I was enjoying a relaxed Sunday afternoon, eating and laughing with family, when my phone suddenly began buzzing. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to see a text from a close friend.
“Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash.”
“Come on, man. That’s not cool. No way that’s true, gotta be a hoax.”
“I’m serious bro. Turn on the news….”
Then, an onslaught of incoming texts lit my phone up like a Christmas tree, all relaying the same message. A quick glance at social media fueled more worries, as it always does. I still didn’t want to believe it. When we turned on the television, and my fears were confirmed.
It was one of those moments that stop you dead in your tracks.
On January 26th 2020, our world changed forever. Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people.
Those are words I never thought I’d type, and this is a piece that I never thought I’d have to write.
After hearing the news, I couldn’t digest it. I couldn’t process it. I was in denial for hours. Later that evening, when I had a chance to reflect, a flood of emotions hit me all at once, and I completely broke down.
As I sit here typing through tears, I don’t even know how to begin this or what to even say.
Nothing I’m capable of writing would ever be enough to express the impact that Kobe Bryant had on my life, or the world in general.
Like so many others, I’m mourning.
I’m mourning the loss of an inspiration. I’m mourning the loss of an icon. I’m mourning the loss of my hero.
I know the grief I feel is nothing compared to what the Bryant family is feeling right now, or the families of those who perished. I can’t even begin to fathom what they are going through.
My heart physically hurts for them. What they’re experiencing is something that I can’t speak to. Thank God. I believe losing a child or a spouse is the worst thing a person could experience in life. No parent should ever have to bury a child. Just indescribable and unimaginable pain.
Unfortunately, living a life without experiencing tragedy or grief is impossible. After that helicopter crash, our nation, divided as ever, came together unified in grief. Kobe’s death has impacted us all.
Like many of you, I’ve struggled to get my feet under me.
Kobe’s death seems to hurt more for us 30-somethings. He was an icon of our generation. Kobe came into the NBA at only 18 years of age. He grew up right before our eyes. We watched Kobe grow from a cocky, stubborn, talented teen-aged prodigy to a composed, poised, and seasoned veteran and father. We watched him grow and evolve, and we grew up and evolved alongside him.
Kobe Bryant was more than my favorite basketball player. Kobe was my hero, my idol.
I wanted to get this piece out sooner but, to be honest, every time I sat down to write, I just couldn’t get through it. Writing is always therapeutic for me. But the emotions that come with writing about the death of my hero have been as sharp as they are heavy.
This is a type of pain I’ve felt very few times in my life. The same type of pain that comes with losing a family member or a close friend. But, I had never personally met Kobe Bryant, and I struggled to figure out why I was grieving so deeply for a person whom I had never even met. At first, I tried to suppress these emotions instead of letting myself feel them.
I didn’t even know Kobe Bryant, why am I taking this so hard?
After posing this question to my wife, she hit me with a direct and blunt answer, as she always does. “But you did know him.”, and she was right.
I think it’s okay to be affected by someone’s passing whether you personally knew them or not. Grief is compassion in its truest form. We grieve with Kobe’s family. We grieve with the families who lost loved ones in that horrific accident. We keep them in our thoughts and prayers, we walk with them in their suffering.
It’s human nature to want to avoid tragedy and grief, these are things you never want to experience, emotions you never want to feel. For me, the best way to process these emotions is to acknowledge them. Give voice to them.
Writing is my voice.
I could regurgitate what every other writer, columnist, or click-thirsty blogger has written about Kobe, many of whom didn’t even pay attention to him when he was alive. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to get personal, because Kobe had a personal and profound effect on my life.
I’m not writing for views, clicks, or likes. I’m writing for closure. I’m writing for perspective. I’m writing for those who thought Kobe Bryant was just a basketball player. I’m writing to pay my respects to my favorite player, my hero, and my mentor.
I’m writing a personal tribute to a legend.
My fandom can be traced back to my roots, and I have deep-seated Laker roots.
A Laker for Life
I was born during the Showtime era in the 80’s. My father was one of the biggest Laker fans on the planet. Naturally, the Lakers became my team too. By the age of three, I could name the starting 5.
The Showtime Lakers: Magic, Kareem, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, among others. They were something special. But all good things must come to an end. As the 80’s drew to a close, so did the Showtime era.
The Lakers of the early to mid 90’s were more forgettable than memorable, but I remained steadfast in my loyalty to the Los Angeles Lakers.
All of a sudden, this scrawny kid shows up straight out of high school, hyped as the future of the franchise. He was supposed to save Laker nation from the clutches of mediocrity.
And boy did he ever.
In just his fourth season, he brought the storied Lakers franchise their first championship since the Showtime era.
He went on to win four more championships during his legendary career. Here are just a few things Kobe Bryant accomplished in his 20 NBA seasons:
- 5 NBA Championships
- 2 NBA Finals MVPs
- 2008 NBA MVP
- 18 NBA All-Star Game appearances
- 4 time NBA All-Star Game MVP
- 2 time NBA scoring champion
- 11 All-NBA First Team selections
Kobe also played every season of his storied 20-year career as a Laker. Something that is rarely seen these days. He was the last of a dying breed.
The Evolution of Kobe Bryant
Kobe entered the NBA straight out of high school and was thrust into the spotlight at only 18-years-old. He was green and had a lot to learn, as we all do at that age.
To say he wasn’t ready for the prolific stage of the NBA would not be accurate. He performed at a high level from day one and won the Slam Dunk contest in his rookie season. Young Kobe often showed us flashes of brilliance, a precursor of what was to come.
Halfway though his career, Kobe changed his number from 8 to 24, and it was a perfect portrayal of his growth and maturation. For Kobe, the number change was a way to put the past behind him. It was a mental clean-slate.
The Kobe who wore number 8 was a totally different player, and person, than the Kobe who wore number 24.
He began his career in a number 8 jersey, which was a nod to his childhood days playing basketball in Italy. Number 8 Kobe was athletic, explosive, aggressive, a high flyer, unstoppable, an entertainer, and larger than life. 8 Kobe brought us jaw-dropping dunks and an incredible 81 point game.
However, 8 Kobe was also controversial. Many claimed he shot too much, 8 Kobe was “selfish”, and “hard to coach”. Then there were the sexual assault allegations in 2003, and the Shaq divorce in 2004.
8 Kobe was as polarizing as they come. You either loved him or you hated him, and it seemed he received more hate than love from basketball fans at that time. I think that’s the way young Kobe wanted it.
But, as Kobe began to grow and mature, he wanted to move on and leave the past in the past. It was time for a change. Before the 2006-2007 season, Kobe officially changed his number to 24. He had worn 24 in his high school days at Lower Merion High School.
24 Kobe was a totally different player. This Kobe was cerebral, poised, fundamental. 24 Kobe was a jump-shooter, a master of the fade-away, a footwork artist, a killer on the court, a leader, and one of the most clutch players of all time.
24 Kobe showed us what it meant to lead by example.
In a game against the Warriors in 2013, 24 Kobe ruptured his Achilles tendon mid-game and could barely stand up, but mustered the strength to hobble to the free throw line and knock down 2 free throws before walking off the floor on his own power.
Rupturing an Achilles tendon is the kiss of death for most athletes, but 24 Kobe made a miraculous comeback from the debilitating injury and went on to play three more seasons.
24 Kobe brought us 60 points in the final game of his career, when he was nearly 35 years old and a shell of his former self, thanks to injuries and the wear and tear of 20 NBA seasons.
24 Kobe evolved into Kobe the humanitarian, and Kobe the father.
Speaking about his number change in 2017, Kobe told ESPN, “24 is a growth. The physical attributes aren’t there the way they used to be, but the maturity level is greater. Marriage, kids. (You) start having a broader perspective, being one of the older guys on the team now, as opposed to being the youngest. Things evolve. It’s not to say one is better than the other or one’s a better way to be. It’s just growth.”
With Kobe, we witnessed something rarely seen these days in the world of sports. We had the privilege of watching him grow and evolve right in front of our eyes.
Without a doubt, Kobe Bryant was a relentless competitor and one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. However, the biggest impact he had on his fans around the world, and the game of basketball, cannot be seen on the stat sheet or on his list of accomplishments.
Like Kobe, basketball was my first love and, for many years, basketball was my life. At the epicenter of my basketball life, there was Kobe Bryant.
I’m sure you remember the familiar jingle from the iconic Gatorade commercial. “Like Mike. If I could be like Mike…”, most kids from my generation wanted to be like Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan was a major influence for Kobe, and that was very obvious in his game. Kobe was the closest player to Jordan that the game has ever seen. Kobe was Jordan 2.0, he was Jordan with a little flare.
I never really fanboyed over Jordan like most of my peers. Although I admired Jordan and respected him tremendously, I was a huge Laker fan, so I couldn’t pledge my allegiance to his Airness.
I wanted to be like Kobe. Every single time I stepped on the court, I tried to be Kobe.
Kobe was everything I wanted to be in a player. I emulated him. I meticulously studied hours of footage trying to learn his moves.
The pull-up jumpers, the fade-aways, the explosiveness, the footwork, the tenacity, the competitiveness, the work ethic, the killer instinct, the relentless desire to win.
Like Kobe, I had a burning love and an often misunderstood passion for the game of basketball. As a teenager, the more I learned about Kobe Bryant, the more I began to see how similar we were.
Kobe had an undeniable love for the game. As did I. Kobe had an unquenchable thirst for competition. As did I.
Kobe had mental toughness and an unbelievable drive and work ethic. At that time in my life, I did not.
People look at me now and think I’m a confident person, but that wasn’t always the case. I’m not naturally confident.
In high school, I was routinely intimidated by better players, and actually quit the basketball team because I was in fear every game. I lacked mental toughness and confidence.
Confidence isn’t something you’re just born with, confidence is a skill. It’s one of the greatest skills a person can cultivate, and Kobe Bryant taught me that skill. It’s called Mamba mentality.
