40 days after I was born in Houston, Texas, Kobe Bean Bryant was born in Philadelphia, PA.
Like Bryant, I grew up in a basketball family. Like Bryant, I would grow to be 6’6” tall. Like Bryant, I would enter school a bit early and be amongst the younger people in my graduating class. Like Bryant, I would graduate high school in 1996.
That’s basically where the similarities between Kobe Bryant and myself end. Kobe was the top overall player in our high school class, a first round pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, an All NBA player, All Star, MVP, 5-time NBA champion, and a certain Hall of Famer. He led the league in scoring, and was the heir apparent to Michael Jordan’s once MJ stepped away. Kobe was the NBA for a lot of years, captivating minds and spirits across the world. He was a legend.
Was is the operative word in the last sentence, unfortunately. By now you’ve seen the news, Bryant, and eight others including his 13 year old daughter, died in a helicopter crash traveling to a grassroots basketball game.
Because I was the same age as Bryant, I never idolized him. I was an MJ guy growing up, and he was the GOAT for my generation. Bryant was my generation, and spent his career chasing Jordan, something only a handful could attempt, and Kobe was atop the list.
Bryant dominated the league when I was getting into coaching and not paying as close attention as I did when I was younger, or even do now. Instead of watching him every night, I was in charge of bunch of high school players who, after practice, would be messing around getting up a few shots and shouting “KOBE” with each fadeaway jumper. This habit traveled well beyond Roberts Gymnasium and Webster Groves High School.
But I always tracked Kobe because he was me, if I’d have been born from a 1st round NBA draft pick who married the sister of another NBA player, grew up in Italy and had the mental makeup of an assassin. That’t not me at all, but you get what I mean. I felt a kinship or closeness with the career path of Bryant because of our age similarity. Every time he’d win an NBA title or League MVP, I’d check my bank account and remember the differences.
Maybe it was Bryant’s off the court issues that kept me from really becoming the fan many did. It’s always been difficult for me to resolve people who seemingly get away with sexual assault. But Bryant was always one of the smartest guys in the room, and he learned from his experience and came out better. He worked with GLAAD, donated his time to charities and became a better person for it. Those steps were the kind Bryant took throughout his life, and it’s an admirable trait.
We’re never who we were. Life happens, it gets in the way and kicks you around sometimes. The best you can do and hope for is to take your lumps and come out better on the other side. This is how I view the life and career of Kobe Bryant.
Bryant is being remembered now for what he accomplished on the floor, and the person he worked to become off it. My favorite celebrations of his life were of him talking about his kids, being a father, and what that meant to him. Few people gain the real wisdom to be able to view their legacy and truly be at peace with it. Most players struggle to adapt to life off the court. Jordan couldn’t get away from it. The competitiveness has driven him into the ownership box and a controlling stake in the Charlotte Hornets. But Bryant was always wired a little different. He poured himself into the game until it was time to hang it up. Then he walked away and began the next chapter.
But before he hung it up, like only Kobe was capable of, he put up 60 points on 50 shots. No other Laker had more than 10 shots, it was clearly going to be Kobe’s night, and he left every last ounce he had on the floor before taking his shoes off one last time.
The tragedy in this is he imparted his will and competitive spirit into his daughters, and Gianna Maria most of all. She became the little Kobe, and it drew him back into the game. He wanted to be a part of her life and her journey and began coaching her team. Her drive, her spirit, her will to be the best basketball player she could be is what put him and her, and the others, on a helicopter yesterday.
I feel like we’re never equipped for the loss of greatness. Whether it’s David Bowie or Prince, Anthony Bourdain or Heath Ledger, the great ones hit us the hardest. The thing about Kobe, he still had a lot to accomplish. His film “Dear Basketball” won an Oscar. He worked to raise awareness and was a vocal supporter of the WNBA. He worked hard with his group of 13 and Under girls team, aptly named Mamba Team. Kobe Bryant left it all too soon.
Kobe was so much more than an athlete, he was a family man. That was what we had most in common. I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his. His baby girl Gigi was born on the same day as my youngest daughter Me’Arah. pic.twitter.com/BHBPN5Wq8V— SHAQ (@SHAQ) January 26, 2020
This is the stuff I think about when I think about Kobe Bryant on a basketball court.— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) January 27, 2020
Hitting two free throws with a torn Achilles in a regular season game because his team was down a bucket and they needed him.
Lakers won by two. Talents like this stay with us forever. pic.twitter.com/jH3hUzE8af
This video of Kobe talking about his daughter Gianna has me in tears pic.twitter.com/w4hm96tXBQ— nina | sofia wylie enthusist! (@softlybassett) January 26, 2020
He was so proud of that girl.pic.twitter.com/lChIspFtTl— Roy White III (@RDubThree) January 26, 2020
This was on Saturday night:
LeBron reflects on his favorite Kobe memories and the impact the Mamba has had on his life pic.twitter.com/UDBYdttSli— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 26, 2020
I feel a sense of foreboding the way you know something bad is about to happen when that good character on a TV show or movie finally has a sense of peace. Kobe had so much good happening in his life. We obviously can’t see fully behind the curtain, but watching Kobe from afar, he seemed as happy and peaceful as I’ve ever seen him. Tragic.
Rest in peace, Kobe Bryant. Rest In Peace, Gianna Maria Bryant. And rest in peace to the others who died with them.