The first text came in that said “RIP Kobe.” It was to a basketball-oriented texting group, and I simply assumed he was referring to Lebron passing him in career points the night before.
I should be writing more about Sports on my website. I am not a fan of “Los Angeles,” but growing up in the Inland Empire in the 1980s we were in the LA television market and it was easy to fall for the Lakers, Raiders, Dodgers, Kings, and USC/UCLA football. I had many sports heroes. Magic Johnson. Orel Hershiser. Luc Robitaille. Bo Jackson single-handedly created my 30+ year toxic fan relationship with the Raiders. But I realize, the summit was Kobe Bryant.
After putting my phone down, I went back to my nap. Then I could hear my phone buzz four or five times in rapid succession. I deactivated my Twitter account, so I simply pulled up Google News. There it was. Stunned. Shocked. Sad. Impossible to process.
Over time, I narrowed my interests specifically to the Dodgers and Lakers. Baseball was the first sport I loved, but over time my mind and heart gravitated to basketball. It wasn’t that it was faster-paced. I actually enjoy the pace of a good baseball game. I was taken with the “game within the game.” I was attracted to the offensive and defensive strategies, and although the Showtime Lakers faded, I still stuck with the slow-paced version from the 1990s. At the time I was just a freshman in college, a high schooler from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania was drafted by the Hornets and traded immediately to the Lakers. I remember Jerry West, as revered a Laker as there is, assuring fans that this high schooler had the skills and DNA to become a truly great player. This was a time when being drafted out of high school was considered a novelty. Kevin Garnett was drafted the year before and had a fairly non-descript rookie year. It wasn’t clear that these guys were going to be superstars. But from having an NBA father and low-resolution video from high school, there was hope.
The texts began to come from people from all over the place. My friend James called me leaving Joshua Tree National Park to confirm the news. People were starting to hear that he had kids on board. It was then said online that it was his 13 year old daughter Gianna (Gigi). I have a daughter who is almost 10 years old. The thought of losing a daughter is just a stomach-punch. My Mother texted me because she knew I loved the Lakers. My grandmother, who is not a sports fan, was moved to tears when I told her about his daughter. We didn’t even know another family was on board as well.
I specifically remember a National TV game in Kobe’s second season against Michael Jordan’s Bulls, in the midst of their second three-peat. The Lakers kicked their ass and ran them off the court. Shaq was always a coverage problem for any defense, but adding a very active and athletic Kobe made them incredibly difficult to defend. You could take away one, but not both. It seemed the future. Kobe was voted an All-Star that year even though he came off the bench for his own team. Could they challenge the Bulls in the Finals now (1997)?
Kobe famously flew in a helicopter to games from his home in Newport Beach to downtown Los Angeles. Considering rush hour traffic in Los Angeles County is a 24-hour concern, this seemed brilliant. It was said he was flown to the top of a building, where he had people and a car waiting for him to take him to the Staples Center. For somebody who could afford it, it seemed brilliant.
The Lakers didn’t challenge the Bulls. The Sonics and Jazz had the right formula. Pick-and-roll the Lakers to death, because Shaq wouldn’t recover and they had no help defense (this was a time when illegal defense rules prevented a lot of the “help” defense that exists today). Kobe shot the 3 airballs against the Jazz. It was sad, infuriating, and I wondered why he was shooting anyway. I remember Todd Donahoe, from ABC 7, saying not to fret because he was a future superstar.
Early in 2019, on a work recognition trip to Oahu, my friend who was my guest suggested we get the island helicopter tour. We didn’t do it because it was a little out of budget. I was disappointed because I wanted some good aerial photographs of Oahu. Weeks later, a helicopter for a different company crashed. We would have been fine had we gone, but it was a reminder that all of humanity’s great machinery works and works until the one time it doesn’t.
The Lakers finally broke through with a 3-peat of their own. Each title was a little different. The 2000 Lakers (and Shaq) were completely dominant. I think the day Kobe became a superstar was Game 4 of the Finals. Shaq fouled out, and the Pacers were a big team. Kobe took over in overtime and closed the door shut on Indiana. At that point, there was no doubt. They overwhelmed the 76ers in 2001 after a medicore regular season and would have swept the playoffs for a single Allen Iverson vintage performance in Game 1. In 2002, the Nets had zero chance, and were swept.
One of the reasons I was such a big fan of Kobe was simple. He was a year younger than me. Many of the things people were saying about him early in his career (young, immature, etc.) were the same kind of things I was hearing. When he got to 30 years old and would complain about newfound aches and pains, I understood in real time exactly what he was talking about. He also showed a different side of himself being a parent to his daughters, yet another thing I totally related to.
