What is it About Kobe?

Growing up a young girl in Southern California, my dad raised me on two things—Los Angeles sports and loyalty to your team. My dad has been a Lakers fan his whole life, and he taught me and my brother to bleed purple and gold. We grew up idolizing the “Showtime” Lakers—Kareem, Magic, Vlade, James Worthy; we learned Pat Riley was a coaching genius, and Chick Hearn was the voice of legend. My dad even used Lakers references to help me with schoolwork. I’ll never forget that Lansing is the capital of Michigan because “Lansing-Lakers-Magic-Michigan.” (Thanks, Dad!)

When a 17-year-old kid from Philadelphia skipped college and went straight into the NBA, drafted 13th in 1996 by Charlotte but immediately traded to the Lakers, I took notice. I was in high school, and rumor had it that the player was dating a girl in high school just down the 91 freeway. Later the story would go that she had been asked not to wear her engagement ring to school because it was too much of a distraction. We didn’t know Kobe personally, but for LA Lakers fans, especially those of us living in that neck of the woods, we felt like he belonged to us. And he did, for 20 seasons.

I was immediately a Kobe fan. No one could deny, he was just that good. He played with such finesse and ease, it would have been easy to forget the grueling hours he poured into his sport. Even when he ran into trouble in Colorado, I wanted to believe the best. It’s hard when our heroes fall off their pedestals. But in relatively short order, he was again high in the mind of fans as he remorsefully fought for his family, and proved himself a devoted husband and father. When he retired, after a few injury-ridden seasons, he won our hearts back fully as he scored 60 points in his final game, leading his team to his final on-court victory. He’d shown himself to be fallible, capable of injury and gross errors in judgment, but that only proved he was human, which made him that much more endearing. 

When the news broke about the helicopter crash on Sunday, January 26, 2020, many struggled to believe it was true. It seemed impossible. People asked each other, “Did you hear about Kobe?” and no one said, “Who?” Just his first name, and everyone, even people who have never watched a basketball game in their lives, knew who was being talked about. One word was all it took. Kobe. The first thing I did was call my dad, who had already heard, and then my brother, who hadn’t. 

Since Sunday, people all over the world have been reeling. It’s astonishing really, how one man impacted so many; the overwhelming majority of stories being shared about Kobe are about his perseverance, drive, kindness, and love for his family.

When Kobe retired nearly four years ago, he expressed the desire to be known for more than his stats on the court. He wanted to take his gifts and resources and pour them out for the benefit of others. Based on the last few days, I’d say that’s exactly how he’s known. Whether it’s visiting kids in their last days on Earth and offering to pay their medical bills, do-gooding with Ellen, doting on his wife and girls, establishing a foundation with his wife “dedicated to improving the lives of youth and families in need,” building the Mamba Sports Academy, a training center for athletes of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds utilizing Kobe’s signature “Mamba Mentality,” it’s clear that he is known for the good he’s brought into this world.

Today, what makes us different seems to be all we see. We retreat into the echo chamber, and anyone who dares to question what we believe or voice any opposition, we attack with all the ferocity we can muster. 

The loss of Kobe was the loss of a seemingly invincible hero. A hero we so desperately needed. And we’re grieving.

Finally, we as a nation, as a world, have something in common again—the loss of a young man who made a big impact and represented the best parts of us. My hope and prayer is that we can use this horrific tragedy to rebuild some bridges. Reach out to those we’ve cast off due to paradigmatic differences, offer an olive branch, a hand, a hug. Life is fleeting, and all that matters is the people we’ve been blessed with. At least, I think Kobe thought so.

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash