It was a sudden passing in every sense of the word. When I heard that Kobe Bryant had passed away in a helicopter crash, the words faded swiftly to the back of my mind. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to believe that a) he’d passed away and b) he’d passed away in a helicopter crash. Neither of those ideas made sense on a Sunday morning. On a Sunday morning after current Laker and Kobe admirer, LeBron James, had just surpassed Kobe on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. And who is Kobe Bryant? A player who many hail as the greatest of all time aside from Michael Jordan. It occurred to me that Kobe, the one and only Mamba, had left us too soon.
It always occurred to me that Kobe Bryant would be the greatest. A young athlete out of Philadelphia, PA who spoke seven different languages, including the Italian which he learned while living and playing basketball in Italy with his NBA father as a child. Kobe then entered the NBA straight out of high school. He was drafted 13th overall by the Hornets and was traded to the Lakers on the same night in that illustrious 1996 draft class which included Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, and others. From the beginning, Kobe was destined to be one of the greatest. He was hailed as the next Michael Jordan. It kind of made sense that he would be. 13th overall by the Hornets seemed too late a pick for the great Kobe as his NBA career took off. Perhaps, becoming the greatest was the goal for him. It certainly was more for him than others as he stood out amongst this pack of greats. His ability to stand out is what deemed him worthy of being the next Michael Jordan and he was.
Kobe Bryant played just like Michael Jordan, his idol. He shared the draft class spark with Jordan. Jordan was also drafted in a certain draft class; the 1984 draft class among greats Hakeem Olajuwan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. Also, there’s the team thing, which turned out to be the biggest thing for both athletes and their biggest similarity. Kobe led the Los Angeles Lakers and Michael Jordan, of course, the Chicago Bulls. Kobe led the Lakers to five championships, just one championship shy of M.J.’s record with the Bulls. He also led the Lakers in the all-time scoring list, which made him the greatest Laker of all time, even ahead of Laker greats Magic Johnson and Jerry West. These were huge accomplishments anyway, but for Kobe these were special because he was so young and fresh. The next big thing. The next M.J. In many ways, he was Michael Jordan’s clone, which made him more interesting. 6’6”, shooting guard, running, floating, spinning, shooting, acrobatic, clutch, and winning. Kobe played like a champion, and this helped him spearhead that next generation of stars.
One of my earliest and fondest recollections of Kobe’s greatness comes from his precedence over the others. Iverson aka The Answer was my favorite player growing up and my cousin’s favorite, whom I grew up with, was Kobe. My Kobe-loving cousin would argue that Kobe was better. I’d argue back that Iverson was really great. It took me a while to quite understand how great Kobe really was. Even though he’d beat out A.I. in the 2001 finals. Even though he had Shaq and other teammates that A.I. did not. Even though he understood he needed to practice and work hard and teammates to play the game. Even though he understood the game better than most and like none other. We played this Kobe debate with all of the players. It took all of this for me to realize that, and as we remember Kobe Bryant, I’ll never forget those days of arguing about Kobe or A.I. and finally coming to the realization that he was better than the others. A.I., Shaq, and all the others, Tracy, Vince, Yao, Steve, Jason, Paul, Ray, Dirk, and Tim. I understood Kobe as a player who wanted to play, but he wanted to play to win. I understood Kobe as a player who played for us to throw bawled up pieces of paper into trash cans and yell out his name. I understood Kobe as a player who played with that “Why do they say that about me?” look on his face and other anguish and power, as he played with a mini afro. I understood Kobe as a player who wanted you to answer that question as he cut the afro into a more mature haircut and changed his jersey number.