After Shaq was traded, Kobe’s mid-career sat in the NBA wilderness. The team wasn’t good. They missed the playoffs the first year. After a surprising first half with Rudy Tomjanovich quitting on the team, the team imploded. They made it back to the playoffs with some extremely lean rosters, powered by Kobe’s top scoring seasons. They were breathtaking to behold. The “Smush Parker” years were not good, although it should be noted that Smush got the steal that allowed Kobe to beat Phoenix in the playoffs at the buzzer. The trade demand, and the almost-trade to Chicago was depressing. Then came a trade for Pau Gasol. The Lakers won championships 15 and 16 and suddenly were in sight of catching and surpassing the Celtics for most titles.
My friend Dave was staying at a hotel 2 blocks from the Staples Center. He is a Denver fan, and we’ve had plenty of Hot Takes and Shots Fired at both our sports team. Dave was kind enough to go down and sign my name to the memorial wall they set up. Dave, I can’t thank you enough man, thanks for that.
Kobe wasn’t an analytics wonder. His 22 foot contested jump-shots were amazing to behold but not statistically inclined. That he could make 40% of those shots was amazing. While modern basketball analytics doesn’t appreciate his game, in the context of a slower pace and less utilization of the 3-pointer, I believe he still added tremendous value.
Yes, he shot too much. Yes, he could have passed more (although he averaged nearly 5 assists per game). But man, he sure looked like he was kicking ass on the court.
I saw Kobe play twice. The first was the “Chris Childs” game when he got punched and ejected. Shaq took are of the Knicks. The second was a blowout of the Magic during Dwight Howard‘s rookie year. I didn’t see any “vintage” Kobe performances but he was always a constant, for 20 years, that you could count on. Until the day came that constant changed forever.
I had my moments of “Damn it, Kobe!” but then he would score 62 points on the Mavericks in 3 quarters and then top that with 81 points against the Raptors a few months later.
I remember telling my friend James that Kobe had 50, and he replied with a snarky “does he have 0 assists and they’re losing?” When I told him he had 50, and it was early in the 3rd quarter, he then said, “Okay, turning on the TV now.” Even the haters had to appreciate. Still, my favorite memory was him up to 77 points and gesturing angrily at Sasha Vujacic to pass him the ball. There was no calm Kobe.
One of the reasons we love athletes is that we want to imagine ourselves being so athletic, graceful, accomplished, and at the top of their field. That isn’t possible for almost all of us. And we often attach our hopes on their accomplishments. I was truly sad and depressed when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008. I was angry when I felt Kobe shot them out of the finals with the Pistons. I was exhilarated in the “6-24” game when he made the shot with less than a minute to go that left enough distance to beat Boston, just as Magic had done in 1987. I lived for moments that I was powerful to affect.
Kobe wasn’t perfect. He was at times a difficult teammate and hard to coach. He was stubborn. He built an image that always seemed calculated, and it was made worse when he went on trial in Colorado for what was alleged to be a horrible crime. He made his comeback, won his titles, retired in one of the more memorable (and ridiculous) final games one one’s career. He won the Oscar because he knew the right people. He was extremely corny, and he wasn’t the first athlete to do so. But what people didn’t seem to realize: he was in on the joke.
I reflected with a few friends on sports tragedies. The first to come to mind was Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash while helping deliver aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. But while Clemente was a superstar, he was rarely seen on television and wasn’t a singular superstar in the modern sense. Lou Gehrig was tragic as well, but his illness played out over time and was mainly read in the newspaper. People like Thurmon Munson and Roy Halladay were lost too early, but they were great players and not the single biggest name in baseball. Len Bias was shocking and sad, but we didn’t get to see him develop. Similarly, Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic were stars but we didn’t get to see them become superstars. As Bill Simmons said on his podcast tonight, this may be the saddest day in NBA history.
Deaths that are unexpected hold a place in our psyche. The average US male may live 76 years, but for every 90 year old, somebody has to pass before their time. I am so sorry to Kobe Bryant’s family, the families of the other people on board, to fans of the Lakers and the NBA, and I hope to spend a lot of time this week reflecting on my favorite player of all-time. I want to see his 81-point game a few more times. Please hug your loved ones, and tell your friends that you truly value and appreciate them. Take lots and lots of pictures with all of them. The next day is never guaranteed.
Rest in Peace, Kobe, Gianna, and the other 7 people on-board.
Note: Special thanks to friend David Harrell for visiting Lakers headquarters this evening on my behalf.