#IMHO: Kobe Bryant, Forever

Grind City Media’s Lang Whitaker and Michael Wallace have been covering the NBA since shorts were short and socks were long, but their opinions about the League don’t always mesh. #IMHO is their weekly chance to weigh in on the most pertinent news from around the NBA. What’s lit? What’s lame? Find out each week right here.

 

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Tuesday, January 28, 2020 at 9:47 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: IMHO

Mike,

This has been a hard week, man, maybe the hardest week I’ve ever had covering the NBA. It’s just sad. Kobe Bryant, dead at just 41 years old, along with his daughter, Gianna, and a helicopter full of other families and children. Thinking about it even now, two days later, makes me sad. It was so sudden. Kobe seemed like he would live forever, and to have him taken from us the way it happened—so randomly, in the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon—was a gut punch.

I wrote this week about Kobe’s legacy for Grind City Media, which was an odd exercise in and of itself—I kept having to remind myself to use the past tense, and when I finished the document and saved it, I had a brief moment where I realized this might be the last time I write about Kobe for a while.

When thinking about his legacy, my biggest takeaway was that if nothing else, Kobe taught us that hard work actually matters. You put in the work, perhaps more work than you ever even considered might be needed, and if you do the work to the best of your ability, good things happen. Kobe did the work and Kobe won rings. And for kids out there today, I think it’s important that they see that doing the work can have good consequences.

When you think back on Kobe’s legacy, what’s the main thing you will remember?

 


From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Tuesday, January 28, 2020 at 10:10 AM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

When I think of Kobe, I’ll always reflect on a quote Pat Riley used to share when telling stories about the legendary icons he’d encounter both in and outside the world of sports. Riley would say, “There is no way to greatness. Greatness is the way.”

Basically, what I take from that statement is that no one just randomly ends up being great at anything meaningful in life or sports. That greatness was within them along the way of that specific journey. Kobe was great at just about everything he did because he possessed the combination of God-given athleticism and genetics, along with an insane work ethic to squeeze every bit of effort out of his mind, body and spirit. We’re not only talking about a man who won MVPs and NBA championships. Kobe was also a master of multiple languages, an accomplished pianist, a solid rapper and the guy also won an Oscar. AN OSCAR, man! The greater question to answer about Kobe’s legacy is, “What couldn’t he do?”

Lang, there’s no right or wrong way to honor anyone’s legacy in sports. But we’ve seen so many different ways already that the league has shown its admiration for Kobe. I’ve always felt that his accomplishments would age well, that what he accomplished would shine even brighter 10 or 15 years after his playing days ended than when he first retired. I remember some discounting his five championships because three were won with Shaquille O’Neal viewed as the more dominant player. I remember the analytics crowd dismantling the real impact of his playing style toward the end. And pundits damn-near lost their mind when the Lakers gave Kobe that two-year, $50 million extension to finish up his career in L.A.

Bottom line is the man’s records, accomplishments and impact speak volumes – both then and now – for what he meant to the NBA for 20 years. Back to my question for you, though. Which way of honoring Kobe did you appreciate the most in recent days? The Grizzlies and several other teams opening games by taking 24-second shot clock violations, followed by 8-second backcourt violations? All Pistons players wearing either No. 24 or No. 8 jerseys during warm-ups and introductions? The Mavericks and Mark Cuban announcing immediately that the No. 24 will never be worn again by a Mavs player? Suggestions that the NBA logo be changed from a Jerry West image to one of Kobe? Or was there something else out there that caught your eye?

 

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal finals

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at 9:35 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

I’ve thought about how we should pay tribute to Kobe a lot. It started just hours after his death, with all the teams that played on Sunday taking the violations, like you mentioned. I’ve seen players wear numbers 8 and 24 as a tribute, and I’ve seen players refuse to wear numbers 8 and 24 as a tribute. I’ve noticed a ton of players reaching deep into their locker to break out pairs of Kobes, and coaches around the league have been wearing Kobes with their suits. Knicks rookie RJ Barrett even told reporters he would no longer like to be called The Maple Mamba out of respect for Kobe. (Which made me think, wait, we were calling him that?)

