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Good morning. It’s a tough day to be a sports fan.
Kobe Bryant died yesterday. Those words just don’t sound right together. They won’t sound right for a long time. When someone’s been in the public eye, right at center court, for more than two decades, you don’t just expect them to vanish. And yet … it’s happened.
How do you even begin to make sense of something so sudden, so final? One of the greatest athletes in basketball history, one of the few stars who could go by a single name, gone in an accident, alongside eight others (including his daughter Gianna) in a routine flight? It doesn’t seem right or fair. How do you explain it?
You could focus on Kobe’s contribution to the game of basketball: five championship rings, 18 All-Star appearances, innumerable clutch shots and big-game moments. Two-time Finals MVP, one NBA MVP, two Olympic gold medals, a Wikipedia page that stretches the length of a court.
You could pick out individual games. There was the time he missed multiple shots against the Utah Jazz in a decisive 1997 playoff game, shots only the then-18-year-old Bryant had the guts to take. Or the time he poured in 81 points against the Raptors in 2006, most coming from distance. Or the final night of his playing career, when, on legs that were little more than graham crackers and old chewing gum, he rose up one last time to score an astounding 60 points.
You could look at the way he’s inspired future generations — more than 14,000 kids have been named Kobe in the last 20 years, and the first waves of those young Kobes are just now starting to make their way to college.
You could focus on Bryant’s 2003 Colorado sexual assault allegation and infidelity, as many remembrances will. It’s a story not just of deep personal failings, but of the way money and celebrity can wash away sins. That’s part of Bryant’s story, too.
You could consider the magnitude of what Kobe will never get another chance to do. He’d already won an Oscar for best animated short film, and he was in the process of expanding into arenas far beyond the basketball court. The father of four daughters, he was a strong advocate for women’s basketball, and his presence alone would have vaulted the sport’s prestige to another level.
Or you could feel the loss in simple human terms — the fact that this tragic accident leaves families devastated, daughters without a father, and millions of fans heartbroken; the fact that 41 is just too young for anyone to leave this earth.
You’ll hear a lot about Kobe over the next few days. TV and websites will replay his greatest moments. Pundits will ease their own pain by debating Kobe’s spot in basketball’s Olympus, as if ranking Kobe somewhere between Magic and MJ will make all of this any easier. Journalists will recount their recollections of covering him, and sports-talk radio will crassly rank this tragedy amongst other sudden, inexplicable sports losses. Some commentators will focus on his missteps and his failings, others will ignore them, still others will try to size up the complexity of a man who always seemed much more than just a basketball player.
For me, what defined Kobe was his vast, indomitable will. No player in basketball history — not Jordan, not Bird, nobody — had a stronger will than Kobe. Consider: the guy was the greatest high school player in the country, and he still worked like a madman every single day to make himself better. He’d rise at 4:30 in the morning; he'd train for six hours a day, six days a week; he’d shoot jump shots until he’d made — not taken, made — a thousand.
Jordan wanted to beat everyone he encountered. Bryant wanted to be the best version of himself, knowing that at his best, nobody could touch him.
Kobe was hell on teammates, from a rookie loafing in practice all the way up to Hall of Famers like Shaquille O’Neal. Phil Jackson once famously called him “uncoachable.” Those are facts. What’s also a fact is that Kobe was an alpha dog who was intensely hard on everyone — but he was always hardest on himself. The disappointment in his own failing body was evident in his retirement message, “Dear Basketball,” published in The Players’ Tribune in 2015:
“My heart can take the pounding / My mind can handle the grind / But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
Man, it’s tough to say goodbye to Kobe. This will take a long time to sink in.
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