As a Los Angeles Lakers fan for more than 40 years, I’ve seen a lot of exciting moments, including 10 of the franchise’s 16 championships that were made possible by some of the greatest players basketball has ever seen.
Kobe Bryant was one of those greats, with a first name any basketball fan could instantly recognize along with the likes of “Wilt,” “Kareem,” “Magic,” “Bird,” or even the initials “M.J.” That’s why his tragic death in a helicopter crash earlier this week — along with his 13-year-old daughter and other passengers — is so hard to comprehend. Bryant was only in his fourth year of retirement following a spectacular 20-year career, all with the same team, and, at 41, seemingly had many more years of life ahead of him.
Nicknamed “The Black Mamba,” Bryant was a fierce competitor on the hardwood. Foregoing college to go directly into the NBA, Bryant’s Hall of Fame career saw him lead the Lakers to five championships and become the third-leading scorer in league history with more than 33,000 points — at least until current Laker LeBron James passed him the night before Bryant’s death.
Bryant had a will to win that sometimes left him at odds with teammates he felt weren’t playing up to his high standards. Even as a rookie, the spotlight was never too big, nor was the pressure of taking the big shot too great. As the son of a former NBA player in Joe “Jellybean” Bryant who later played professionally in Europe, Bryant’s experience of living abroad contributed to him having a maturity well beyond his years.
Like all humans, Bryant wasn’t perfect and certainly made news at times for the wrong reasons. However, he was able to overcome those setbacks through his hard work and laser-like focus on looking to the future rather than being stuck in the past.
After his playing career, Bryant became involved in filmmaking, receiving an Oscar nomination, and was busy coaching youth basketball. There was every indication that Bryant was going to be every bit as active and tenacious in his new life as he was during his NBA career.
In 2013, my son, Gavin, and I had the privilege of seeing Bryant in action in a game in Charlotte against the Bobcats. Bryant was in the latter years of his career, but he was still dangerous on the hardwood.
I’ll never forget seeing Bryant, after an uneventful first three quarters, take charge in the fourth quarter. That was when Bryant was seemingly at his best, taking the tough shots and putting the team on his back — the end result of which was a Lakers win. That February night nearly seven years ago was one I will always remember and cherish. Seeing the Lakers in person had been a longtime dream, but having the opportunity to see Bryant still showing the skills and heart that made him so great was incredible.
There are tragic news flashes that come across seemingly on a daily basis, and while they evoke reactions of sadness, we oftentimes tend to go back to our daily routines. Then there are news flashes, such as Bryant’s tragic death, that almost takes your breath away and leaves you with a sense of profound sadness.
I would certainly never compare the loss of an athlete or celebrity with the loss of a loved one. My firstborn child, Dawn, died on this date 30 years ago, and my mother, Laura, passed away in May 2018. I feel those losses each and every day, and like everyone else who experiences such losses, the pain never goes away. Anyone who lives long enough will go through similar losses and will understand the impact that is felt.
While Bryant will be especially missed by his family, he will also be missed by his former NBA teammates, opponents and fans like me. However, the moments he provided on the hardwood for 20 years — both through his enormous talent and especially his will to win — will live on in our memories forever.
Rest in peace, No. 24.