As a die-hard Pistons fan growing up, I can count on one hand how many games I rooted for Kobe Bryant to win. In my world, the Black Mamba was the ultimate villain. Yet yesterday, as the news broke, I found myself numb, teary-eyed and hooked to a Twitter feed that only served to remind me that I lived in a world without Kobe Bryant in it.
I don’t need to remind anyone the impact Kobe had on the game of basketball. He was much more than just his five NBA championships, two finals MVP awards or 17 All-Star appearances. Kobe Bryant was a cultural force. He could be found on the bedroom walls of millions of children across America. He was the proclamation of anyone shooting a turn-around jumper or a paper ball into a garbage can. He was the feeling of acing a test, finally landing that dream job or waking up a couple hours early to get started on your work because whatever goal you were chasing, you wanted it that badly. For a generation that never watched the 90’s Bulls, he was Mike.
This loss doesn’t bite because we lost Kobe the ball player. We lost that Kobe in 2016, when he dazzled the world one last time with a 60 point performance that reminded us why he captured our imagination in the first place. That loss, while sad, was softened by the fact that, as a basketball player, he had given us all he had.
But Kobe the man had so much more to give.
In retirement, the player who had been maligned in his early career as selfish, a “ballhog,” became a statesman of the game like very few have been able to do. Kobe remained connected to the game and the young players who idolized him, encouraging and challenging them to achieve their potential.
Players across all levels of the game, from bonafide veterans such as Demar Derozan and Kyrie Irving, to young budding stars such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic attested to his mentorship. The morning of his death, he had texted Shaquille O’Neal’s son Shareef, to make sure he was okay.
Perhaps his most important mentee was his daughter, Gianna. Kobe often said that 13-year-old aspiring WNBA player Gianna had been the one who rekindled his love for the game. He often boasted videos of his daughter’s exploits on social media and nicknamed her “Baby Mamba.” A week before his death, he was seen courtside at a Nets game alongside Gianna, breaking down the game for her. On January 26th, as Kobe’s helicopter went down, Gianna was among the nine on board.
One of our final images of Kobe Bryant wasn’t him slashing, scoring, or winning.
It was teaching, coaching, and parenting. pic.twitter.com/V3VfChPLAJ
— Mitch Fick (@MCFick) January 26, 2020
Kobe’s final tweet is perhaps the most emblematic of the man he had become. The day before his passing, Lebron James had passed him for third on the all-time NBA scorers list. A few hours later, Kobe, the ultimate competitor, tweeted and congratulated him for “moving the game forward.”
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
It’s fitting that our final glimpses of Kobe weren’t of him decimating defenses or celebrating accolades, but rather of him mentoring, parenting and being the finest exemplar of sportsmanship. And that’s the Kobe I want to keep with me, and the Kobe I want to become.
Make no mistake, every ball of paper shot into a trash can will still be preceded with “Kobe!” But every long night spent working, and selfless moment dedicated to family and loved ones will have a little Mamba in it too.