On January 26th, I was standing at the Port Credit GO Station waiting for my 2:41 train to downtown Toronto. It was an overcast day, quiet and cold. No different than any of the other days in the winter season. As the train pulled into the station, I received a notification in my group chat. As I climbed aboard the train, I opened the message and it read just one word.
I calmly scrolled through Twitter to see what the news was about. Could Kobe Bryant, former Laker legend, actually be making a comeback to basketball? Naw. Maybe he’s just going to play in the Big 3. Heck, maybe it is some salacious scandal unfolding in front of the public. After learning that the source of the report was TMZ (Thirty-Mile Zone), I knew it had to be a juicy headline. Come on, TMZ only deals in scandals and hearsay, right? I wish that were the case this time. Instead, as my train zipped along the tracks to my final destination, the story that I had hoped was wrong turned out to be very horrifyingly true.
Kobe Bryant died in a fiery crash alongside his daughter, Gianna Bryant, friends, Payton Chester, Alyssa Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Christina Mauser, John Altobelli, Sarah Chester, and the pilot, Ara Zobayan.
I was numb. My body went into autopilot for the remainder of Sunday. As the reports and reactions poured in on any and every platform, I felt complete and all-consuming sadness. Just like that, families had been ripped apart. A legend gone way too soon; young kids robbed of promising lives.
All those thoughts rushed to my head, flooding my mind and leaving me in a depressive state. Death is an inevitability, although one we convince ourselves isn’t lurking around the corner on a daily basis. But living legends never die. They’re the role models we aspire to be. The trendsetters who tell us how to better ourselves. Dying on his way to support his daughter and Mamba Academy, in a tragic helicopter crash, is not how icons are supposed to go out.
In the days since the tragedy, there have been many eulogies, remarks, and comments about the life and legacy of Kobe Bean Bryant. In the wake of the tragedy, we heard stories from life-long fans who never met Kobe in person, but felt a strong attachment to both the man and his legacy. My relationship to Kobe is not that different from any other fan’s. I have never met Kobe Bryant, but was very aware of his impact on the sport of basketball. A phenom in Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bryant jumped onto my radar for being the cocky young kid who compared himself to Michael Jordan. After being acquired by the Lakers during the 1996 NBA Draft, Bryant took the league by storm, with his dazzling moves both through the air and with the ball in his hands. A saying popular among basketball circles is that everyone wants to “be like Mike” (Michael Jordan), but who hasn’t thrown something and yelled “Kobe!” at least once?
Perhaps that’s the reason why, as a young eighth grader on a field trip to Ottawa, I chose that iconic yellow and purple replica jersey. With just five minutes left on a sanctioned shopping trip to the major mall of the city, I was unsure what merchandise deserved to take the six hour drive back home with me. Just sitting there, in the perfect XL size, was Kobe’s jersey. From that day, throughout high school, I would wear that golden jersey until the line faded from so many washes. For me, the jersey represented more than fan gear and a teenager trying to be cool. It soon became part of my identity. That jersey spawned my first nickname, “Faux-obe” -– as in the fake Kobe. Not all that endearing, but I didn’t care. I was going to have fun in that jersey and no one could tell me otherwise.
My admiration of the name on the back of that now-tattered jersey also holds merit. I tried to grow an Afro like him. Tried to hang in the air like him. Tried to glide through hallways like him. As much as I professed my adoration for Michael Jordan throughout my childhood, my formative years were heavily influenced by Kobe…. Even if I didn’t realize it back then.
That fondness faded as my interests changed from the hardwood to the gridiron, but there was still respect for Kobe. Fueling my disinterest was a sexual assault trial where Bryant would ultimately admit to infidelity to his wife and young kids. The trial was settled, but the damage to Bryant’s reputation was done. Vilified for the accusations, Kobe became one of those living contradictions that you couldn’t ignore, but were reluctant to root for.
But as I grew older, so did my role models. Bryant was not only a father; but had won a couple of championships and built a strong following based on his Mamba Mentality ethos. Constructed on the principle of hard work and dedication, Bryant still couldn’t win his detractors over, but managed to capture the respect of those who were willing to watch and listen. His ‘first in the gym and last to leave’ mentality was a quality that made him beloved by fans and hated by rivals. Dedicating his entire day to being a better player, Bryant’s intense work ethic made him into a polarizing individual. While many wondered if he wanted to be like Mike, He lived his life trying to be the best Kobe. As he transitioned into retirement, he transferred that dedication to his family. Becoming an advocate for women’s sports, producing a Grammy-winning documentary and establishing his Mamba Academy, Bryant thrived in his post-playing career.
Now those same people shed tears, pray, and reflect on the moments they shared with Kobe Bryant. All the hard work and sweat left on the floor. The Lakers, where Kobe spent his entire career, are slowly coming to grips with the news, as is the entire NBA. Kobe Bryant was equal parts talent, dedication and mortal… with a healthy splash of ego tossed in. Able to make basketball — and life — look effortless, he was also a human being with flaws. From ego to scandal, Kobe has had a few humbling lessons along the way, showing us all that you’re never too big to grow.
Kobe’s impact transcended basketball, reaching every pocket of the globe. Gone far too soon, and in a manner that is unfathomable. The pain will subside, but the memory of Kobe Bryant will live on forever. Bryant was more than just a man that was really good with a ball in his hands. He was more than the father of four girls. He was more than a philanthropist and burgeoning children’s book author. Bryant was idolized for all his remarkable talents. While Kobe may have been reluctant to share the light on the basketball court, he often did so gracefully away from it.
Gone, but never forgotten. Let’s be thankful for those memories.