Rest in peace to one of the greatest to ever pick up a basketball.
To some, he may have been just a basketball player, but to millions more, he was invincible-- a man who could hit two clutch free throws, limping on a torn Achilles, a man who could score 81 points in a single game, a man who, while being the best at it, showed us there was more to life than just basketball. Kobe Bryant was a hero.
Sure, I was undersized and never anything special, but it didn’t matter. When the bell rang and school was over, the first place I wanted to be was the basketball court. I wanted to reenact the moves I saw my hero, Kobe, make the night before on ESPN.
I’d have to heave the ball with all my strength just for it to reach the hoop from where Kobe hit the impeccable game-winner over Dwyane Wade in December of 2009, but when the ball finally went in, I felt like Kobe Bryant. I was shooting from the edge of a driveway in Charlestown, Rhode Island, but I felt like I was in front of thousands at the Staples Center. I could escape the stresses of middle school, the low self-esteem of my anxious 12-year-old self and, for just a moment, feel like I was invincible, because Kobe Bryant was invincible. Kobe Bryant was Super-Man.
This story is likely similar to millions of other kids who looked up to Kobe and found solace on the basketball court.
He was an assassin-- 33,643 career points, 18 all-star selections, five NBA championships, an MVP award and countless more accolades. He was one of the rare competitors who could strike absolute fear in his opponents. Regardless of the score, a lead was never safe if Kobe was on the court. Unparalleled balletic footwork, a brain that seemed designed for basketball, an unshakable love for the fourth quarter, it all made Kobe the most entertaining player to watch.
Moments like when Kobe scored 62 points in three quarters in a 112-90 route over the Dallas Mavericks in 2005 made fans fall in love with his game. Kobe sat out the fourth quarter, and, as legend goes, when offered a chance to go back in to reach 70, he told coach Brian Shaw, “Nah, I'll get it another time."
How about when he scored 60 points in his final game and gave life to the Staples Center, that of which it hadn't seen in years? Or when Matt Barnes pump-faked the ball into his face and Kobe didn't even flinch? The alley-oop to Shaq in Game 7 against the Trail Blazers in 2000? The countless game-winners, deep fadeaways, jawdropping dunks, are all ingrained in the memories of NBA fans whose lives were impacted by Kobe Bryant.
A loss like this forces us to stare in the face of our own mortality. How can he be gone? He was invincible.
Kobe may have been passed the prime of his playing days, but he was just entering the prime of life. With his wife Vanessa, he had four children-- Gianna, Natalia, Bianca, and their newborn Capri, who was only just born, in June 2019.
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Above all else, though, Kobe was a father. After taking a break from basketball post-retirement, he rekindled love with the game once again, vicariously through his daughter Gianna. The two could be seen attending NBA games across the country; he often tutored her from the sidelines in the art of the game. At his Mamba Sports Academy, he did the same for other young girls who found love for basketball.
For his short film, Dear Basketball, Kobe won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, setting up what could have been an illustrious second-act: “What I love is storytelling,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “I love the idea of creative content whether it’s mythology or animation, written or film, that can inspire people and give them something tangible they can use in their own lives.”
Tragically we will never get to see that second-act come to fruition. Kobe Bryant died yesterday, in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others. It's one of the most devastating losses in NBA history.
This is not the ending Kobe Bryant was supposed to get.