I have lived in Los Angeles throughout Kobe Bryant’s NBA career. His career began in the fall of 1996 when he joined the Lakers as an 18-year old right out of Lower Merion High near Philadelphia. Kobe’s high school was about three miles from Haverford College, where I played basketball for four years before moving to Los Angeles. After he followed me to LA, Kobe’s career stretched to the spring of 2016, when Father Time caught up with his legs and he retired.
Throughout his career, Kobe was obsessed with the game, with improving each summer, and with wringing everything possible from his body in the pursuit of wins. He also had difficulty dealing with anyone, teammates in particular, who did not share his passion. As Kobe’s career wound down, some of us were concerned with how he would transition to “civilian life”.
It turns out that our concern was unfounded. Kobe transitioned wonderfully to his post-career life. He simply transferred his passion towards basketball to pursuits other than making jump shots. He wisely decided to transition his passion (and knowledge) to basketball related areas. He offered incredible insight to evaluating players on the ESPN website. His Oscar winning film was a love letter to the game itself. And most importantly, he was able to transfer his love of the game to his daughters, mentoring them (and their young teammates) on their travel teams.
Last spring I attended a Fan Access Day at the Staples Center at which Kobe was the featured speaker. I had never seen him so at peace with his life. He was passionate about his new projects, the Lakers and his family. He was simultaneously happy, thoughtful, funny and comfortable in his own skin. Ominously, he also described how the ability to take a helicopter to and from home games in his last few years made it easier for him to spend time with his daughters.
All of which made Sunday morning’s tragedy so stunning, especially as the news got worse as the day went on. After the first reports announced that Kobe had perished in a helicopter crash, we then heard that Kobe’s daughter was also on the helicopter, then that a teammate and her parent also died, then that the death toll was not 5, but 9, including an assistant basketball coach who was the mother of three small children, and a wonderful college baseball coach and his wife and daughter. The loss reverberated, especially here in Los Angeles.
Young Lakers fans grew up with Kobe as a constant in and around the Staples Center, while non-young fans had watched Kobe, through his ups and downs, as the accompanying background to our adulthoods. Being in Los Angeles, some of us were lucky enough to have direct contact with him. My friend Peter worked with Kobe on his music career. My son Pablo was at Kobe’s 81 point game, and still has the ticket. While playing basketball at Georgetown, Pablo’s close friend Ashanti got to know Kobe while working at Kobe’s summer camps. A partner at my firm just told me this morning that his 11-year daughter plays in the same club group with Kobe’s daughter Gigi, knows both of them well, and she was all set to play in the same tournament with Gigi on Sunday before all games were cancelled.
My friend Doug donated money to a charity which gave him the right to play HORSE against Kobe. In a great insight into Kobe’s competitiveness, Doug took an early HOR to H lead – at which point Kobe’s entire demeanor changed and Doug was able to witness the “Kobe look”. Doug told me that when he saw that look, he turned to his son Tommy and said, “Tommy, study that look. That’s Kobe about to go off.” Kobe was not going to lose, even if the competition was a friendly game of HORSE in a charity give-away – and he did not.
Doug told me that story at about 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning, just before we started our weekly game. Kobe and the others took off in the helicopter from Orange County at 9:06 a.m.
While I never got to meet Kobe, I was there at Staples Center for two classic Kobe moments. In the 2006 playoffs, the Lakers were up 2 – 1 in their series over the heavily favored Phoenix Suns. This was not a strong Laker team — other than Kobe, the only other above-average player was pre-Kardashian Lamar Odom. The Lakers’ starting line-up that year also included Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and either Chris Mihm or Brian Cook. Kobe’s jumper at the buzzer in overtime won the game, creating a moment that anyone present will not forget – the crowd remained standing and cheering for over 10 minutes after the game.
I was also there for Kobe’s last game, when he scored 60 points, including 23 in his fourth and final quarter, for a stunning win over the Utah Jazz. It was only the 17th win in the Lakers season, as they finished the season 17-65. (As a side-note, present Spur Trey Lyles started for the Jazz in that game and played 39 minutes.) As with the win over the Suns ten years earlier, it was an unforgettable night, perhaps the only highlight of that miserable season for Laker fans. Kobe’s final game was at the Staples Center, the same location as Sunday’s Grammy Awards, a poignant coincidence.
Spurs fans had a different view of Kobe Bryant. Bruce Bowen’s uniform is in the rafters largely because of his unique ability to cover or at least contain him. And like Kawhi Leonard, Kobe came into the league after a draft-day trade for a popular veteran – George Hill for Kawhi, Vlade Divac for Kobe. Before LeBron James came along, Kobe was the only player of his generation who was in the conversation with the Great Tim Duncan as the Best Player in the Game. Both are among the rare few to play their entire career with the same team. While both players were in their primes, those two teams battled for supremacy of the West.
All of which makes the teams’ tribute to Kobe Sunday afternoon at the start of the Spurs’ game against the Raptors especially touching. When the teams each took a 24-second clock violation to start the game, in honor of Kobe’s number 24 jersey, they showed great respect for one of the fiercest competitors to play basketball, or any other game. Other teams around the league followed suit. We all just wish Kobe, and the eight others, could have been around to see it.