Basketball

Goodbye Mamba

I’ve officially started writing this five or six times.  Each time, the piece takes shape and I’m not entirely happy with where it’s going so I start over.  I think the best approach is to be as honest about my feelings as possible.  Perhaps that is the most fitting approach.

Growing up, my brother and I didn’t really consider athletes or celebrities as heroes.  We were taught from a young age that these people were just people and they were as flawed as anyone else.  We learned to question people’s motivations, follow our own moral compasses and live with the consequences of our actions.  My dad was and always will be my hero.  My grandfather died when my father was only 13 years old.  That’s the age where he begun to take care of his entire family.  Since that day, he’s never stopped.

Celebrity death never really feels any different to me.  They are people, just like any other and one day we will all pass away.  However, this all felt a little different when I found out that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Sunday.  Like any other basketball fan my age I loved watching Kobe play.  I remember sitting in my grandmother’s house cheering for the Orlando Magic against the LA Lakers.  Before halftime, my allegiances had changed completely.  I became enamored with the most gifted offensive player I had ever seen. In an era before the internet was readily available at our fingertips, I became entirely fascinated with Bryant.

Kobe Bryant had forever changed the way I watched and embraced basketball.  He opened my eyes and in a transcendent moment I realized my allegiance wasn’t to fandom of a particular team but rather to witnessing sheer greatness. For years people have argued about who is and isn’t the greatest of all time.  Yet, it was watching the man who most obsessed with chasing Jordan that I learned that the question was mindless.  If you are lucky enough to witness greatness you should always be looking forward to see what can come next rather than looking back with blinders.  Kobe Bryant would never know the impact he had on some random kid in Montreal but, he truly ignited a true love of the game for me.

Before my wife and I got married, my then girlfriend moved into my condo and turned to me one night and asked to see some clips of Michael Jordan so she could understand why people though he was great.  I happily obliged and we watched his greatest highlights on YouTube.  She next asked to see Lebron’s highlight reel.  We watched it and I explained that Lebron’s intelligence and decision making was such that watching his highlights was far less impressive than if one were to truly appreciate his commitment to his craft.  Finally, I put on Kobe’s highlight reel and my now wife was in complete awe.  The circus shots, the late game heroics, the sheer fearlessness that radiated from Mamba was palpable.  Watching each of these plays for the first time had the same impact on her that it had when I first watched the NBA great in his Laker gold and purple.  She asked “why doesn’t everyone think Kobe’s the greatest?”.  I laughed and said, Kobe’s a man who is not without his flaws.

This ladies and gents is where I get choked up every time.  If he were as perfectly curated as Derek Jeter or as properly presentable as Lebron James, it may not hurt the way it did when the news broke.  As I stared at the text in sheer disbelief, I thought of Kobe Bryant and realized that where we truly connect with the retired NBA superstar was that despite his greatness, we will always remember his redemption.  Kobe was tried for sexual assault in a case that was dismissed in 2004.  We may never know what happened in that hotel room in Edwards, Colorado but from his apology, it was clear that Bryant had let down his wife, his fans and his entire family.

For most 26 year olds in the prime of their careers, we would imagine them to be unchanged.  That their personalities by this point were formed and this is who they were.  This would not be the case for Kobe Bryant.  Given that he’s left us at 41 years old, the years that would be late in his life were truly dedicated to that which he loved the most.  He and his wife worked through the scandal and remained together, grew their family and with that grew the bond that Kobe had with his children.  Many young athletes talk about the mentorship this man had and the role he played in helping them develop their careers.  This isn’t a commitment Bryant needed to make.  He was known as an assassin on the court but his love for the game was so pure that he could not stay away.  He could not help but share his knowledge and passion.

I know that without Kobe I wouldn’t have spent years of my life practicing a post-up/back to the basket style of play that would irritate my dad because “you need to stay in a triple threat position”.  I wouldn’t have spent years practicing a turnaround fade-away that I would never perfect but would irritate all of my coaches because it wasn’t high percentage enough.  All the time I spent using my shoulder to push off a shadow defender in the driveway to pull up and attempt a jumper was all because in Kobe there was greatness.

The next thought that ran through my head were far less comforting.  I thought of a man who loved his daughter.  Who his final moments spent it completely powerless, unable to protect his daughter as the helicopter spun out of control.  The last thing he must have heard was his child’s voice in absolute terror.  His wife and the three daughters that are left behind who will never hear his voice again or the voice of Gianna Bryant.  Every day is a day they will have to live with two pieces of their family missing.  This was a truly horrifying thought.

There were 9 people who died in that helicopter crash. So many families were affected and will never be the same after this.  John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mause, Sarah and Payton Chester, Ara Zobayan, you will be forever missed.  May the loved one’s you’ve left behind eventually find peace.

I’ve been writing sports columns for 6 years now.  When I started, people didn’t get me; didn’t really understand what I was trying to do.   I persevered. When I started writing this column and hated it and restarted time and time again.  I persevered.  I’d like to think that that has something to do with the two men who made me passionate about the game of basketball.  We’ve lost one and I’m fortunate enough to still have the other.  I didn’t know why at the time but as soon as I heard the news I needed to talk to my father.  Cherish the ones you love, life is precious and there is never as much time as you think there is.

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