One of my latest recollections of Kobe’s greatness moves me to tears and to a point of finality. After the Bucks v.s. Lakers game in 2016 during Kobe’s retirement tour, I had the honor of standing in the same room as Kobe. The same hallway, as a matter of fact, as he greeted fans and bid farewell to the NBA in Milwaukee. I wasn’t yet the sports reporter I am now, but I spoke to Kobe and he spoke back. Kobe Bryant spoke to me. I couldn’t believe it. We spoke about being a fan of his growing up, my work, and he offered words of encouragement like only Kobe does. It was a moment I’ll never forget. The way he entered and exited the building that night felt special. Many a night we watched Kobe Bryant enter an arena and put on a show, and I was thrilled to be able to see this one in person and him deliver the same performance. I went home in total admiration and under the impression that we were truly in the presence of greatness.
I’ve long admired Kobe Bryant. The way that he made his infamous case about being a husband and adulterer instead of a rapist and racist as the media tried to portray. It was this moment anyway when my real admiration began. “I sit here in front of you guys for making a mistake of adultery,” Kobe said during a press conference. Post-rape case Kobe Bryant is a killer, on and off the court. An absolute unstoppable entity. A beast. A changed man. A Black Mamba. “Black Mamba” is what he called himself after that case because of his ability to alter egos and strike on the court at any given time just like a snake. Jokingly, I liked the “Black Mamba” better than Kobe Bryant. Kobe seemed bleak and one-sided, but the Black Mamba was multidimensional, unstoppable, and a fitting nickname for an unconventional basketball star. The Black Mamba was different. The Black Mamba was a legend. The Black Mamba could not be written into history or try to rewrite history. The Black Mamba was free. Free from the ghost of Michael Jordan. Free from Kobe Bryant. Free from all other opponents and obstacles.
After the Black Mamba, there was nothing. There were no more debates. There were no more picks. There was no more trying to be like Mike. There was no more trying to be the greatest. There was nothing left to prove except two more championships added on to his memorable three-peat, which he achieved consecutively in 2009 and 2010. There was nothing but a retirement tour during which he gave a memorable speech and declared, “Mamba Out.” Mamba was free. Mamba was out. The great Kobe Bryant had retired from basketball, both his jerseys retired, and he was searching for something to embark on post-retirement. He had.
Kobe, as always, had searched and found something to embark on during his retirement. He was busy doing the one thing which became his ultimate fate: taking care of his basketball-star daughter, Gianna Bryant, and coaching her youth basketball team. He was Kobe Bryant as we’d imagined him. An NBA Champion. A retired legend. A husband. A father. A mentor. A coach. Kobe Bryant in retirement was having a lot of fun. He’d opened The Mamba Sports Academy. He’d created Granity Studios, a space for stories to be told about sports. He’d written a short-film appropriately titled “Dear Basketball” and won an Oscar for it. He was an Oscar-winner and was embarking on becoming a book author.
The fans were having a lot of fun with Kobe Bryant in retirement. Kobe would show up to games hand-in-hand with Gianna and be greeted by players and the public alike. He would be seated front row at Lakers games. After that, he’d log onto Twitter and interact with his fanbase, which was wide especially on Twitter. Kobe highlights overtook the sports portion of Twitter. I often made fun of how overzealous the Kobe fan base was, which I was a part of. But Kobe Bryant was smart. He was as LeBron deems it “Bigger Than Basketball.” Kobe was basketball, and the fans, LeBron himself, and everyone knew it.
I imagine this was the feeling Kobe had before his final day and I imagine this is the feeling anyone should have before their final day. A feeling of love and appreciation for all their hard work and presence on this Earth. This is the feeling I had when the news broke, or at least the one I imagined and tried to have. Along with the shock and sadness, I tried to remember The Black Mamba, the great Kobe Bryant, and join in on the tributes on social media and around the world.
I tried to remember and my memory caught onto something deep. Kobe Bryant always took flight. Kobe always took chances. In the fateful event that a helicopter crashes on a Sunday morning, it’s best to remember that one always flew and one flew high. The Black Mamba can go and he can fly and will always be remembered, loved, respected, and admired.
Rest In Peace Kobe Bryant.