For a generation of athletes, Kobe Bryant defined the full sports experience
This article was originally published in January 2020 following the deaths of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven others in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif.
A few hours before the untimely death of Kobe Bryant, I was scarfing down steak and eggs in a local diner.
Between massive, unhealthy bites of brunch, my waiter noticed the Jordan 10s I was wearing, and we struck up conversation. A former Knicks fan, the waiter came clean with a confession: he had long ago given up on the Knicks because of two factors. One was the dominance of Michael Jordan over the ’90s Knicks teams. The second and more important factor, though, was the arrival of Kobe Bryant.
A three-hour time zone difference and 2,767 miles were cut down quickly by No. 8 — or No. 24, if you prefer. The waiter told me he loved to watch Kobe play and was instantly grabbed by his relentless style on the court.
That was the effect Kobe had on hoops fans everywhere. He was a player so charismatic, so captivating, so dominant that he converted the non-believers into fans. But Bryant wasn’t just the face of basketball. He was the perfect embodiment of sports.
Bryant gave us dazzling performances. He gave us feuds. He gave us wonderful quotes. He was the rare breed of pro athlete whose tenacity and heart matched his skill on the court. He was good for a headline a day.
He was a player who spawned an entire generation of pro athletes, 24 Hour Fitness hoopers and everyone in-between to live the “Mamba Mentality.” Maybe not on the hardwood, but in whatever path you chose to walk.
Kobe’s impact was never strictly about being a basketball player, but that’s the impact he had on a younger me.
Edison, N.J., where I grew up, is the furthest thing from Los Angeles you could probably find. The humdrum, boringness of suburbs, strip malls and potholes can’t match anything LA has to offer, including the glitz and glamour of the basketball scene. But it was fitting that the birthplace of the light bulb always had its eyes set on the brightest light the NBA had to offer.
Every single one of us — the white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, Indian kids, Pakistani kids, Chinese kids, Korean kids — reveled in the beauty of Kobe’s game. We all tried to replicate it, whether it was shooting the turnaround, fadeaway jumpers during gym class or yelling “Kobe!” when tossing a Post-It Note in the trash. (We are all 90 percent shooters when throwing away refuse and shouting Kobe’s name. It’s a scientific fact.)
Oftentimes, school-day conversations on the bus or in home room started with “Did you see what Kobe did last night?” While Bryant then was fodder for TV debates and analysis, the lunch tables at Woodrow Wilson Middle School never debated his efficiency or selfishness. It was always the dope plays that landed him on the “SportsCenter” top 10 that had us all drooling over the athleticism we’d hoped we’d get after puberty hit.
I’m nearly 29 now, and having seen Bryant’s career and legacy unfold the way it has, it’s apparent now more than when I was a snot-nosed, starry-eyed kid: Bryant wasn’t simply a generational basketball talent, or the face of basketball.
He was the face of memes. He was GIF-able. He was a lightning rod for debate and discourse, even with his undeniable greatness. He was a guy that Knicks fans loved to hate as he dropped 61 in Madison Square Garden. He was someone whose toughness you admired when he shot free throws with a ruptured Achilles or had a finger slotted back into its socket to stay in the game. It’s why his death has hurt millions around the world, as if it was the loss of a loved one.
But this wasn’t a basketball player snatched from us in his prime of his playing career — it was one taken in the prime of his life, when he had more to give the world than just scintillating on-court play. He gave people inspiration. He was the big brother of the NBA, and he pushed athletes of other sports.
It’s why countless sports figures took to Twitter to sing Bryant’s praises: Jamal Adams, Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez, Lewis Hamilton, the U.S. Women’s National Team among them. Kobe didn’t just captivate the crowds at the Staples Center. He touched the lives of thousands of pros around the world, both directly and indirectly, teaching the sports world to nurture the “Mamba Mentality,” like we tried to mimic in our sweaty gym clothes in the Woodrow Wilson gymnasium.
While it’s sad, depressing and downright awful that Bryant was taken from the world so soon, we’ll always have the memories of what he did on the court, in his successes and failures. But more than all his accomplishments, what Bryant offered the sports world was vital wisdom: be passionate, be undeniable, be unstoppable, even if your last shot circles the drain and rims out. Love the game, no matter what.
And that’s the greatest lesson that Bryant leaves behind.