He’s been gone a year, taken along with his teenaged daughter, Gianna, and seven others — friends, parents, teammates and the trusted pilot of the doomed helicopter — in an instant, and far, far too soon.
In death, Kobe Bryant looms as large as he did in life. Like any transcendent star dying young, Bryant will forever be beautiful and perfect in memory, his flaws fading, the appreciation for his gifts swelling.
But it’s foolish to suggest that the fatal accident that foggy Sunday morning in the hills outside the city where his presence was as magnetic as anything manufactured by Hollywood has brought about something good or something that wasn’t there for all to see during his massive life.
No. There is only loss.
Even after a 20-year career where Bryant won five championships and vaulted himself into the discussion as one of the NBA’s all-time greats, the 41-year-old seemed poised in retirement to author a second phase that was as meaningful as what he accomplished on the hardwood. There was his role as a parent to four daughters – Gianna being the second oldest and a precocious athletic talent in her own right. There was his role as an entrepreneur and storyteller. And there was his role as an advisor and confidant to some of the game’s emerging young stars and an example for all.
There was more to come, and since Bryant thought only in the biggest terms but also cared about the smallest detail, your imagination is the only limit when envisioning what it all would have looked like as the years and decades unfolded. Would Bryant be an NBA owner, commissioner or — with his international ties and recognition — the bridge that helped the league expand globally?
What would Bryant’s voice and conviction have meant to the NBA during the pandemic, or during the social unrest of last summer? As Gianna advanced in her career and Bryant helped lift it with his passion and knowledge, what would his support have meant to women’s basketball and women’s sports in general?
We’ll never know, is the sad answer.
But if Bryant is gone, his spirit remains as vibrant as ever. If anything, the suddenness of the tragedy brought what he stood for into a sharper focus. The number of NBA players who battled with Bryant in his prime dwindles every year, but Bryant’s influence has grown.
“He left a blueprint for how to be — not trying to be like him but being the best of yourself. Your own version,” said Raptors guard Norm Powell when I asked about Bryant’s impact on the current generation of players.
Powell is 27 and in his sixth season. His first year in the league was Bryant’s last. But he grew up in Southern California and studied everything Bryant did. He wears No. 24 in honour of him. He credited his breakout 2019–20 season in part to the mental approach Bryant imparted when Powell attended an off-season mini-camp — “Mamba Academy” — that Bryant hosted for a select group of players in the summer of 2019.
“Growing up as a player, we always talked about dancing beautiful in your own box. And that’s the focal point of trying to be the best that you can be [whatever the] circumstances that you’re in, whatever you're trying to achieve.
“Part of my ‘Understand the Grind’ [Powell’s own brand and mantra] is fuelled from that Mamba Mentality,” Powell continued. “[The anniversary of his death] is going to be a tough day. It’s going to be a weird feeling. Just tough. But I think he’s left a mark on basketball and off the court of inspiring people to go out and find their own passion, their own drive, and being the best while trying to pursue that. Doing everything you can to pursue excellence.”
Could there be a more powerful message? A better brand?
Bryant the person wasn’t without blemishes – in 2003 he was charged with felony sexual assault in Eagle, Colo. The case was dropped when the alleged victim chose not to testify, though Bryant subsequently apologized in a statement acknowledging that she didn’t view the encounter as consensual, and eventually reached a settlement in a civil suit.
And even as a player and the ultimate Laker idol there were shortcomings and imperfections: He fell out with teammates and coaches; he once demanded to be traded; and he could make life miserable for teammates he wanted traded.
But in the wake of his death, the retelling of his story has smoothed over the rough edges and offers a path forward for countless athletes and dreamers from all walks of life. Mamba Mentality — Bryant’s self-created brand and philosophy — is cited by everyone from business leaders to artists in reference to Bryant’s tunnel-visioned commitment to personal excellence. And the modern NBA, with its emphasis on year-round training and peak professionalism, perfectly embodies what Bryant stood for as a player.
With Bryant gone, his example has been more closely examined and studied than ever. Broader truths have emerged to an audience never more open to seeing them.
“I think that when he was still here with us and preaching Mamba Mentality, it was just kind of like a thing where people looked at it like, ‘Okay, this … Mamba Mentality means you’ve got to shoot it every time you touch it, and you’re the best player on the floor,’” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who grew up a Bryant fan even though he was raised in Rockford, Ill. — prime Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan territory. “[But] I’ve been a student of Kobe my entire life, and I think the biggest thing is I can almost see [which] guys had a love for Kobe ... and studied the way that he played — the way that he approached practice, the way he worked out his business. You can almost just see which guys kind of try to adapt some of that.
“I think that him passing in the way he did, it allowed people to look at him more so in a positive light than maybe he was looked at his entire career. Because I remember as a kid being a Kobe fan, it was tough. It was tough, man. Like I got in real arguments and fights and different things,” said VanVleet. “Kobe was not the most liked guy while he was still playing and still active, and then, towards the end, we got a great appreciation for him. But that’s probably the ... thing I’m (most) happy about is seeing people put him in a more positive light and focus on a lot of good things he’s done.”
Stanley Johnson grew up in Orange County outside Los Angeles and was an emerging force in California basketball as Bryant was playing out his late prime with the Lakers. He was raised on a steady diet of Bryant brilliance. The Lakers won their first title with Bryant in 2000, when Johnson was just a toddler, and their last with him in 2010, when Johnson was starting high school and about to reel off four straight state championships on his way to becoming one of the most accomplished players in California high school history. But it’s as a 24-year-old in his sixth season and carving out a niche as a low-volume, defence-first role player — the opposite of what Bryant represented on the floor in his career — that Bryant’s example has taken on its full meaning for him.
“Kobe means a lot to me — man to man, like outside of a basketball player. And in my opinion the work that Kobe has done and the model of citizen — even though as a person that has made mistakes before. But I think he's done enough in his career and outside of his career to be almost a logo figure for us as NBA players,” said Johnson. “Talking about what he did on the court; talking about his work ethic; talking about his commitment to basketball; talking about his commitment to an organization; talking about his commitment to being a father; commitment to having extended successful businesses; commitment to keep his name out of garbage outside the court, for the most part.
“He set an example that is more than enough for us to all reach for, and I really appreciate him. I really appreciate it, man.”
A year after his tragic passing, the sense of loss seems not even a fraction smaller, but the admiration for Bryant and all he stood for only grows.