First of all, I’d like to send my condolences to Vanessa Bryant, the rest of Kobe and Gigi’s survived family, and all of the other family members of the seven passengers who suffered an untimely and devastating demise. Secondly, I’d like to apologize to all of our readers, consumers, fans, friends, and family members for taking so long to publish a piece about this depressing event. It still doesn’t feel real, and I honestly couldn’t tell you when it’s going to finally set in, but when it does, I pray that I’ll be able to have the same “one foot in front of the other” mentality that Kobe Bean Bryant instilled in me and the rest of his fans across the globe.
Kobe carried himself more like a politician than he did a basketball player, and if your politician of choice could speak five or six languages (Spanish, Italian, English, Croatian I honestly lost track at some point or another) then you’d be unbelievably impressed by them. Let alone a man who played basketball for a living. There were a lot of things that Kobe didn’t have to do. He didn’t have to wake up at 4 A.M. every morning and polish his game to the point of mastery. He didn’t have to shoot two free throws after rupturing his achilles. He didn’t have to extend the game of basketball from a staple to American culture, all the way to a global phenomenon that has broken not just cultural barriers, but human barriers.
That’s what ultimately makes this death so heartbreaking and magnitudinal; the fact that Kobe Bryant wasn’t just beloved in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and America. No, he was adored everywhere from Italy to Spain to Beijing. Any human basketball fan across the world could identify their fandom by saying the single name, “Kobe,” and it would inspire some sort of emotion or reaction in their peers. Whether you hated him, loved him, idolized him, envied him, or were downright maddened by the brilliance he displayed against your favorite team, you respected him. Respect is perhaps an understatement. We are obliged to respect all of our brothers and sisters across the world, and keep the golden rule at the center of our hearts and brains at all times. But Kobe demanded that we didn’t just respect him, he demanded we celebrated him and appreciated his legacy in real-time.
On a personal note, I’ve had a countless number of Kobe Bryant/Venomenon/Black Mamba memorabilia and merchandise since I started loving basketball at the ripe age of eight years old. Whether it be a black shirt with the photoshopped image of his face over Wilt Chamberlain’s holding up the “81” sheet instead of Wilt’s “100” sheet, the purple Nike Venomenon shirt, the "I FEEL LIKE KOBE" shirt that Kanye West wore and created for Bryants' final game (I hooped in at the gym on Sunday in honor of Mamba), the seven different pairs of Kobe sneakers I’ve grown up in and out of since middle school, the two pairs of Kobe shoes I'm rocking with now, the hard copy of the Kobe Doin’ Work DVD directed by Spike Lee, or the Mamba Mentality book that my best friend Sammy gifted me last Christmas, I’ve worn, watched, and read all of them with pride.
The very first Sportscenter highlight that I can remember being etched into my brain was on my 8th birthday on January 22nd, 2006, when Kobe dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors. Other highlights like J.J. Reddick coming off curl screens at Duke and LeBron posterizing the life out of helpless souls on the SC Top 10 countdown are intertwined in that early memory bank as well, but above all else, I remember the nearly six-minute clinic of bucket getting that Bean put on. As a young hooper, there was nothing more that I wanted than to be able to score like Kobe, and pass like LeBron. I vividly remember my dad telling me that if I ever wanted to be able to score a fraction as well as Kobe did, then I’d have to study his footwork more than anything else because I’d never be blessed with the pure athleticism that he was gifted with.
I would feel intensely guilty as both a basketball fan and a Kobe admirer if I didn’t take a moment to appreciate and celebrate his nearly unparalleled basketball skill. Kobe entered the league as a bouncy 18 year old from Philadelphia, and aged like fine wine throughout his 20 years in the NBA. He was supremely talented from the jump, but he was (and he’d admit this) incredibly raw as far as his fundamentals were concerned. He worked tirelessly day and night to develop a repertoire that made him, quite literally, unguardable. I say that with confidence because I remember a time in my life where he was the scariest player in the league by a wide margin when it came to putting the ball in the basket (yes, even including young Cleveland LeBron).
Kobe had the same assassin mentality in the post where he operated like a 6’6” Hakeem Olajuwan as he did on the perimeter where he was the closest thing basketball ever saw to Michael Jordan. He could create enough space to parallel park a Lamborghini with his jab step, and he could shoot over a skyscraper with his Nowtizki-esque fadeaway jumper. Few players (three, to be exact, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Karl Malone, and LeBron James) have ever been able to get as many buckets as Kobe.
But what separates Kobe from those other three players is that he may have been able to do it in the largest variety of ways. His versatility as a scorer was damning the moment he stepped on the floor. Defenders dreaded having to go against him, and he knew it, and he used that to his advantage. What I think will be one of the most memorable thinks about KB24 is that you could always count on the fact that he would out work you regardless of whether or not he was more talented than you.
One specific Kobe moment that may go unnoticed and may not have been on your timeline much the last couple of days is his performance against the Phoenix Suns in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. He had hit two or three shots from the exact same spot on the right wing prior to this one, with Grant Hill, a legitimately good wing defender at this point in time, draped all over him and suffocating his jump shot with quality contests, but when it came down to it, Hill and the Suns were absolutely helpless. There was nothing stopping Kobe from putting the rock in the hole on this night, and Alvin Gentry, the head coach of the Suns at the time, knew it better than anybody in the gym. He’d tried game planning against Kobe for years before this night, but he knew that there was literally nothing that could be done to stop the Mamba in situations like this one. Kobe, the fierce yet genius performer that he was, slapped Gentry on the butt after he hit the tough game-clinching dagger of a fadeaway and then did the Jason Terry jet dance down the floor.
Kobe and Gentry shared a healthy friendship with one another, and the coach's respect for the Mamba is best defined by a video of how he reacted to this otherworldly performance in a postgame press conference:
Before I end this piece, I’d just like to discuss the legacy, irremovable impression, and unforgettable influence that Kobe has left on the league. He’s inspired three different generations of players. There’s the generation of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul that he had the privilege to compete against while all of them were in their own respective primes. He’s also inspired the younger generation of players that’s taking the league by storm as we stand today: Giannis Antetokoumpo, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Demar Derozan, Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lilard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Then there’s the youngest generation that was as old as I am, or even younger than I was, when we grew up watching the league: Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns, Ja Morant, Ben Simmons, R.J. Barrett, and Zion Williamson. And those are only the professional male basketball players. Kobe also inspired several generations of women and always advocated for the WNBA as a legitimately respectable sister to the NBA (you’d admit your own idiocy and ignorance if you disagreed with him, considering just how gifted Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore and Candace Parker are). Then there’s also the amateur basketball players like the college and high school kids who’ve idolized him or despised him because of the way their parents felt about him, or maybe they formed their own opinions, the way Kobe would’ve wanted them to.