By Miles Montgomery
Kobe Bryant’s face folded into an agonizing grimace as he collapsed onto the hardwood floor of the Staples Center. I was shocked he was still in the game. Earlier in the third quarter, he had been involved in a nasty knee-on-knee collision with Warriors big-man Festus Ezeli. He was left sprawled on the floor, clutching his left knee, only the latest in a series of hard falls and fouls Kobe had endured in a 2013 regular-season game against the Golden State Warriors.
Yet he got up after enduring the mind-numbing pain of clashing knees. He proceeded to keep draining contested three-pointers and getting to the rim effortlessly, with pump fakes so impossibly enticing that no self-respecting NBA player could resist jumping out of the gym in an attempt to swat him. Warrior after Warrior was left helplessly watching as Kobe’s feet stood planted on the ground as they flew by, and Kobe laid the ball in the basket with a flick of his wrist and a wry smile.
Kobe had scored 32 points at the time of the collision with Harrison Barnes, having just drained a deep three-pointer in Barnes’s face to tie the score at 107 with a little under four minutes to go in the game. Unbeknownst to me, or frankly anybody else besides Kobe Bean Bryant himself, he had just torn his left Achilles tendon, an incredibly painful injury that often renders a person unable to walk. The man had torn his Achilles on that very play, and he willed himself to his feet, walked to the Lakers bench during the timeout, collected his composure, walked back to the free-throw line and shot two free throws. He made them both with a torn fucking Achilles.
As a 15-year-old Warriors fan watching from my favorite seat on the floor of my Oakland home, I was captivated. Kobe’s legendary Mamba Mentality is a staple of his basketball lore; you don’t win two Finals MVPs and five championship rings without a legendary killer instinct, but this was the first time I had seen it unfold before my very eyes.
I had seen the videos of Kobe shooting in the gym at three in the morning and listened to the stories of coaches and teammates describing the unmistakable look in Kobe’s eyes when the pressure was on and the stakes were at their highest. But this, this was different. This was unfathomable toughness and spirit, true competitive greatness that radiated out of my television screen that day and left me with goosebumps crawling up and down my arms.
The Lakers won by a score of 118-116 that night, but my usual disappointment after a Warriors loss was nowhere to be seen, even though Kobe’s game-leading 34 points had prevented them from adding a crucial win to their first playoff bid in five years. As an athlete myself, I could only applaud. Kobe had added another fan to an endless list.
As I write this through tears, it has been eight hours since I learned nine people — Kobe Bryant, 41, his aspiring basketball star daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, 13, John Altobelli, 56, his wife Keri Altobelli and daughter Alyssa, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, her daughter Peyton Chester, and pilot Ara Zobayan — passed away in a tragic helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. They were on their way to Gianna, Alyssa and Payton’s travel basketball game, as confirmed by CBS.
The world of basketball, sports, and humanity as a whole has lost one of its greatest ambassadors, one of its sharpest minds and hardest workers, as well as four loving parents and three ambitious and talented daughters with their whole lives ahead of them. Bryant and his daughter Gianna are survived by his wife Vanessa Laine Bryant, 37, and daughters Natalia Diamante Bryant, 17, Bianka Bella Bryant, 3, and Capri Kobe Bryant, six months.
Kobe Bryant leaves behind a glittering basketball legacy: fourth all-time in NBA history with 33,643 points scored, five-time NBA champion, MVP, two-time Finals MVP, 18-time NBA AllStar and two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA. These are but a few of Kobe’s accomplishments that have defined his Hall of Fame career, and promise him immortalization in basketball’s pantheon of all-time greats.
But Kobe was so much more than a world-class basketball player. In fact, Kobe’s incredible dedication to the sport of basketball makes his endeavors in other aspects of his life and career all the more impressive. His acclaimed 2017 short film “Dear Basketball,” detailing his love affair with basketball and realization of his basketball mortality, released before his retirement, won him an Oscar in 2018.
“Dear Basketball” illustrated Kobe’s unique ability to express his much-renowned passion and drive through a different creative outlet: storytelling. The ability to weave a story arc that moves an audience is a rare gift, and a promising career in entertainment after his basketball journey had concluded seemed to be written in the stars.
Amidst all of Kobe Bryant’s greatest accomplishments, there is none more exceptional than his commitment to his most cherished job: fatherhood. A father of four daughters, he will be remembered for his exceptional dedication to his children Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri, and his wife Vanessa. Videos of Kobe sharing his personal basketball experience and insight with his daughter Gianna have circulated widely around the internet. I can only imagine what was not captured on film, the thousands of unseen moments and tidbits of advice he shared with his daughters, moments they will certainly cherish for the rest of their lives.
Kobe was far from perfect, however. He was a complicated man and was not without scandal off the court. In 2003, a then-19-year-old woman accused him of raping her in a hotel in Eagle, Colo. Kobe denied the accusations, saying the sexual encounter was consensual, and the case was dropped after the accuser refused to testify, leading to an undisclosed settlement in a civil case. Although Kobe publicly apologized, the 2003 incident has been trying for many fans to reconcile with, and the darker side of Kobe’s legacy cannot be glossed over.
Kobe Bryant recovered from the torn Achilles he suffered that March day, refusing to succumb to the death knell a serious Achilles injury usually inflicts on the average basketball player’s career. He went on to play two more seasons in the NBA, and in typical Kobe fashion, dropped 60 points in his final NBA game, before retiring at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season to the adulation and applause of anybody that calls themselves a true sports fan.
Numbly sifting through the internet reactions to the news today only amplifies my understanding of the millions and millions of human beings Kobe was able to reach and motivate worldwide. And make no mistake, Kobe Bryant took great pride in inspiring those around him.
“The most important thing is to try and inspire people so they can be great in whatever they want to do,” Kobe said when asked about his goals. He certainly succeeded. Earlier today, I received a text from my stepbrother, a life-long fan. “Wild how significant and tragic this day feels across such a broad audience,” he said. “He really did transcend basketball, and sports in general.”
As I searched for a semblance of a silver lining amidst the devastation, I came across a piece by Anthony Irwin on Silver Screen and Roll, a Lakers fansite. In the wake of an unthinkable tragedy, Irwin offered a beautiful tribute to the lessons Kobe had imparted on him.
“I’ll never be the best writer on the internet, nor will I ever be the best podcast host, basketball analyst, friend, husband, or father,” Irwin said. “But I’ll be damned if I don’t give it my absolute best in the pursuit of coming as close as I humanly can to those things. Because that’s what Kobe would expect of me; it’s what he’d expect of us.”
Kobe taught us that greatness is not simply destined at birth. It is the product of thousands and thousands of hours of unthinkably hard and deliberate training, in tandem with an unwavering, single-minded devotion to a craft.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Kobe answered, “To think of me as a person that’s overachieved, that would mean a lot to me. That means I put a lot of work in and squeezed every ounce of juice out of this orange that I could.”
Kobe Bean Bryant had many more lessons to teach. He was only 41 years old and was just transitioning into the next phase of his life. The biggest question that wracks my brain when the world loses someone young, someone with so much potential like Kobe, is what would he be doing in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 or even 40 years? What ideas, films, wisdom, insight did he have to bless us with? These unanswered questions will hurt the longest.
Rest in peace, Kobe. You earned it.