What Kobe Bean Bryant Meant to Basketball — My Tribute
Watching MJ cry on stage at Kobe Bryant’s memorial will never be forgotten for me. I actually had to turn the Kobe Bryant Memorial YouTube service off. I was 17 when 18-year old Kobe was drafted into the NBA. And I want to get this off my sagging 40-year old man chest right away:
I despised Kobe Bryant’s game and confidence for most of my life.
Until right now, actually.
When he died something hurt inside me. But watching MJ speak, some ball of emotional thread quickly uncoiled inside me. It unwound and played inside my chest like a kitten pawing at catnip. I sit typing about this. What is it? Fear. Anger. Jealousy? Or maybe I am mad at Kobe because he represented something I couldn’t or didn’t do. I couldn’t wake up at 4:00 a.m. and train, then practice twice or play later in the day. I didn’t have the guts to challenge any man on a court. I didn’t have the gusto to attack MJ or LeBron James or Stephon Marbury with a ball in my hands. To be honest, I was truly angry Kobe had not only more talent than me but worked harder.
The deepest thread of my anger was knowing Kobe Bean Bryant was mentally tougher than me, that he knew his deepest fears were mere illusions.
Do we know this now? Would Kobe tell me to challenge my fears if he could talk to me now?
I wonder what Kobe would tell me.
And so, with Kobe’s memory in front of us, pumping his fist, competing like hell, ruining Allen Iverson in the Finals, emulating Michael Jordan, and dominating NBA games, he will always push us to be better. This is what Kobe represents about basketball to me — the ability to control your effort, your response to any stimuli, to adversity, to get up when you are at your lowest and keep going.
This is what the soul of basketball taught me. This is what legends try to leave you: a trace of how they bravely dedicated their life’s work to their passion.
And I only played in Europe. I got cut twice from the NBA. But I saw and heard what the legends like Jason Kidd, John Stockton, MJ, Magic, and LeBron did. And that’s what makes this harder for me, and possibly the world to accept, because we lost someone that pushed us to be better in ways we didn’t even realize.
Death is never an easy topic. Kobe Bryant’s Memorial will leave a heaviness in millions of people and I’m not saying anyone’s death is more or less important than anyone else, but Bryant’s death will be a life-changing event for millions. His memorial signals the end of an era. Of a mindset. Of a mentality. Of a man that continued to push the limits of his passions. And I don’t cry when strangers I don’t know die and I didn’t know Kobe. But truth be told, I cried the day he went down in that helicopter. And I cry today, watching Michael Jordan talk about his little brother “Kobe.”
Maybe because it makes you think of your own mortality. Your own family. Your own legacy. Kobe surely made me think of mine. And so, felt silents tears for the first time in a long time — thinking of losing those I love, my family, my friends. Thinking of what will I leave behind when I go. Or what I will truly experience with the time I have left. Regardless, I know a family, or wife, or daughter, or child, or sister, or best friend, or brother’s love is the most powerful love we can feel and have.
What will we do with this time we have left?
Kobe reminded me losing this type of love is the most tragic thing in the world.
Recently, my younger brother was cut from the 3x3 USA Olympic qualifying team. He has been working for five years on making that team. He had flown to Belgium to train with my team. He had flown around the world 49 times to play in World FIBA Pro 3x3 tournaments. He had given his soul to the dream of basketball, to the Olympics, and I had seen on every level how much he wanted it; how he had dedicated himself to his passion.
When he was cut, I felt his pain. I felt the bias. The negativity.
I said, “Fuck it,” for him. “Just move on and do something else.”
A few days later, my brother called me and told me, “It’s how you bounce back when you hit rock bottom that matters most. I will bounce back. I will be better than before.”
I shook my head proudly. This young man never stops, I thought.
Maybe it was Kobe resonating inside me. Maybe it was the part I never learned to truly speak about. Whether I want to admit or not, my brother’s words were infused with residue from Kobe Bryant’s approach to the game — the same approach I secretly respect more than anything in life.
I believe the ability to tirelessly work and care for your life’s passion is one of the most admirable traits you can have.