As I type this, 72 hours after the accident, our feelings are still incredibly raw. Heck, I was crying on my couch late last night watching my brother Rick Fox on TNT, grateful that he wasn’t in the accident, as was first reported. I think what Kobe meant to the NBA is crystal clear, and how important he was rings out true. But honoring him in some official way seems a little tougher, because we’re wading into unknown territory. The NBA just lost David Stern, who arguably had a bigger impact on the NBA than Kobe did, at least on a business scale. There needs to be some way to honor Commissioner Stern, right? And then what happens when people who scored more points than Kobe or won more titles than Kobe eventually pass away? Also, a lot of the trophies already have names attached: Maurice Podoloff, Larry O’Brien, Bill Russell.

I guess what I’m saying is that while we can acknowledge Kobe was a generational player and global icon, I don’t know what the threshold needs to be to receive an NBA-wide honor, or what that honor should be.

But I did have one idea: What if they named the WNBA MVP trophy after Kobe and/or Gianna? It would be a nice way to honor Kobe, who became one of women’s basketball’s most vocal advocates, as well as a tribute to his daughter, Gianna, who was quite a baller in her own right.

I’ve also thought a lot about Kobe’s impact on the court. I was at Madison Square Garden in 2009 the night Kobe dropped 61 points, and I remember how electric the atmosphere was that evening. Is there a Kobe performance or a play that you saw in person over the last two decades that has stuck with you?

 

Kobe and Gianna Bryant

From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at 11:19 AM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about a Kobe moment I experienced in person was also in 2009. But it was at the All-Star Game in Phoenix that year. Well, actually it was afterward. It was the year Kobe and Shaq were named Co-MVPs of that All-Star Game after leading the West team to a win. I was there to cover the events and game, and I ended up in the tunnel and hallway at the arena as they Kobe and Shaq were leaving the court.

I got as close to the two as I could as they walked to the postgame media area and press conferences, and was within earshot of most of their sincere bantering and honest discussion with one another. I just remember Kobe repeatedly telling Shaq that he loved him, but that he won’t ever apologize for “staying on your ass all the time” when they were teammates with the Lakers. Eventually, Shaq said something silly to lighten the mood. But Kobe, the little brother in the equation, never backed down from the big brother, Shaq. The entire moment lasted maybe five minutes during a walk through the arena bowels, but that was the night, both men would later confirmed, when their relationship started to repair.

As it turns out, Kobe would end up giving the All-Star MVP trophy to Shaq’s son, Shareef, who was also one of the last people Kobe communicated with on that fateful day before the helicopter crash. Everyone sees the games and most of the dynamic and spectacular things these guys do on the court and in the public eye. But I’ve always been a sucker for the behind-the-scenes stories and personal interactions among these guys.

Lang, since we’ve come this far dedicating this week’s #IMHO space to Kobe, let’s take it coast to coast. As championship rivalries that never developed go, where does the Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals letdown rank? I remember vividly how they were on that collision course a dozen years ago, so much so that Nike got in the mix with those Kobe and LeBron puppets commercials. Kobe then got there three times with the Lakers, losing to Boston in 2008, beating Orlando in 2009 and beating the Celtics in 2010. LeBron’s Cavs teams that were so dominant in the regular season couldn’t get past either of those squads in the East. Then the Lakers got bad, and LeBron took his talents to South Beach to start a run of eight straight trips to the Finals. And the rest is history. But I felt we were robbed of what would have been the modern version of Magic and Larry.

 

Kobe Bryant and Lebron James

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at 3:35 PM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

It’s funny how the world works, because now LeBron is in Los Angeles on Kobe’s Lakers, with a chance to make it to the Finals again. While Kobe never really had a true rival, other than maybe Shaq for a few years there, Kobe was a throwback in the sense that he spent his entire career with the Lakers. Other players started moving around from franchise to franchise, and even guys like Dwyane Wade or Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce, who were identified with one city, ended up bouncing around some in their later years.

But Kobe was the Lakers, and Kobe was Los Angeles.

And that’s what he always will be.

Forever.