For Phoenix Suns fans and the entire basketball community, the death of Kobe Bryant was a tragedy, but it was how he lived his life that will always be remembered.
When my friend texted me early Sunday morning the news that Kobe had passed away, I didn’t believe it. Even as a Phoenix Suns fan, I thought it was some weird joke and was waiting for the punchline. The punchline never came and after a few minutes of waiting I went on Twitter and there it was. Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash.
People die tragically every day. Just a couple of weeks ago, a plane was shot down by an Iranian missile carrying 176 passengers. War almost broke out. But for whatever reason—probably due to my own narrow view of life—the tragedy never hit home like this one did.
You never expect it to be the icons. You think of them as immortal. Certainly someone like Kobe, who had carved out an identity that was larger than life.
This was no accident. What Kobe earned, he worked for. Not to say that he didn’t have help along the way. His father, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant played pro ball, first in the NBA, then in Italy. But this doesn’t in and of itself ensure greatness. Plenty of former NBA All-Stars have kids that are average at best, or wash out completely.
Just having an NBA legend for a dad doesn’t mean you’ll make it.
Genetics help. Kobe was blessed with good genes for sure. Still, that in and of itself isn’t enough.
Again, what Kobe Bryant got, he got by doin’ work.
You’ve heard all the stories, about how singular his mindset was. How after a bad game in Miami he stayed late into the night in the Heat’s arena, working out his jumper. Or how in high school he’d play teammates one-on-one to 100. Or refusing to leave the gym until he made 800 shots.
In a tearful recounting of his friend, former teammate Brian Shaw told a story about how Kobe started taking a helicopter to work to cut out waiting time in traffic. He made a deal with a nearby hotel to take his pre-game naps. If there was an edge or and angle he could work out, Kobe would find a way to work it out.
His work ethic was legendary.
He was transcendent in his craft the way Micheal Jordan was, or Bruce Lee.
He was also a control freak. “Control what you can control,” Kobe told Bill Simmons once in an interview about scraping an entire documentary about himself and starting from scratch. And he did.
The 2011 Spike Lee directed documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, chronicled a single game against the Spurs in which Kobe gives an off-the-cuff narration of his insights and philosophy and approach to the game. It was poetry, self-aggrandizing, and all Kobe Bryant.
Kobe was an 18-time All-Star. He was 11 times an All-NBA first-teamer. He played 20 years for one organization, the Lakers, leading them to five titles and retired two jersey numbers—8 and 24.
Micheal Jordan, who doesn’t give anyone anything said this about Kobe:
“I loved Kobe—he was like a little brother to me. We use to talk often and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”
I was lucky to enough to see Kobe play live, just once. Back in 1997, a game against Grant Hill and the Pistons. I, along with a few friends—most of them Laker fans—made the trip from Anchorage, Alaska down to LA every year to take in some NBA games and as much sun as possible.
It was a monster game from Grant Hill, with 34 points, 14 assists and 15 rebounds. Hill was in his prime then and we all thought, “Dang, if Kobe could be half the player Hill is, the Lakers are going to be a dynasty.”
Sometimes you can underestimate these things.
As a life long Phoenix Suns fan, I’ve seen Kobe doin’ work, often with painful results. Still, I always admired him. I loved his competitiveness and how he saw the game as a whole. Maybe too much. My fiends use to say on the court I was just like Kobe, minus the athleticism and talent. I think they meant it as a dis’ but I owned it, dubbing myself the Pale Mamba.
For his final game, we all made plans to watch it together. It was the first time in years we were all together, expecting a boring game, neither team having anything to play for. We were wrong. Kobe always has something to play for.
As the game went on we started saying to each other, “Dude might get 30 tonight.” Then, “Dude might get 40.” Then, “There’s no way he gets 50, right?” Finally, “Holly freaking hell he’s gonna drop 60 points.”
It might be one of the most fun I’ve ever had watching an NBA game on TV. And as a Phoenix Suns fan, doing it against the Jazz made it even the sweeter.
So as tragic as his death is, thanks to his work and drive to be great, his legend lives on. And that’s something.