Kobe was an assassin on the court. He gave himself the nickname “Black Mamba”, an ode to how he plays the game. Mamba mentality became such a phenomenon that Kobe actually wrote a book about it: The Mamba Mentality: How I play.
Kobe was renowned for his incredible work ethic. His workouts were the stuff of legends. Phil Jackson said no player he ever coached, including Jordan, had a work ethic like Kobe Bryant.
Kobe once defined Mamba mentality in an interview with Amazon Book Review, “Mamba mentality is all about focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work when it matters most. It’s the ultimate mantra for the competitive spirit. It started just as a hashtag that came to me one day, and it’s grown into something athletes, and even non-athletes, embrace as a mindset.”
Indeed, I embraced it. Mamba mentality became a way of life for me. It’s an empowering mindset that has enabled me to conquer any obstacle or fear. Kobe taught me that greatness lies in all of us, and I was able to take myself to another level using Mamba mentality.
Those who know me know how much I love running, and I’m often asked how I’m able to push myself mile after mile. When I want to give up, I go to Mamba mentality. It’s almost like an alter ego. I transform into another person who will never quit or be outworked, a person who keeps pushing forward. I know, it sounds cheesy, but it works for me.
Kobe taught us that we are capable of so much more than we realize, and he summed it up perfectly, “Pain doesn’t tell you when you ought to stop. Pain is the little voice in your head that tries to hold you back because it knows if you continue you will change. Don’t let it stop you from being who you can be. Exhaustion tells you when you ought to stop. You only reach your limit when you can go no further.”
Father to Father
Kobe was renowned for what he accomplished on the court and what he did for the game of basketball. As influential as he was to me as a basketball player, he was even more influential as a father.
I loved Kobe Bryant as a basketball player, but I can’t relate to that Kobe. Although I loved the game of basketball, and actually had some game myself, I wasn’t even in the same galaxy as Kobe talent-wise.
The Kobe that I relate to is Kobe Bryant the father. The man dedicated his life to his family.
Becoming a father is a gift. It’s the greatest gift that has ever been bestowed upon me, and I’m sure Kobe would say the same.
Just a few days ago, as I sat in my living room feverishly typing away working on this piece, my TV suddenly sprung to life on its own. As the YouTube app opened, I realized what was happening. I turned around to see two little blue eyes peeking out at the top of the stairs. My son was on his iPad and had utilized the screen mirroring function.
Upon retirement from basketball, Kobe aspired to be a creator and a writer. He created a short animated film called, “Dear Basketball”, which won an Oscar.
My son had queued up Dear Basketball for me. As it began playing on our TV, tears filled my eyes.
My son had been watching me, as children do. He’d been observing his father’s grief. He knew how much his father loved the game of basketball and Kobe Bryant. He was grieving too, and wanted to find a way to share a moment with his dad. He wanted to comfort his dad. We embraced in a tearful hug.
Fatherhood is filled with little moments like that. It makes the late nights, the frustrations, the sleep deprivation, the premature aging all worth it.
The love of a father is a love that is unimaginable, and a love that you can’t even begin to comprehend until you become a father.
It’s a love that means you’d give your life for your child without hesitation, without a second thought. It’s a love that means you’d walk through hell and back multiple times just so they’d never have to feel an ounce of pain.
Fatherhood is a special fraternity.
Kobe gave his life to being a father. I know without a doubt that Kobe was exactly where he wanted to be on January 26th, 2020: with Gianna in those final moments. He was there to embrace her, he was there to comfort her, he was there to cross over into the next life with her.
Fathers have a duty to protect our families. It’s why we were put on this earth. I know if it were my son on that helicopter, I would want to be right there beside him.
Kobe died fulfilling his duties as a father. Men, we should all be so lucky.
Make It Count
The biggest thing I’ve learned in my 10 short years of fatherhood is that time is the greatest gift you can give, because time is the most valuable thing in life. Time is finite. The deaths of Kobe, Gianna, and all who were on that flight are a sobering reminder of life’s fragility.
Life is fleeting.
It’s unfortunate and so tragic that it often takes an event such as this to put things in perspective. We are not promised tomorrow. Tomorrow is an act of faith.
Make the most of the time you have on this earth. Make time for family and loved ones. Put down the phone. Be present. Never forget to be with the ones you love. Cherish the time you have with them. Because it could all be over in a split second. Give them the gift of your time.
One of these days it will be over.
Although I never met Kobe Bryant, I knew him well. I owe a big part of who I am to the lessons I learned from Kobe Bryant. When he died, I felt like a part of me died.
Controversial, talented, driven, fierce competitor, leader, living legend, loving father. The Black Mamba. There will never be another quite like Kobe Bryant.
Gone too soon, but his legacy will live on for generations to come.
What impact will you make on the world? On the lives of others? What legacy will you leave behind?
“It’s the one thing you can control. You are responsible for how people remember you — or don’t. So don’t take it lightly.”
Kobe Bryant was a legend in every sense of the word. Rest in peace, Mamba.