One of the most remarkable athletes of our time died in the most relatable way imaginable.
It was Sunday morning and Kobe Bryant was going to his daughter’s basketball game.
In that moment he was like any other parent, accompanying their child to something they loved and shared – excited, maybe a little nervous or anxious. There are few better feelings.
But they never made the game, as everyone knows.
And the sports world is left to mourn an original – a competitor and a showman who was cooler than Hollywood and real as a heart attack.
Bryant was image conscious – how many public figures can give themselves their own savage-sounding nickname, make it stick, develop it into a brand and a hashtag and then go out and live up to it?
Not many. But when you break into the best basketball league in the world as an 18-year-old and bow out 20 years later as a five-time champion, 18-time all-star, the fourth all-time leading scorer and possibly the most revered player for generations, you can call yourself whatever you want.
Mamba it is.
Bryant’s on-court legacy is unassailable. He was awesome, and debating how awesome he was is an exercise in splitting hairs that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Was he the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all time, or was it Magic Johnson? Was Bryant one of the top-five players in NBA history, as so many will argue so passionately, or maybe – as I have argued in the past – somewhere between 10 and 20?
He broke into the league as an athletic colt that could barely be reined in – he was 18 when he shot four air-balls in the fourth quarter and overtime of an elimination game, but was a master technician by the time his career was over.
He was neither shy nor scared. Ever.
Over the years he added layer upon layer of skill and wisdom that, when combined with his six-foot-six frame and world-class athleticism, made him one of the most lethal scorers ever. And he was 12 times all-defence to boot.
He wasn’t perfect. He was stubborn and bordered on selfish at times. His brand of ‘hero ball’ was proven – as analytics become more mainstream – to be an uncertain path to the best basketball outcome.
But no one has ever questioned why Bryant played the way he did: He wanted to win. And more than almost anyone else, he did.
His fellow professionals understood what it took to play at the level he did for as long as he did, and that, combined with his willingness to share his knowledge, made him a walking legend among his peers.
That’s what matters.
But, as the reaction to news of his shocking death in a helicopter crash in the foothills of north of Los Angeles shows, Bryant means more than anything that can be captured by record books or even highlights. Basketball was just the vehicle for a broader message.
He created a mythology around himself that transcends basketball, or even sports.
Consider this excerpt from his best-selling book, Mamba Mentality:
“I liked challenging people and making them uncomfortable. That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement. You could say I dared people to be their best selves.
“That approach never wavered. What I did adjust, though, was how I varied my approach from player to player. I still challenged everyone and made them uncomfortable, I just did it in a way that was tailored to them. To learn what would work and for who, I started doing homework and watched how they behaved. I learned their histories and listened to what their goals were. I learned what made them feel secure and where their greatest doubts lay. Once I understood them, I could help bring the best out of them by touching the right nerve at the right time.”
Bryant’s magic was creating the convincing illusion that things can be willed into existence, that we can control our destiny and that he could create your destiny, too.
It’s an alluring concept, if unreliable. A single-minded focus and the commitment to make any sacrifice required to reach a goal is one of those things that proves itself because few great things have been achieved without going all-in.
The flip side is going all-in doesn’t guarantee great things, and more than a few young NBA players have had to learn that trying to play Bryant’s style with half his talent is a recipe for a short career.
Bryant himself enjoyed some of his most dominant statistical seasons in the years between the championship three-peat he earned when he teamed up with Shaquille O’Neal and the back-to-back titles he won when Pau Gasol was his Lakers co-star. For example, from 2004-05 to 2006-07 Bryant averaged 31.8 points per game – it was in this stretch that he famously dropped 81 on the Toronto Raptors – but the Lakers managed just about 40 wins a season.
And Bryant’s willfulness got him into trouble. He clashed with O’Neal, prematurely undoing one of the most potent partnerships in sports long ahead of its best-before date. He clashed with head coach Phil Jackson early in his career, with Jackson writing in his book Last Season “he couldn’t coach him anymore” – although, they would later reconcile.
