It’s a strange feeling when someone who has already been immortalized dies.
The record will reflect that Kobe Bryant will live forever in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and at some point soon, he will literally be carved into history in the form of a statue in front of the Staples Center.
But Kobe was supposed to be there to celebrate those things with us. His funeral wasn’t supposed to come before his Hall of Fame coronation. The photos were supposed to be as vibrant as the man was. They weren’t supposed to be black and white as a way of letting those few who Kobe’s legend escaped know that he is no longer with us.
He died Sunday in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and the world is a darker place. Not the basketball world, or Lakers Nation -- the world is worse off without Kobe in it.
That’s right, Kobe. It takes a certain level of notoriety -- whether via fame or infamy -- to ascend to international first-name basis. He cleared that bar a long time ago.
I find myself often explaining to people my Lakers fandom. Well, it’s the same story as how my basketball fandom began. It started with me staying up way too late to watch West Coast basketball games with my dad.
Kobe was captivating. And a shared passion for watching him play, watching the Lakers and soon catching random basketball games brought my dad and me closer as I began to prefer shooting a basketball in my driveway to hitting off a tee in my backyard. So thanks for that, Kobe.
Why? Because I could mimic Kobe’s jab step and patented fadeaway, of course.
With basketball, passion became love; and that love became obsession. And there’s not a doubt in my mind that that’s the way Kobe would have wanted that seed to grow. His will to win inspired me to accomplish much less noble and notable feats than hitting game-winners.
If Kobe can wake up at 4:30 a.m. to train for four hours before the rest of the world has even clocked into work, then I can finish this paper tonight, I told myself. And that’s how the Mamba Mentality seeped into my life, for better or worse.
I was a fierce competitor in sports, even (and especially) before there was any talent there to back it up. I was this way because I modeled my game, my mannerisms, my heart after Kobe’s. But I learned to love the work because Kobe did, and if it paid off for him then why not me?
I think that’s the most humanizing thing about Kobe. He was a gifted athlete, sure. But he broke down just how he got to be better than everyone else in interview after interview. He knew other players would be stronger, taller, quicker, but no one would outwork him. That’s a noble, sobering realization from one of the greatest to ever lace them up. He didn’t pretend to be born a basketball deity. He just worked his a** off to become one, and once he earned that distinction, he let you know it.
I never had the honor of seeing Kobe in person. Twice I went to see the Lakers play in Miami in his two final years and twice I was the one wearing a No. 24 Bryant jersey while Kobe sat in street clothes on the bench.
On the way to the American Airlines Arena with my dad in 2015, I heard on the radio that he wasn’t going to play, and I was briefly crushed. This was months after he had penned his future-award-winning “Dear Basketball” retirement announcement, so I knew this was it.
My parents couldn’t believe he wasn’t playing, but I understood. He had banged up his body enough and wanted to end the season and his career on his own terms. He couldn’t afford to play certain games and one of those happened to be my last chance to see him live. He knew his limits, even though to a casual observer it appeared he was bound by none.
But his “did not play” status did not stop me from waiting out by the Lakers bus with a horde of LA fans and basketball admirers alike. It took quite some time for Kobe to come out, but when he did, he was greeted by chants like I’ve never heard before. I joined in.
“Two more years! Two more years! MVP! MVP!”
The feeling in that crowd that night was different. The polarizing figure that Kobe was still brought fans together.
Kobe was just different. That’s the easiest way to encapsulate a man who moved on from living legend status to simply being a legend on Sunday. But it’s not enough.
Vanessa Bryant lost her husband and a daughter. Kobe’s daughters lost their dad. And we all lost a role model, someone we felt like we knew through interviews, photos, videos and countless hours of game footage. And Kobe was robbed of the opportunity to continue his post-basketball life.
His less popular nickname, shadowed by Mamba, was Vino, the Italian word for wine, because Kobe, like wine, got better with age. Bryant will grow no older, but the memory of his 41 years on Earth will be immortalized by the millions of lives he touched.
Thanks for touching mine, Kobe.
Follow Kyle on Twitter @Kkylewood. Contact him at [email protected].