What Kobe Bean Byrant’s Memorial Taught Us
I’ll tell you when real basketball epiphanies happen. When you quit playing and think back on all the times you could have done more to be better. Or funny enough, I think back to the first time I played against LeBron James, I was like, 25, and I remember asking myself, wait, there is actually someone better than him at the game of basketball?
Yes, Kobe Bean Bryant.
Kobe Bryant, the number 24, the number 8, the Black Mamba, the guard that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pass a ball if you snap-tied both of his wrists together and played a triangle and three on him. And even then, he might not only take the game winning shot… he’d make it. Granted, back then, I was an under-talented point guard and creative writing minor from Kent State University, and with all respect to my legendary high school coach Dennis Starkey, I didn’t get drafted right out of Petoskey High School into the NBA as the 13th pick like Kobe did.
But I realize now we were both just chasing a basketball dream. I was the same age as him, but he was doing more. Working harder. I think that is what Kobe will leave me: a residue to not only keep dreaming, but to keep working harder for my dreams than anyone else.
But that’s the thing about losing things, or letting go, or moving on from a career you love, or getting older, or even death— you start to realize and see patterns and truths that change the way you look at your life. You start to see why a relationship didn’t work out. You see why someone left you, or why you won’t be around certain types of people anymore. You begin to see why you play the way you prepare.
You see this unfold in the NBA all the time; in how difficult winning world championships are and how challenging returning to form to win another is; you see how hard staying healthy can be, and ultimately, how being the best at something over and over is harder than opening a clam’s pearl with just your big toes. Just ask Golden State, they had more talent than the Starship Enterprise and they couldn’t win a third title.
This is the age of when you start to see how important team is, how important love is, and how connection is paramount to well-lived, meaningful life.
Kobe’s legacy is more than basketball, I realize now.
On April 13th, 2016, I serendipitously tuned into Kobe’s Bean Bryant’s last NBA game.
I don’t know, maybe it was destiny? Regardless, I was glued to the TV, shaking my head in disbelief as he poured 60 points into the Utah Jazz and Gordon Hayword’s helpless soul. The typically stringent defense was nothing against the Black Mamba. His pull back and hesi. Swish. Step back, spin. Slop. Behind the back. Whap. And one. Another one. He’s heating up! The Utah Jazz were bitten by the Black Mamba’s fang-dripping venom and I stood mesmerized, watching the infamous Jack Nicholson grin (rather wryly) as he looked up at the Staples Center scoreboard like he always does.
Why did I care to watch to watch a man I thought I despised?
There was something deeper going on here.
The LA Lakers deserved Kobe Bean Bryant
Talent is overrated, but when a once-in-a-lifetime-world-class talent outworks regular NBA talent (or high school talent), you create a legend like Kobe Bryant. Or LeBron James. Or MJ. Or Larry Bird. Or Magic Johnson. And no, Tex Winter’s triangle offense wasn’t that amazing, it was Kobe and Shaq and the other players blending in with their genius. And for most of you basketball purists, you might understand why I didn’t like Kobe. He complained too much. He wanted the ball too much. He shot too much. His ego was too big. He made huge mistakes off the court.
I disliked him, I really did.
But now that’s Kobe’s life is but a legacy, I think damn, the way Kobe Bean Bryant, a 19-year old kid handled possibly world-crippling fame, pressure, and money when he became one of league’s youngest NBA All-Stars, I have to give him kudos for continuing to reinvent himself. I mean, think about that shit (pun intended)— because I could barely wipe my own ass without getting brown smudge on my hand when I was 18.
Most people loved Kobe with every basketball fiber of their body. But this Kobe Bryant helicopter tragedy will leave a streaking sadness in the basketball world for as long as the world celebrates this amazing game and the people lost in that untimely event. MJ, Shaq, Rick Fox, Rob Pelinka, his wife Vanessa and their kids, and the world’s basketball legends all sat in attendance at his Memorial so the normal basketball world — me, the parents, the kids, and sports lovers — could say goodbye.
Goodbye, Kobe Bean Bryant —and thank you for reminding us how precious life is…
We all matter. Our best matters. Our dreams matter.