I have always been a fan of sports and have been guilty of watching teams and sports that I have no rooting interest in simply because I enjoy watching the competition.
In my personal hierarchy, professional basketball is a good ways down the list. I’ll watch highlights and tune into the end of the NBA Finals, but the timing of the season means that there is almost always a football game, baseball game, or golf event that will command my attention.
That said, I found myself in the same state of mind as millions of others Sunday afternoon when word broke of the death of Kobe Bryant. Like many, I first thought that it might be some twisted social media hoax. When news outlets started to report, I hoped that maybe a rush to break the story had caused Bryant to mistakenly be listed as a passenger. And when everything was confirmed, I was left with a feeling of disbelief.
Bryant was larger than life. He was at the top of the game for two decades. His killer instinct and determination to get the most out of himself and his team made him one of the sport’s greatest champions.
And those same qualities made it all the more difficult to believe that it all came to an end in an instant.
Making Bryant’s death all the more tragic is that his post-NBA life was shaping up to be just as prolific as anything he did on the court. Early in his career, the single-minded drive to be great and win titles was likely the cause of the problems he faced in his personal life. There was a sexual assault allegation that tied into a cheating scandal that threatened to ruin his marriage. There was also no shortage of murmurs that his intensity had the ability to create division in his locker room.
Athletes with that sort of reputation also have a tendency to be unable to change speeds after their careers are over. Instead, Bryant blossomed into a new person.
He became even more committed to the marriage he had to save a decade before. Public appearances often included either his wife or one of his daughters. He became a more genial and likeable personality when interacting with commentators and other former players and he helped to build and instruct a youth basketball program in the Los Angeles area.
In his far-too-short life, Bryant ended up hitting the notes of fame and accomplishment that so many young athletes dream about.
He fell in love with the game at an early age and set his mind to being the best - and any rational poll of the best to ever play would have him on the list. He won championships. He starred in commercials and had countless kids buying his jersey and recreating his exploits on the playground.
And following a couple of bumps along the way, he became the rich and famous - yet still relatable - guy that everyone thinks they would be if they were the international superstar with hundreds of millions in the bank. He gave time to fans and charities. He put all of his love into his wife and kids. All of the drive of his playing days that could have turned him into a surly recluse once he was too old for the game instead transformed into an energy that promoted his love for basketball and all of the people closest to him.
Kobe Bryant had the charisma to turn heads no matter the moment. Countless basketball fans will remember everything he did en route to five NBA championships. Thousands of kids will benefit from the programs and philanthropy towards basketball he endorsed since retiring in 2016.
When the reports of Bryant’s death were confirmed, I started thinking about pro basketball and how I’m not very familiar with the current trends and talent. Then I thought about the last time I had watched any significant portion of a game. I only tacked last year’s finals in spurts and didn’t even tune in to Game 7 of Cleveland’s win over Golden State a few years ago.
After a few minutes of deliberation, I realized that there’s only one game in the last decade I watched for more than a quarter.
In 2016, I got back to the house one night around 10 p.m., which is doing well for running a sports page. I turned on the television and remembered that it was Kobe’s final game. When I saw that he was playing well in the second quarter, I decided to ride it out with a legend of the game.
For whatever it is that keeps me from getting excited about the NBA, everything about Bryant is what kept me glued to that game. He was too old, much slower than he used to be, and probably hurting more than he let on. But he showed the determination that made him a star. He went all-out for one more game and became the twentysomething version of himself that was an MVP, a world champion and a star for the ages. Kobe Bryant could captivate the world because he could put on a show in just about every aspect of his life, and he saved some of his best for last as he scored 60 points (who cares if he was gifted plenty of open looks?), to lead a comeback victory in the final minutes of his career.
The fact that his star burnt out far too quickly only amplifies how brightly it shined.