When Kobe Bryant retired, Magic Johnson called him the greatest Los Angeles Laker ever.
That is all you really need to know about Bryant’s basketball career. That Magic — the embodiment of Showtime, the man who sewed the Lakers into the fabric of Los Angeles — truly believed Bryant was the best to ever wear the forum blue and gold for a franchise that featured half of the 15 best players in NBA history is as high a compliment as a player can receive. But there is so much more to the legend of Kobe.
Tragically, we are grappling with his legacy now, as Bryant died in a helicopter crash at the age of 41, four years into a retirement that included an Academy Award and less than 24 hours after LeBron James passed him for third on the all-time scoring list. It is surreal to believe the man who often appeared immortal on the court — right up to the final game of his 20-year career — is gone. We are so used to seeing our basketball heroes grow old with us. Bill Russell presents the Finals MVP award named in his honor every year. Michael Jordan remains entrenched in the game as a team owner. The NBA is a family, and it lost one of its best.
We will remember all the nights Kobe rewrote basketball history: the 62 points he gave the Dallas Mavericks through three quarters in December 2005, the 81 points he unleashed on the Toronto Raptors a month later, the 61 he dropped in Madison Square Garden in February 2009 and the 60 he scored in his farewell outing.
Nobody will forget the five rings: the three straight he won alongside Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s and two more with Pau Gasol in 2009 and 2010 that were born from a maniacal pursuit of greatness. Kobe wanted to be Michael Jordan and came damn close. He was the best player in the world for a time and a champion who inspired a generation that wanted only to master the game as he did — the bridge to LeBron.
His legend is not pristine. Bryant’s obituary cannot be written without mention of his 2003 arrest on sexual assault charges in Eagle, Colorado. The case was ultimately dropped in September 2004, when his accuser refused to testify at the trial, but Bryant did reach a settlement in a civil lawsuit that followed and issued an apology, recognizing that the woman did not believe she consented to their encounter, as he believed she did. Bryant also apologized to his wife Vanessa in a press conference on national TV. It is part of his story.
We have since come to see Bryant as a father of four girls — Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri. He sat courtside with Gianna to watch James and the Lakers last month. They were regulars at WNBA games, too. Gianna, 13, a budding basketball prospect, was to inherit the Bryant basketball legacy. She reportedly died in the helicopter crash at her father’s side. They were en route to a travel basketball game at Kobe’s Mamba Sports Academy in Southern California. It is as unspeakable a tragedy as the NBA has ever witnessed.
Kobe left the game with a poem in The Players’ Tribune that became the basis for his Oscar-winning animated short. It included the line, “I’m ready to let you go. I want you to know now, so we both can savor every moment we have left together. The good and the bad. We have given each other all that we have.”
Above all, for better or worse, Bryant’s legend will live on through that Mamba Mentality, embodied by his unflinching reaction to a Matt Barnes ball-fake. Kobe’s unwillingness to accept anything less than maximum effort drove Shaq out of L.A. It ultimately claimed his basketball career, tearing his Achilles amid a taxing playoff chase in April 2013. He still shot the resulting free throws on one leg and wanted back in the game. We cannot separate the best of Kobe from the worst of Kobe. It is entangled together now in heartbreak.
“If you see me in a fight with a bear, prey [sic] for the bear,” Bryant wrote on Facebook in the wake of his Achilles injury, a legendary stream of consciousness that suddenly feels haunting in retrospect. “I’ve always loved that quote. That’s ‘mamba mentality’ we don’t quit, we don’t cower, we don’t run. We endure and conquer.”
Bryant was weeks from learning for certain he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. He was the youngest All-Star starter ever and the oldest to drop 60. In between, he was to L.A. sons what Magic was to their fathers. He was a proud father, too, survived by his wife and three daughters. His life had meaning and complexity, and he will be remembered forever. Kobe is a man for all time, taken too soon.
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