At the time I write this, it’s been more than 24 hours since the news broke, and it still is hard to comprehend. The words “Kobe Bryant” and “dead” sitting next to each other just don’t make sense.
For athletes such as Kobe, the ones who transcend sports and become a combination of superhero and mythical figure, they aren’t supposed to die. We watched them on TV for decades, performing such unbelievable feats that there’s no way they could be human like the rest of us.
It turns out he was, and now the world is left to mourn the death of the Mamba, as well as eight other people who were just as mortal as he was, daughter Gianna included.
The Mamba was the NBA player who bridged the generational gap from the Jordan era to today’s crop of stars, led by the likes of LeBron James and the recently retired Dwyane Wade. Retiring in 2016, Kobe’s career spanned two decades.
That means high school hoops programs around the country — and the world, for that matter — have coaches who witnessed Kobe’s stardom and players who also were able to witness his greatness in real time. He was introduced to America as a high-schooler and was one of the first professional athletes to grow up in our collective eyes at the advent of the marriage between the internet and the media.
That’s one of the reasons his death has hit so hard. Everyone in the sports world had an appreciation for Kobe. For his insane passion and focus, what he trademarked as the Mamba Mentality. For his competitive streak that was unmatched by any other basketball star, save Jordan. And more recently in retirement, for being a super dad, a father of four daughters.
The fact the tragedy took place as the group was going to a youth basketball game is too much to digest.
Obviously, Kobe’s fame and the fact the group was taking a private helicopter to a youth basketball game are two things we don’t see locally; when all of that is stripped away, at its bones, we see the same thing here countless times every day.
The video that went viral a month ago that showed Kobe sitting courtside at a game with Gianna, breaking down the game to her, hurts anyone who watches it now. It’s the same thing we see in the stands at our games every night, or even on the sidelines, as we have a handful of coaches who coach their own children.
I spoke with my former college advisor, Max McElwain, about the tragedy Sunday. He had a special affinity for Kobe after he spent a year teaching English at a Chinese University and scores of his students chose Kobe as their American names for his class. We talked about how hard it was to watch that viral video of Kobe and Gianna, how real that felt.
In his post-retirement life, Kobe was able to shed his uber-competitive side to enjoy life. He was beginning a blossoming career as a children’s author; had his own ESPN show, “Detail”; and an Oscar-winning animated short film, “Dear Basketball”; and, of course, was transitioning to being the supportive, basketball coach of a father he had become.
Max reminded me although Kobe is no longer with us and won’t be able to continue that growth, there are plenty of parents around who will continue to have those moments with their children. There are plenty of people who were affected by Kobe’s greatness and passion. The Mamba Mentality will live forever.