After a day of trying to wrap my head around the news, this is my attempt to write about what Kobe Bryant meant to me.
I’ll start by saying this.
He was everything to me.
Born in 1997, my first years of watching basketball were the first few years Kobe Bryant was in the league. All I can remember is watching the Lakers on television, using KCAL 9 to watch most of their road games and ABC 7 to catch the nationally televised ones when my family couldn’t afford cable.
I remember my first major memory of watching Kobe was actually during the 2004 NBA Finals, when the Los Angeles Lakers lost to a tough and physical Detroit Pistons squad. I remember the years after when the Lakers ended up having some of their worst seasons, having traded away Shaquille O’Neal and fielding lineups with guys like Smush Parker and Chris Mihm, players that people have no clue about today.
But something kept drawing me to watch those games.
It was something about Kobe – regardless of who he had around him, he’d just attack, attack, and…attack. It didn’t matter who he was playing against, it didn’t matter what his team’s record was, and it didn’t matter how many minutes he had played or how tired he was; if you were in his way, he was going to come at you until you gave up – and even then, he’d still continue to come at you.
I remember watching him literally put the team on his back – strings of 30+, 40+, and even 50+ point games where you could see that look in his eyes. As a kid, I was so captivated just watching him through a television screen, because it didn’t make any sense how someone could be so dominant and ruthless on a basketball court.
I remember the game-winners. Once the fourth quarter rolled around and the game was close, it was almost relaxing knowing that Kobe was on the team I was rooting for. Honestly, some games, it was just a matter of how he was going to hit those shots.
The one that I remember most vividly is the game-winner against the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2006 NBA Playoffs. The steal off the inbounds, and then the in-and-out into the high floater to tie the game. Fast-forward to overtime: the jump ball, dribbling down the court, and then the mid-range fadeaway over two defenders as time expired.
I remember screaming and running around my couch as Kobe delivered once again, because that was more than I asked for as a little boy watching basketball. At some point, it seemed almost routine for him to carry the Lakers to a “W,” so much so that if he didn’t, you’d start to question if there was something wrong.
As a kid, I used chalk to draw up a basketball court in my tiny backyard, donning my white #8 Lakers jersey and wearing a single wristband on my left arm – much like Kobe used to do. I’d imitate his fadeaway jumpers over and over again, and go through his entire repertoire: stare-down threes, crazy up-and-under layups, multiple pump fakes and then drawing an and-one, jab steps into a midrange jumper, all that “Kobe” stuff.
I remember the 2008 NBA Finals where for the first time ever, I felt let down and disappointed by Kobe Bryant. That ‘08 Celtics squad was ridiculously good, but of course, as an 11 year old, all I could think about was how that series slipped away at certain moments. I remember the 39-point blowout in Game 6, and Kobe watching as the confetti rained down on him. For the first time ever, he seemed mortal, and he didn’t seem so invincible anymore.
Then, I remember Kobe talking to the media about how he was going to come back with a vengeance, and that the emotions he felt during that 39-point blowout would fuel him to never be put in that same position ever again.
He wasn’t kidding.
I remember the 2009 NBA Playoffs, in which Kobe Bryant was just straight up dominant. It didn’t matter who was on him or what they tried to do with him, he was going to take this Lakers team to the NBA Finals – just one year after being pummeled by their biggest rivals and humiliated in the decisive game.
I saw Ron Artest, who was physically stronger and probably about 30-40 pounds heavier than Kobe, try to physically outmatch and outmuscle Kobe.
It didn’t work.
I watched as Shane Battier, who wasn’t nearly as strong as Artest but had all the intangibles and defensive IQ to make life difficult for the best NBA players on the court, tried his best to contest every jumper. I can literally remember the live broadcast showing how well Battier was contesting Kobe’s jumpers: hand in his face in almost every jumper, some so well-contested that Battier’s entire outstretched hand would be covering Kobe’s eyes.
It didn’t matter, and it certainly didn’t work.
Once the Lakers won the 2009 NBA Finals, I remember feeling like that was the top of the mountain. There was no way any following season was going to top that one, and there was no way Kobe Bryant could be more “Kobe” than coming back from a devastating loss in 2008 to win it all the next year.
