I refused to believe the report when I first saw it. I just assumed it was wrong. I got a Slack message from a fellow sports blogger that TMZ was reporting that Kobe had died, and I just denied it. He was just on TV the night before congratulating LeBron James for passing him on the all-time scoring list. Kobe was fine.
But it was true. Kobe Bryant — along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others — died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. He was 41. And as someone who has watched basketball my whole life, it seemed impossible to imagine a world where Kobe Bryant didn’t exist. Now, that’s a reality we all have to face, and I personally have struggled to grapple with it.
That’s because Kobe was invincible. Indomitable. He was supposed to outlive all of us simply because he was so competitive that letting death beat him was never an option. This was the guy who tore his Achilles on the court, shot his free throws, then walked off the court under his own power, clenching his calf muscle so that it wouldn’t rupture completely. He dislocated his finger in a game, had it put back in place, and just played as nothing happened. If that happened to me, I would have used it as an excuse to not write another article for The Beacon for the rest of the semester.
You always had to respect Kobe’s game, even if you hated him. One of my friends from high school texted me that Kobe was just synonymous with basketball, and I still think that’s the best way to describe watching him play. When the ball was in Kobe’s hands, you were watching someone who was at the pinnacle of not just his game, but was as close as possible to the peak of what a basketball player could be. As much as we all love shouting his name as we shoot literally anything and everything into trash cans, shooting wasn’t the only thing he did.
That’s because he worked relentlessly on being so good at everything that you couldn’t find a flaw. And it was because of that commitment to being so much better than everyone that he had the confidence to shoot over every player on the court if needed. (It usually wasn’t needed, but it was Kobe. That’s just what Kobe did.)
Kobe was never my favorite player. After years of him torching the Blazers night in and night out, I admittedly relished when his later teams struggled to stay relevant. When former Kobe teammates Nick Young and Lou Williams reminisced on Twitter about when Kobe took their shoes away (which were Kobe brand shoes) because they didn’t deserve it after a loss to Portland, I laughed out loud — not just because it was funny, but because it happened against my team.
As thoughtful and heartbreaking as the Kobe tributes were on Friday, I was still happy that the Blazers pulled off a win at the Staples Center. I was happy that Portland’s true mayor Damian Lillard was the first player to score 45-plus points and 10 assists in a game at Staples Center since Kobe himself. I still hate the Lakers. It’s a deeply embedded rivalry between Portland and L.A.
I vividly remember watching a Blazers and a Lakers fan almost getting into a fight after the season opener last year. While violence isn’t usually the end result of rival fans meeting, it certainly was a reminder that Blazers’ and Lakers’ fans don’t like each other. But it’s awful that Kobe wasn’t there (he was supposed to be, according to Carmelo Anthony), especially because I like to think he would have dapped up Lillard and tried to take his teammates’ shoes again for losing his tribute game.
That’s the stuff I want to remember about Kobe — the funny little things that happened just because he was Kobe. This Complex article describes all the roasting he did while he was an AAU coach. He somewhat publicly shamed a seventh-grader for choosing to go to a dance recital instead of the championship game for the team he coached. He posted another photo on Instagram with a caption about how his team had lost in 2018 to a team 22-21. The picture had the scoreboard in the background. Kobe’s team had won the next year 115-27. A petty king.
But it’s also impossible to talk about Kobe without mentioning the other half of his complicated legacy: his sexual assault case from 2003 where he admitted to having non-consensual sex with a 19-year-old employee of the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Eagle, Colorado. It’s the incident that some would rather not talk about at all, but it’s glaring and has to be discussed in any conversation about Kobe’s legacy.
This Brian Phillips piece describes it best. There are two harsh realities to Kobe. On one hand, he was a basketball legend, a philanthropist, a father, a mentor, even an Oscar winner (good for Kevin for cashing in on that bet). All of those things are indisputable. But what’s also indisputable is that he admitted to having sex without consent with that woman in Colorado. It’s not something we can overlook in regards to his legacy. As Phillips wrote, we can’t duck the hard work of understanding a person as complex as Kobe.
Still, Kobe’s misdeed doesn’t change the fact that he did so many other great things off the court, either. He was a vocal advocate for the WNBA. He was a proud “girl dad.” He won a freaking Oscar. His impact went way beyond the U.S., as we saw with Neymar’s 24 celebration after scoring a goal. When I talked to Terry Porter about Kobe, what stuck with me was that he had done so much, but also had so much time taken away from him. What he had done with that short time was extremely impactful. Now, he’s just gone.
I still haven’t accepted that he’s dead. It’s one of those things where a person seems so alive and untouchable that when you’re reminded that he’s gone it just doesn’t feel real. You go about life assuming that he’s fine, just coaching Gigi, mentoring young players or shaming more seventh graders. But then the world gives you a harsh reminder that he is in fact gone. That he actually wasn’t a god, that he was, in fact, a human being like the rest of us.
I didn’t realize how much Kobe meant to me until he was gone. It made me and countless others realize that life is fragile, that it can be taken away in an instant. Because Kobe was invincible until he wasn’t. He was untouchable until he wasn’t. He was supposed to outlive us all until he didn’t. It’s a harsh reminder to be grateful for the people in your life, the ones you know closely and the ones who seem so distant. Kobe made basketball more than a game to me, and I’m thankful I even got to watch him.
But if we’re being honest, the Blazer fan in me hopes Gianna is just handing it to him in one-on-one right now.
Kyle Garcia is the Sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.