“Gone” is a hard word to reckon with, but it’s even harder to square when you’re talking about an immortal. That’s what Kobe Bryant felt like; we were only used to seeing him win. Kobe repeatedly showed the world what it meant to confront doubt with work, and to turn that labor into success.
Kobe Bryant was our generation’s greatest player.
“I feel like every kid, when you were young, anything you had to throw in the trash, you shoot it and say ‘Kobe!’” said Grizzlies guard Ja Morant on Sunday afternoon, just hours after the news broke of Bryant’s death. “That’s all I grew up watching. That’s my guy. It’s just sad today.”
On Sunday afternoon, Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among 9 passengers killed in a helicopter crash in California. Kobe was 41 years old.
Kobe was the rare athlete who consistently made the impossible possible. 81 points. Fadeaways from angles that aren’t mathematically possible. 62 in three quarters. 61 at MSG. The alley-oop to Shaq to beat the Blazers. Knocking down free throws with a torn achilles. Scoring 60 points in his final game.
That’s all I grew up watching. That’s my guy. It’s just sad today.
As I sat around yesterday and tried not to cry, I thought frequently about the 2003 All-Star Game, Michael Jordan’s final All-Star appearance, when Mariah Carey performed a tribute to MJ at halftime, and then MJ himself hit a fadeaway with 5 second left in overtime to give the Eastern Conference the lead. Game over, replete with a storybook ending, right? Nope: Kobe caught the inbounds pass, drew a shooting foul and hit two free throws to send it to a second overtime, where the Western Conference won. It was just so perfectly Kobe.
And that’s the thing: More than anything else, Kobe cared about winning, and he made sure we knew he cared about winning. All the work, all the shots, all that stuff, was all in the pursuit of just one thing: titles, and Kobe won 5 of them, along with an MVP, two Finals MVPs, and pretty much every other award there was to win.
I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Kobe multiple times over the years, and I once asked him how he felt that so many people hated him just because he was the guy who always beat their teams. Did he relish in wearing the black hat when he stepped on the court?
“No, I just try to do what I do, man,” he said, “just help us win ball games. A lot of times on the road fans want to see me score 40, 50 points, but they want to see us lose. As long as they enjoy the game, especially kids, because some kids might be their first time at a game, so they can go back, have stories.”
It’s all those stories that will keep Kobe’s memory alive. A few years back, I got hired to do some work behind the scenes on a product launch that involved Kobe. I was involved only around the edges, really: The company had a bunch of athletes that they needed to interview, so I was brought in to sit off camera and ask the questions, to hopefully get the guys to say exactly what they needed them to say, but in their own words, for this commercial.
Kobe was one of the athletes I had to interview, and I was given a script with a certain line they wanted me to lead Kobe into saying. He showed up exactly on time, gave out a few handshakes and pounds, and then sat down at the microphone. I started lobbing him questions, and while I could get him close to saying what we were looking for, after fifteen minutes he still had not quite said what they were hoping to get from him. We broke for water, and I said to the people from the ad agency, “Let me try this one other way.”
Kobe came back in and sat down, and I got up, handed him a sheet of paper with the line they wanted him to say, and asked, “Kobe, would you just say this?” Oh, sure, he responded, and he gave us about five different readings of the line, each with feeling and emphasis on different words. And we were done.
Kobe was, if nothing else, pragmatic. Show him the task, and let him figure out how to solve it. Say a line? Done. Become the greatest basketball player of your generation? Light work.
The best way I ever heard Kobe Bryant explained came from my former SLAM colleague Russ Bengtson, who pointed out that Michael Jordan created the blueprint, and while there were dozens who came after and tried to follow the blueprint, nobody was able to do it like Kobe did. By which he meant, Michael Jordan came along and showed the world how a wing player could dominate the NBA. And while there were dozens of guards who came along after and briefly flirted with the “next Jordan” mantle, from Grant Hill to Dwyane Wade, none of them did it as perfectly as Kobe.
And if you don’t believe it, watch this video. Kobe was literally playing Michael Jordan’s greatest hits out there, in a note-for-note rendition…
How did he do it? Like Kobe’s longtime teammate and friend Brian Shaw once told me: “Kobe, more than anybody I’ve ever been around, that I’ve played with, played against, coached against, whatever, Kobe dedicates himself to the game more than anybody. Preparation, weights to keep his body strong, icing afterwards to calm everything down, watching film. And on top of that, there’s all the work he puts in on the floor preparing for his opponent. He’s had that from the beginning. I think people out there tried to put other guys on the same level as him, whether it was Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady back in their young days, but I don’t think anybody has the work ethic that Kobe has. Then on top when you add his heart and his killer instinct, you just can’t match that.”