As if I could be any more wrong, Kobe came back the year after with a desire to be even better, and a vindication to prove that winning the NBA Finals once without Shaq wasn’t enough to satisfy him.
I remember watching the entire season, the playoffs, and then the 2010 NBA Finals which came as a rematch with the rival Boston Celtics. Much of this Celtics squad was the same as the ‘08 one that left such a bitter taste in my mouth, and as much as I believed in Kobe, I was so nervous and anxious to see how it would all play out.
After six gut-wrenching games, I remember watching Game 7 on the edge of my seat. Though he wasn’t his usual “dominant” self, that game is one of many that just encapsulates who Kobe Bryant is as an individual and a player. As was probably the case with every other player in that game, Kobe seemed to play off the nervousness and jitters that usually encompass a game of such high magnitude the more the game went on.
While he ended up only scoring 23 points and shot a less-than-ideal 6/24 from the floor, he corralled 15 rebounds (4 offensive) and made 15 trips to the free-throw line. Because he knew his shot wasn’t falling, he attacked the basket relentlessly and made an extra effort on the glass, and that’s who Kobe was – he would do anything to win.
Once I made it to college, I remember one of my coworkers during my freshman year telling me that Kobe might be at our school gym to watch one of his daughters play on her soccer travel team. With no care in the world for if it was just a rumor or not, I called up my roommate at the time and one of my hallmates, and we drove over to our school gym as soon as my shift ended that night in the evening.
Sure enough, he was standing there in a red Nike hoodie, watching proudly as his daughter was playing on an outdoor field. I remember just standing there, content to just stare at him from a distance if that was the closest I could get. Part of me, of course, just wanted a few seconds with him so I could tell him how much of an inspiration he was to me in every aspect of life.
Later that year, I remember watching his final home game on live TV. There were about 30 of us gathered into one tiny dorm hall, and one of my friends had brought his #8 jersey and laid it out on the table (with a box of tissues).
I remember just watching in awe with tears in my eyes as Kobe gave it his all, even in his final game. I knew he’d take a lot of shots, but c’mon, 60 points? The way he finished the game, scoring 15 points or so in the last three minutes, including the eventual game-winner, was just surreal to me.
What was more surreal than Kobe dropping 60 points was myself coming to grips that this would be the last time I would see him on the court. I grew up watching basketball because of him, and to think that if I continued to watch the sport, that he wouldn’t be in it, was just mind-boggling to me.
After the late ending to the game, a few of my friends and I put on our Kobe jerseys and T-shirts and headed off our school gym, inspired to hoop after watching his legendary and final performance.
What I saw when I walked into the gym just blew my mind.
Closing in on midnight, the gym was absolutely packed with students – but this wasn’t just a bunch of students hooping because they felt like it, but students hooping because they felt the same inspiration we did. Kobe jerseys and shirts dotted all over the gym in a repeating color scheme of purple and gold.
I certainly remember the Achilles injury, and the free throw that followed. If there was one person that was going to shoot that free throw and make it, it was going to be you. If there was one person that would come back from that injury and still give it his all, it was going to be you.
And damn right it was.
I’ll close with this: Kobe Bryant was always more than an athlete to me. None of this makes sense to me and it’s tough to believe because of how much this guy meant to me.
His passion, his drive, his motivation to keep pushing – what he coined the “Mamba Mentality” – always fueled me even during the darkest of days. Yes, my appreciation for Kobe Bryant started because of the game of basketball. But it was his hunger, determination, and willingness to outwork everyone in every way that drew me to idolize him.
My dream is to work in the NBA, a dream that started all because of Kobe. My desire to meet him one day, to be able to sit down and have an interview with him, to tell him how many posters, photos, and game-winner videos I had of him, to pick his brain and learn from him on how to be the best in my craft – I wanted to be just like him.
Thank you Kobe for teaching me what excellence in any field and any part of your life looks like. Thank you for creating this love for the game of basketball in me that continues to drive me. Thank you for showing me how hard work can beat talent, how an unmatched work ethic can carry someone to heights that they could only dream about.
We’ve never met, but thank you for being my mentor, for helping me create my dream, and for pushing me along this journey. You will forever be my favorite player and one of my favorite people of all-time.
My thoughts are with Vanessa and the rest of his family.