Kobe Bryant is now and forever the NBA's Godfather

This is Kobe Bean Bryant’s NBA.

The way Kobe came up watching Michael Jordan dominate the league, studying his game and attempting to recreate it on the court, is the way the current crop of young stars grew up emulating him. From Trae Young, to Devin Booker, to Jayson Tatum — they’re all Kobe guys. His influence is palpable. His fingerprint is inescapable. This is the most skilled basketball we’ve ever seen, and Kobe’s impact is everywhere.

The wide-eyed, overconfident, 17-year-old who hadn’t fully yet grown into his body or his potential, but yet exuded a sense of purpose and determination that belied his young age evolved into a five-time champ and all-time great. Kobe, who always made it blatantly clear that he worshipped at the altar of MJ, left the game as a deity himself with a legion of his own disciples.

He’s the Godfather of today’s NBA. And now he’s gone.

To be the best player of an era, you must be superhuman. Generally, the super power is physical, winning the genetic lottery is almost a minimum requirement.

Kobe Bryant puts his hand over his heart and grins as he leaves the court in his final regular-season NBA game in Boston on Dec. 30, 2015.
Kobe Bryant's influence on today's NBA is everywhere, and even though he's gone, the players he inspired carry on his legacy. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Magic Johnson was a 6-foot-9 point guard with eyes behind his head. Michael Jordan occupied air space we had never witnessed before. LeBron James is a LeBron James.

Kobe’s the anomaly among the anomalies. His athleticism was definitely special, but his super power wasn’t based on his physical ability. He was the best because there had never been a player more obsessed with the game than him.

He worked out six hours a day, six days a week for six months a year. He studied the way great white sharks hunt seals in order to be a better defender. He went to extents nobody else has gone to before in his pursuit of greatness.

Kobe wasn’t just a basketball player, he was a mad scientist who happened to play basketball. He lived in the details. His approach to the game was his super power. He gave everything to it.

I imagined he would struggle in retirement. What does someone who was so consumed by their craft do when it’s time to let it go? I was wrong.

He transitioned from a fierce competitor to his new role as an ambassador, as the Godfather, smoothly. Whether you’re Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving or Sabrina Ionescu, if you needed help with your game, you could send out the bat signal and Kobe would appear.

Not only did he study the game like no one before him, he was more accessible and willing to share what he’d learned more than any ambassador before him. I thought it would be hard for Kobe to let the game go — the game he gave everything to. But he didn’t have to let it go. He just found a different way to give. And he gave everything he could on all levels, whether it was an NBA superstar or his daughter, Gigi.

When talking about his legacy, Kobe stated, “I’ve always said that I wanted to be remembered as a player that didn’t waste a moment — didn’t waste a day.”

Kobe’s 81-point game is the best example of his skill set, but if I wanted to choose a game that defined him the most, it would be his last.

Kobe Bryant walks off the court surrounded by fans and photographers after his last NBA game before retiring on April 13, 2016.
Kobe Bryant's final game in 2016 might have been the epitome of what it meant to be Kobe. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

I rooted against him almost the entirety of his career. When he and Shaq beefed, I sided with Shaq. When we argued whether he or Tracy McGrady was next to sit on the throne, I sided with Tracy. When LeBron began to ascend, I was a LeBron guy.

I wasn’t a Kobe fan, but I cried like a baby that night. He hit that 3-pointer to put them within one, immediately after a timeout was called, and you could see Kobe on the bench tired, heaving for air. I smirked, then broke down, tears dripping into a bucket of hot wings, with my homegirl sitting next to me blatantly confused.

Kobe Bryant wasn’t the 17-year-old we saw come into the league anymore, he was well past his prime. But he was still Kobe Bryant. And this was the only way he was leaving the game. Huffing and puffing, going for 60 points off 50 shots, leading his team to a win, giving everything he had to give. Not wasting a moment. Not wasting a day.

The Godfather is gone. What does that mean? How do we fill the black hole he’s left in the space he once occupied?

I’ve struggled with this question. The thought alone has brought me to tears, even while writing this. And I don’t think we can fill that hole, but also I don’t think we have to because when watching the NBA, his influence is everywhere in this era of skilled basketball.

Kobe spoke often about how “Gladiator” was one of his favorite movies. There’s a scene before a battle where Maximus tells his soldiers, “What we do now echoes in eternity.” The wide-eyed 17-year-old we were introduced to in 1996 left it all in the arena by the time he walked away as an accomplished 37-year-old in 2016.

What Kobe accomplished and brought to the game will indeed echo through eternity. And the bittersweet mixture of sorrow caused by his absence and appreciation of everything he shared with us will linger for just as long, as well.

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