It was always a bit frustrating going to Los Angeles Lakers games in Memphis. The Grizzlies could be at the peak of their collective powers, at their Grittiest and Grindiest, and when Kobe Bryant and the Lakers came to town FedExForum would feel like L.A. south at times. The purple and gold would be out in full force, with a vast majority of the jerseys bearing Bryant’s #8 or #24. Every time he scored, it would sound like a home game at Staples Center for L.A. The following was that strong.
It was infuriating.
But beyond the Lakers fans living in Memphis, Tennessee showing out for their squad, watching Kobe Bryant play was actually a joy. When you saw him on the floor, you knew more often than not you were going to see his absolute best. That is what made him both one of the most respected and hated players in the NBA - he didn’t care about making friends. He was first and foremost a winner, in pursuit of winning not just every game he played in, but every play he was involved with. He was as driven as anyone that has taken the floor of the NBA, and he was an elite player in large part because of that “Mamba mentality” he became famous for.
It torched the Grizzlies, more often than not. Kobe played Memphis 67 times in his NBA career, and scored in double digits in 64 of them. He hung at least 20 on Memphis 44 times, and 30 or more 15 times. He respected the Grizzlies a good bit - he has famously said that Tony Allen was the best defender he ever played against - yet the buckets he got on Memphis still counted all the same.
When you are watching an all-time talent, though, even when his greatness is coming at the expense of your team (he had a 44-23 all-time record against Memphis, according to basketball-reference.com), you can appreciate what you are seeing. He was infuriatingly brilliant.
Kobe Bryant, who along with eight others (including his daughter Gianna) died Sunday at the age of 41, leaves behind a complicated legacy. There is no doubt that Bryant is one of the very best basketball players the NBA has ever seen. But just how great he was has been debated - his personality didn’t win over everyone, and the numbers aren’t a huge fan of how he accumulated his “counting stats” like his career points.
But the 12-time NBA Defensive Team member had a game that was so much more than scoring. That was where his legend will live largest in the memories of those that watched him, but he was an elite perimeter defender that also often times got the best out of his teammates. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Shaquille O’Neal, Rick Fox...the list goes on and on of players that benefitted in some way from being alongside Kobe Bryant during his peak years. Bryant’s extremely competitive nature surely made him some enemies...but it made him someone that teammates loved having by their side in key moments, more often than not.
As a public figure, Bryant’s legacy is cloudy as well. The now infamous incident in Eagle, Colorado left his family in shambles (before eventual reconciliation). The accusal of rape, and the eventual settling of the civil case, is part of his legacy, too. He was also known for attacking people relentlessly through publicists and other methods such as social media who perhaps did not see things the way he did, or he felt were negatively impacting his image or legacy. He was flawed, as we all are, but perhaps it was amplified because he owned those personality “quirks” because they helped him be the player he was. And he was unapologetic for possessing them, aside from the circumstances that followed the criminal charges that were eventually dropped after the woman declined to testify in the trial.
Eventually, the evolution of that personality appears to have made him the father he was to his daughters and the ambassador he was becoming for the game.
At the age of 41, Kobe Bryant leaves behind a basketball universe that he had so much more to give to. He was embracing his role as a global figure, an icon that most NBA players currently active in the league saw as their Michael Jordan. You could see in the reactions of the players before Sunday’s games - it was as if a hero had passed for them, because one had. He also was, by all accounts, a devoted father to his children, including 13-year-old Gianna whose life ended far, far too soon. You saw in videos and pictures from afar their mutual admiration, and her love of basketball appeared to be like that of her father’s. He appeared content - truly at peace with what his career was, and what his next chapter was going to be.
He was a husband, and a father. An imperfect human with a perfect tenacity. A competitor the likes of which the NBA may never see again, and a talent whose gifts inspired generations of basketball players to come. It felt like it was only the beginning of what he was going to give to the NBA and basketball at large. And that potential, and the possibilities for all those who passed, has now tragically been extinguished.
Leaving FedExForum after watching Bryant and another player heavily influenced by Kobe’s greatness, Andrew Bynum, lift the Lakers to victory in double overtime in Memphis on March 13th, 2012, I looked around the scene departing the arena. Grizzlies fans were shaking their heads after a tough loss were walking among Lakers fans ready to celebrate a victory on Beale Street. Reflecting on the game, in a strike-shortened season, I remember thinking about how Bryant’s will to win impressed me most. Kobe would never be denied, and he was willing to go through all sorts of hell in his audacious pursuit of victory.
May we all aspire to live our days with our passions driving us, and those around us, to greatness. One where our lowest moments eventually lead us to personal growth, and a greater love and appreciation for family and our life’s work.
Thank you Kobe, for all you did - and your legacy will do - for the game we love. From Memphis to every other corner of the planet where the game of basketball reaches, thank you.