I thought it was a hoax. Or, more so, I hoped that it was a hoax. But as news reports and tweets streamed into my notification center with every passing minute, it became painfully clear that the impossible, horrifying, nightmare accident had actually occurred.
The man who had served as a hero for a generation, who many believed to be invincible, was gone at age 41. Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter Gianna (Gigi), along with seven others, including her teammates and their families, passed away in a private helicopter crash early this past Sunday.
It’s impossible to encapsulate the entirety of the tragedy in one fell swoop. Each detail that came as the story developed felt like someone was repeatedly punching my heart and stomach with brass knuckles.
The fact that the passengers were traveling to Gigi’s travel game, as they had done so many times. The numerous text messages and phone calls that Kobe sent out to current and former players before the flight. These included words of encouragement and congratulations to LeBron James for passing him for third-place on the all-time scoring list. No one would have ever guessed that this would be the last time that they would hear from the Los Angeles Lakers legend.
The impact of his death was felt immediately throughout the entire National Basketball Association (NBA). The news of the crash brought the league to a halt. Players and coaches were brought to tears when asked to react to the news before the game. By the way, it is an awfully bad idea to ask people to deal with their grief with cameras in their face.
Doc Rivers, head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, had little to say before their Sunday night matchup against the Orlando Magic.
“Looking at my young players and looking at how emotional they are. They didn’t even know him. It just tells you how far his reach was,” he said. “I’m sorry, I don’t have a lot to say. I just can’t. I have to go talk to a team before a game and tell them to play a game.”
This same level of emotional distress permeated through the hearts and minds of all the players, many of whom viewed Kobe as a mentor and as a basketball idol. Tears flowed from almost every person imaginable. As the games progressed throughout the day, teams and players took the chance to honor Bryant in the little ways that they could.
The Toronto Raptors and the San Antonio Spurs took back-to-back 24-second shot clock violations. The Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns did the same, while also adding an eight-second violation to the mix. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban announced that the franchise would be retiring the number 24. Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young, who was one of Gigi’s favorite players to watch, departed from his usual No. 11 jersey to don the No. 8 as a tribute to Kobe. Countless other players wrote messages of love for Bryant and his daughter onto their shoes.
In order to fully understand the reaction to Kobe’s death, it is necessary to recognize that he was the transcendent star for a generation of basketball fans. He was the first real atmospheric star to go from high school to the NBA.
His basketball acumen is what cemented him as a legend for an entire generation. Kobe possessed the perfect combination of otherworldly talent and an obsessive, borderline disturbed will to be the greatest basketball player to ever grace the court. He had an indomitable tunnel vision on the offensive side of the ball, which manifested itself in the form of a Jordan-like arsenal of unguardable turnaround jumpers and rim-rattling dunks. There was a determination and work ethic that was both revered and feared by many across the NBA and those within the Lakers organization, which turned itself into five legendary NBA titles.
The fearlessness that Kobe displayed throughout his career allowed the city of Los Angeles to latch onto him as he grew and changed over his 20 years of basketball. From his first game to his legendary final game, he produced miracle after miracle. Ask any Kobe fan which is their favorite iteration of the Philadelphia native and you will get a slew of different answers. Some might say Afro Kobe, who lived above the rim and spent games posterizing would-be defenders at will. Others attach to the No. 8 Kobe that wore those awful Adidas shoes. There are those who love the Mamba Mentality Kobe of the last half of his career. Nobody would say the Kobe that rapped, as we do not like to talk about that.
As Bryant’s life gets remembered and canonized, it’s impossible to gloss over the summer of 2003 and the sexual assault allegation that occurred during a trip to Colorado on which he was scheduled to have knee surgery. After a year of investigations, prosecutors dropped the case as the accuser refused to testify against him. A civil suit was settled between the parties privately, and the financial terms were never released. Soon after, he apologized to her in a public statement.
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” Bryant said. “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
To many, this incident made it borderline impossible to support Bryant. And that is understandable. It is undoubtedly a part of his story and his existence as a person. The fact that he was a basketball hero is not mutually exclusive with the fact that he was an example of how rape culture persists in society. It is a stain on his career and allows for many to argue that the positives of his legacy are now invalidated.
The loss of Kobe is all the more tragic due to the person he became after his retirement. He became the mentor that every young player clamored to work with. He advocated heavily for the Women’s National Basketball Association and the United States women’s national soccer team, highlighting the importance of women’s sports. He resolved his meaningless feuds in lieu of maturity. He even won an Oscar for his short film “Dear Basketball,” a testament to his willingness to conquer every field of life.
Maybe the worst loss is the loss of a devoted father and husband. It was clear that he relished the job of being a father to his four daughters, as well as being a coach to Gigi. He loved raising daughters as much as he loved basketball. He was a self-proclaimed “girl dad.”
I do not know if there is anything that can be said to rectify this tragedy. I am still sick to my stomach, unable to comprehend the fact that Kobe is gone. I’m heartbroken as a basketball fan, as we have someone whose career spanned my entire lifetime. I’m mourning the fact that his three daughters and wife lost their dad and husband. The only thing that there is left to do is to remember Kobe’s commitment to excellence in his sport, remember his passion for life and hold onto the memories he left behind. Mamba out.