan who only watched him play a couple times live and had a specific rooting interest against him. To know that when people say “Kobe”, it will always be linked to this terrible accident, is tough to swallow. To know that he will never make his Hall of Fame speech is brutal. To know that his daughter will never be able to fulfill her potential as a basketball star is grievous.
He was as much a part of the fabric of the game as the rules themselves, and his is a legacy that will not fade away.