It always came back to Kobe’s work ethic. Nobody worked harder than Kobe. In 2007, Kobe was a member of the USA Basketball team that had to play in the Tournament of the Americas to qualify for the Olympics. On a team filled with talented scorers, Kobe assumed the role of defensive stopper. He’d always been the ultimate scorer, but for a few weeks, he became what he hated the most: the pesky defender who made life a nightmare for every guy trying to score.
Why did he do it? Because he thought it would be fun. “I just got tired of hearing stuff,” Kobe told me. “I have a lot of friends over in Europe, and I just got tired of hearing about their guard play and how great it is, how we can’t do anything about it. And it ticked me off,” he said with a laugh. “So I told Coach K, I want that assignment, I want that challenge. I don’t have to worry about scoring 30 points, rebounding, all that other stuff. All my energy can be concentrated on that one person, to stop him.”
The United States went 7-0 and won their games by a combined 250 points. Task, completed.
Because I think that, particularly young players out there, you can have a lot of talent but the work ethic doesn’t come along with that. If you can have talent and also have a work ethic that takes you to a higher level than people expect you to have, that’s extremely important.
You might have been more talented than Kobe, but you would not be more prepared. At one point in the mid-2000s, when I was an editor at SLAM magazine, I got asked at the last minute to fly to the Lakers training camp in Hawaii to write a Kobe cover story. Getting time with Kobe was pretty rare, but he was always good to us at SLAM, I think because we’d been covering him since he was in high school.
With professional athletes, their most valuable commodity is often their time. Kobe agreed to give us a few hours for a photo shoot and then sit with me for an interview, but in exchange, Kobe asked if we would be willing to fly in his barber from Los Angeles, to make sure he’d look cover-worthy.
We gently explained to Kobe’s team that SLAM was essentially a couple of people sitting at the end of a hallway in an office building in New York City, operating on a shoestring budget. We could barely afford to fly me, the writer of the cover story, all the way to Hawaii, much less a barber. But we offered a compromise: What if we hired the best barber in Honolulu and had him on set for the day? Kobe’s folks agreed to this, so we scouted around and found this guy who was known as the best barber in town.
On the day of the shoot, we got everything set up and had the barber there ready to go. Kobe showed up, exactly on time, and walked in with a fresh haircut. I don’t know where he got it, but wouldn’t you know it, Kobe was perfectly prepared for this cover image. (At least the photographer, Atiba Jefferson, and I got free haircuts that day.)
That same afternoon, I asked Kobe how he would want to be remembered, in terms of his legacy. His answer came immediately.
“As a winner and an overachiever,” Kobe said. “Because I think that, particularly young players out there, you can have a lot of talent but the work ethic doesn’t come along with that. If you can have talent and also have a work ethic that takes you to a higher level than people expect you to have, that’s extremely important.”
None of us were supposed to outlive Kobe Bryant. We always considered Kobe in timeless terms. I’m not old enough to completely remember the arc of Michael Jordan’s career, but I recall Kobe getting traded from Charlotte, those first few years where he just seemed like a chucker, and then his transformation into the Mamba. Kobe was our age, he was one of us, and right until the very end of his career, he was as durable as they came, playing through anything. Kobe seemed like he would never die, or if anything he would figure out some way to change the way death worked.
Kobe lived most of his life as one of the world’s biggest celebrities, the Black Mamba, a kid who showed up in Hollywood and became the biggest dang star the place had ever seen.
He died as a father taking his kid to her basketball game.
“The thing that hit me the most and hit me hardest was that he had his chance to be a father and to be home,” said Grizzlies forward Solomon Hill, who grew up in Los Angeles watching Bryant. “I know his family missed him more than anything. When you get to the point that Kobe did, that’s a lot of hours. That’s a lot. That’s not something where you can just wake up and split time with families. You’ve got to kind of lock yourself in the mode of being competitive every year. He dedicated himself to the craft and to the game, and so he was at the point where he was at home with his family. That’s tough being in a situation where you see him and his daughter going to games and their relationship and how it blossomed under the game of basketball, and for that to be taken, I think that kind of hits me at home. Especially having a daughter and having a family, you never want to stray too far. You never want to get comfortable by just being in the NBA and knowing that it’s a sacrifice on time. Yeah, we make a lot of money as basketball players, but we’re human at the same time.”
We can debate Kobe’s place among the basketball pantheon, where he belongs when we rank the GOATs. But we don’t get many GOATs. There are good players, really good players, and then there are just a very few GOATs.
Kobe was one of the GOATs.
Basketball lost a GOAT.
The Bryants lost a father and a daughter.
Rest in peace.