After flying to Springfield, MA., to attend the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ceremonies in September for the induction of former Sonics center Jack Sikma, I was chatting up the driver of the airport shuttle.
“So what do you hear about the size the crowd expected here?” I said.
“Good,” he said, “but nothing like it will be next year.”
“Kobe. It’ll be nuts.”
So it would have been.
Incandescent, indomitable and international, Kobe Bryant belonged to the world. The world would have shown up to show out with him.
Even more so than his single hoops superior, Michael Jordan. Mostly because of how the world changed between their eras.
Bryant became a Lakers starter in 1998-99, the first of Jordan’s three years of his first retirement. It was also before the inventions of the smart phone, Facebook, Twitter and the NBA’s hyper-aggressive globalization of basketball. But as those innovations came on to change much of the world, they became platforms for Bryant’s innovation: A unique combination of stupendous talent, intellect, affability, looks and five NBA championships.
His five-second video highlights were instant gratification for a world increasingly eager for instant gratification.
The world got to know an American athlete as they never had — fluent in Italian and the ways of the world — playing a game almost everyone understood, on a team built for celebrity outlandishness. At the 2008 Summer Olympics, I bore witness to the fact that no athlete, aside from homie Yao Ming, drew more attention and adulation.
From Beijing to Cape Town to Forks, people dug Kobe Bryant.
Those among them who could afford to get to Springfield next September for the inevitable enshrinement into the hall likely would have made a wealthy guy out of my driver, if he were lucky enough to have a ceremony ticket to sell.
The world couldn’t get enough of Kobe Bryant. It will be a long time before the world gets over his death at 41.
The helicopter accident northwest of Los Angeles that killed the Lakers superstar, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others has yet to be explained. It will be important to know what happened, of course, but even when it is, his loss so young forever will be inexplicable.
Whatever it was you did, football, basketball, soccer, acting, whatever. Kobe inspired you to be better…
— 🏁 Jamal Crawford (@JCrossover) January 26, 2020
Most everyone privileged to have watched him play has a moment that sticks.
I recall a meaningless Sonics game I attended at KeyArena in January 2008. The Sonics roster had been parted out and sold off, the Seattle franchise situation was growing more grim by the day, so I had no plans to write, merely to witness Bryant and the Lakers.
The Lakers would go on to win the Western Conference title, and lose the NBA Finals in six games to the Boston Celtics. But on this night the emaciated Sonics, who finished with a franchise-worst 20 wins and earned the right to draft Russell Westbrook, were, despite being in the middle of a 14-game losing streak, surprisingly up for the fight.
They forced the Lakers to overtime. Then Black Mamba took over. He scored the final six points of the game, including an 18-footer over rookie forward Jeff Green with 4.3 seconds left, for the game-winner.
In the 123-121 win, Bryant had a season-high 48 points on 21 of 44 shooting. Green was helpless against a hero he had watched for years.
“Tonight he made a lot of shots and made a lot of key shots when they counted,” Green told Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Gary Washburn. “You always want to try to be the one to stop him. But with a guy like Kobe, it’s hard.
“You dream about being that guy to check him, getting that stop to win the game. I tried my best to contest it, but it went in this time.”
Said Sonics rookie Kevin Durant: “That’s why he’s the best player in the world.”
“It was an ugly game for us,” Bryant said. “It was just one of those things where I wanted to be a lot more assertive.”
There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of loosing my neice Gigi & my brother @kobebryant I love u and u will be missed. My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. IM SICK RIGHT NOW pic.twitter.com/pigHywq3c1
— SHAQ (@SHAQ) January 26, 2020
It wasn’t just one of those things. Bryant almost always has been assertive. Away from the court, sometimes it served him poorly.
In a 2018 story for the Washington Post, feature writer Kent Babb accompanied Bryant on a trip by helicopter from Orange County to Los Angeles, apparently the same route where tragedy struck Sunday. In the story, Babb recounted a well-chronicled episode of sexual assault in 2003 against Bryant that basketball fans want to forget, yet has come to haunt his new career as a producer of children’s animated films:
More than 15 years ago, he was accused of sexual assault by an employee of a Colorado resort; though charges were eventually dropped, a civil settlement was reached and the reverberations continue today.
When Bryant won an Oscar for his animated short, “Dear Basketball,” more than 17,000 people signed a petition asking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rescind it. Earlier this month, protesters forced Bryant’s removal from the jury of an animation festival.
Legacies of hugely successful people are rarely uncomplicated.
Besides trauma for the victim, it nearly cost Bryant his marriage to Vanessa. And now his wife and two daughters must bear the burden of his loss, and as well as that of Gianna, apparently a budding basketball star. The Los Angeles Times reported Bryant was scheduled to coach Sunday in her game at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, and was en route there when the helicopter crashed.
Among the seven other victims were John Altobelli, a well-regarded baseball coach at Orange Coast College for 27 years, his wife, Keri, and their 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who played on the club team with Bryant’s daughter.
All of the deaths are hard to grasp, especially the abrupt, random nature of the circumstances. The luminescence of Bryant’s career — including the number of lives he touched, locally and globally, in his second career as an author of children’s books and a filmmaker — compounds the tragedy. He was just getting started, like his daughter.
Something Bryant once said is worthy of consideration.
“If I panic,” he said, “everyone else panics.”
Once he shock wears off, perhaps the sports world has even more reason to gather in Springfield this fall. Not to panic, but to celebrate a life that belonged to the world.