I was five-years-old when I watched Space Jam for the first time. To me, it was an endearing and enthralling window into the persona of basketball’s most immortal and invincible deity. Although I had never watched Michael Jordan play for the Chicago Bulls, the comically absurd yet delightfully exhilarating parts of that movie such as when he extends his arm like a knockoff Mr. Fantastic past the entire “Monstars” team to make the game-winning shot ensured that he forever became untouchable in my eyes.
His legend was captivating and his greatness undeniable. To watch his old clips on ESPN was to be inserted into an ancient world in which myths and epics came alive before your very eyes. And for every child like me and those in the generation before me, we shot and dribbled in our driveway with one singular purpose in mind: to be like Mike.
However, as truly magnificent as Michael Jordan was, I now look back on my almost obsessive admiration of him with a certain sense of regret. The reason I do so has nothing to with Jordan the player or person himself, but rather one particular player and person that came after him. I once clung to a memorable past without truly appreciating the greatness occurring right before my very eyes.
Because Kobe Bryant was the Michael Jordan of my generation, regardless of whether we were willing to admit it or not at the time. Like Jordan before him, he was a fascinating and compelling figure whose uncompromising and almost terrifyingly tenacious commitment to excellence mesmerized both those around him and the world as a whole.
And now he’s a reminder of the fast fading flower that is our own fragile mortality.
I never loved Kobe Bryant, and I never hated him (the Memphis Grizzlies were never relevant enough during his prime for me to hate him). Instead, I always regarded him with a curious mixture of fascination, intrigue and wonder—never completely sure as to what to truly make of such a fantastically gifted player that seemed to not only revel in his successes but also glory in the miserable failures of his opponents.
What was it about Kobe Bryant that caused him to be venerated and even seemingly worshiped by many at every NBA arena to which he came? What caused children everywhere even to this day to invoke his name when simply throwing something in the trash can? Why is he so beloved when he has displayed questionable and even possibly gross character at several times throughout his career? And why do so many people like me, who never met the man before in their lives, grieve his loss like the death of an old friend?
Like the answer to most difficult questions, the answer as to why Kobe Bryant had such a magnetic appeal and powerful impact is a layered and complex one.
For those of us who fell in love with the game of basketball growing up, he was intrinsically linked to and even the true foundation of that love affair. Many of us may have wanted to be Michael Jordan when we were younger, but we saw Michael Jordan in Kobe Bryant. And to lose him now still in the prime of his life after he became such an integral part of something we all came to love and cherish makes the loss feel all the more heart-breaking and earth-shattering.
I believe that people also came to revere him because of just how irredeemably human that he was. In many ways throughout his career, Kobe Bryant exemplified both the best and worst aspects of human nature. To be sure, his personality, which was dominated by extreme arrogance and a callous indifference to those whom he deemed were not as driven as he was, was an acquired taste and rubbed many people the wrong way. His moral failings in particular, including adultery as well as a rape accusation and admittance to engaging in non-consensual sex despite his perspective of it, were brought into the public forum for everyone to see.
However, his seemingly intentional hard demeanor that hardly left any room for weakness notwithstanding, he still managed to have an indelible and undeniable impact on the lives of so many. The fact that so many players throughout the NBA were so emotionally distraught that they could barely play on Sunday speaks to the magnitude of his influence on them. Because whatever it was that the NBA greats who preceded him as well as the game itself gave him, Kobe Bryant gave that much more to those who came after him.
While he may have been a deeply flawed human being, he still sought excellence and growth in every area of his life both on-and-off the court. He entered the NBA as just a mere 17-year-old kid, the youngest player drafted in NBA history at the time, and became one of the league’s ten greatest players in history as well as one of its most globally impactful icons. In 2018, he became the first former professional athlete to ever win an Oscar in winning Best Animated Short for his short film “Dear Basketball”.
As a phenomenal player, philanthropist, mentor and storyteller, Kobe Bryant was truly the NBA’s Leonardo da Vinci.
But there was no other part of his life that Bryant embraced with more fervor and passion than that of his role as a father. From what little we’ve been able to glimpse, he possessed a deep, abiding love for his family, especially his late daughter Gianna. Whenever he was courtside at a game over the last year, she was almost always at his side. She clearly had inherited both his passion for the game and perhaps even his talent, exemplified by her exploits with Team Mamba, her AAU team that was, predictably, coached by her father.
It’s so beautifully poetic for a man whose resume consisted of five NBA championships, 18 All-Star appearances as well as an MVP, that perhaps his most fulfilling accomplishment was his 13-year-old daughter wanting nothing more in the world than to be just like him. And so horrifically tragic that they are both now gone when they, along with the seven others who perished, had so much left to give to the world.
To put it simply, it was because of what Kobe Bryant did give and what he had left to give that makes his untimely loss so painful to bear. Because for so many of us who grew up to love the game of basketball so dearly, the story of Kobe Bryant became a part of our own stories. To many different levels and degrees, he was a part of us, and we were a part of him.
And that will continue to be true even as the next generation of children, whether in Memphis like me or the world as a whole, aspire to be like Kobe.