Off the court, he allegedly forced himself on a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colo. He was charged with sexual assault. The charges were eventually dropped and a civil suit was settled out of court, but a negotiated apology letter by Bryant read, in part: “I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident, I want to apologize to her for my behaviour that night. … Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual I recognize now that she did not believe this encounter between us was consensual. … I now understand how she sincerely feels that she did not consent.”
But as the memories of Colorado faded and Bryant’s on-court accomplishments mounted, it was hard not to see something bigger taking shape than merely a basketball career.
When the NBA All-Star game was in Toronto in 2016 he was the keynote speaker at the annual technology summit. He turned out in a blazer and dark turtleneck, looking every inch a Silicon Valley mogul. It was there he wowed a conference hall full of businessmen and entrepreneurs. The message: He was just getting started.
He had left everything he had on the basketball court. At age 34, and playing his 78th game of the 2012-13 season, Bryant tore his Achilles tendon and then knocked down two free throws to tie a must-win game. Season-ending injuries to his knee and his shoulder followed the next two years and still Bryant refused to leave on anything but his own terms.
At age 37, in 2015-16, Bryant suited up for 66 games and was mostly a shadow of himself, but fans in arenas around the NBA got to celebrate him one last time. And if they didn’t get there in person, he had a documentary crew following him to preserve the moment. In the final game of his career he scored 60 points while taking a career-high 50 shots.
His Hollywood endings were just beginning, and as with his playing days, little was left to chance. His first project was an animated short film, Dear Basketball, an adaptation of the poem of the same title he wrote for the Players’ Tribune announcing his retirement. Bryant teamed with legendary Disney artist Glen Keane and John Williams, an Academy Award-winning composer. Not surprisingly the Hollywood rookie won an Oscar.
As his two older daughters got old enough to pick up sports (his younger girls are three years old and seven months, respectively) Bryant became the doting, if outsized, sports dad. His older daughter, Natalia, played volleyball and Bryant would attend her tournaments, security in tow, trying to keep a low profile as scores of teenaged girls and their parents would casually wander over to confirm for themselves: ‘Yep, that’s Kobe Bryant.’
His daughter Gianna chose basketball and Bryant founded and coached a travel team – Team Mamba.
And while any parent who has had kids in competitive sports has at times wished they could make it better, most limit themselves to volunteering. Bryant, however, had the resources to actually do something about it.
Just over a year ago he announced the opening of the Mamba Sports Academy, a 100,000 square-foot facility with five basketball courts, five volleyball courts, a soccer field and the rest.
“MAMBA Sports Academy is a natural expansion of my commitment to educating and empowering the next generation of kids through sports,” a press release about Bryant’s academy read.
This weekend, there was a big tournament, the Mamba Cup.
As the father of four daughters, Bryant made a point of recognizing female athletes, becoming a regular at WNBA games, supporting the NCAA Women’s tournament and expressing his support and admiration for U.S. Women’s soccer.
His creative energies centred around sports and youth. Be it his Wizenard reading series – kind of a Harry Potter for hoops – or his podcast, The Punies, or other film and TV projects.
As Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, said, Bryant was “just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act.”
We won’t get to see it.
Bryant, 41, defied real-life parallels in almost every way. His own self-belief, combined with his talent and presence, gave him a superhero-type vibe, with ‘Black Mamba’ as his alter ego.
It wasn’t crazy. Even among the genetic rarities that populate the NBA, the six-foot-six Bryant stood out. He was faster, stronger and quicker than most, but was still willing to work harder than the most desperate journeyman. On the floor he was a gifted try-hard. Off the court he could glide with presidents and slide into perfect Italian. He overcame adversity – some self-made – and came out stronger.
For all that, he was a star. Forever incandescent.
But in his final moments, he was like so many of us: A father, looking forward to a day with his daughter and her friends, and undoubtedly hoping to get home to enjoy a Sunday evening with his wife and three other girls.
In the end, Mamba was mortal. And the sports world will struggle to make sense of that.