The tragedy of losing Kobe because he was trying to be the best dad

Editor’s note: This column was originally published Jan. 27, 2020, the day after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant.

Kobe Bryant died being a father. This isn’t a surprise, because being a father had long ago become the most important thing in his life, even more than lifting the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles and earning international fame.

On the court, he was renowned for his focus, for his drive, for his competitiveness. He inspired people inside and outside of sports with his ability to work not just harder, but smarter, in an effort to maximize himself as a player.

It wasn’t any different in his personal existence, where the birth of four daughters through the years made his life, no matter how grand it became, a life that was bigger than just his own.

It’s that way with most fathers, at least the ones who realize how a change in perspective can be the greatest gift of life. Kobe’s realization may not have been broadcast on national television each week, but it can be more inspiring than even the greatest of his buzzer-beating shots.

Kobe Bryant died Jan. 26 at age 41 in a helicopter accident. Eight others perished as well in the tragedy, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. They were headed to one of her basketball events. The two shared both a love of the game and the spirit of competition, so her father labeled her “Mambacita.” From the Mamba himself, that’s high praise.

Taking a helicopter anywhere, let alone to youth basketball, might seem excessive, something right out of the rich and famous Hollywood playbook. It wasn’t. Not with Kobe. It was born out of his desire to be the best father he could.

It began back in his playing days. Kobe and his wife, Vanessa, had a daughter, Tatiana, in 2003, followed by Gigi in 2006. They’ve had more since, Bianka in 2016 and Capri in 2019. Tatiana and Gigi, though, changed the way Kobe operated.

He and Vanessa set up in the Huntington Coast section of Huntington Beach — where Vanessa is from — rather than L.A. or Beverly Hills or anything on L.A.’s West Side. Because the Lakers play in downtown L.A. and train in El Segundo near the airport, those places might be more convenient for the job. Kobe wanted Huntington Beach. It felt like a family place.

“Great people there,” he often said.

Remembering Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna (Getty/AP Images)
Remembering Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna (Getty/AP Images)

The commute to games and/or practices could be brutal. It’s an hour each way if everything goes right. Two hours if it doesn’t. Rather than move closer to the city, he tried to find a way around it as frustrations grew at the time drain that driving was causing.

“Even on weekends … traffic got really bad,” Kobe said on Barstool Sports’ “The Corp” podcast in 2018. “And I’d miss a school play because I am sitting in traffic. And these things kept mounting. I had to figure out a way to still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time. So that’s when I started looking into helicopters.”

Billionaire Mark Cuban often says there is one thing his money can’t buy: time. Well, Kobe gave it a shot. By flying over the traffic, he found a way to embrace his duel passions: playing all-out for the Lakers while being the suburban dad of his dreams.

Suddenly he could get to the Lakers’ training facility in 15 minutes flat. He could perform his legendary workload and still act like a work-at-home dad.

“My routine was always the same,” Kobe said. “Weights early in the morning, kids to school, fly down, practice like crazy, do my extra work, media, everything I needed to do. Fly back, get back in carpool line and pick the kids up.”

Yes, that was Kobe Bryant in an Orange County elementary school pick-up line, just like any other mother or father. He didn’t just do it. He loved it.

This is, he would say, fatherhood. Not the big stuff. Not the glamorous stuff. The day-to-day stuff. The real stuff. The conversations that just happen. The perspective that can only be gained. The trust and love that is just built. Organically.

He didn’t want to miss out on any of it just because he happened to be the best basketball player in the world. He wanted it all.

“My wife was like, ‘Listen, I can pick them up,’” Kobe said. “And [I said], ‘No, no, no. I want to do that.’”

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston on March 2, 2019, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

If he could be with his daughters, he was going to be with his daughters.

“I have road trips and things like that where I don’t see the kids,” Kobe said. “So every time I get to see them and spend time with them, even if it’s 20 minutes in the car, I want that.”

Could they have driven to practice that was taking place north of L.A. on Jan. 26? Probably. It’s also probable that Kobe wanted to maximize his time on a Sunday with his wife and three other children. This was a hands-on dad. This is what the pride of his life had become.

Kobe still attended some Lakers games after he retired, but he wasn’t a constant presence. It wasn’t that he didn’t love being at the games. It’s that other things mattered more: family things, dad things, his kids’ things.

Basketball had given him so much, had given all the Bryants so much. After two decades, though, he wasn’t going to allow it to take anymore. When he’d go to the Staples Center and sit courtside, he was almost always accompanied by family.

His basketball priorities had morphed from dominating all comers to being a 40-something dad-coach on the youth basketball circuit, building up the confidence of young girls.

And so he got in that helicopter. It had always been safe. It had always been effective. It had always been part of being a father.

And it stands to reason if there is one thing Kobe Bryant most wanted to be known for, and to inspire in others, it wasn’t how to be the best basketball player.

It was how to be the best dad.

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