Yesterday, when the news broke, we didn’t know what to do. After hours of sitting on the couch in shock and silence, we decided to go out for a walk; the house had become unbearably crowded with sadness. As the sun set over the Charles River, we walked with the cold wind stinging our faces, past a basketball court on Memorial Drive, where young men were playing a pickup game, and I thought of Kobe Bryant. I wondered how many of the players had grown up watching Kobe, imitating him, wanting to be just like him. I wondered if they even knew that he was gone yet, or if they’d been playing for so long that they’d become consumed by the game, and not thought to check their phones, and how they’d feel when they heard the terrible story. Or maybe, I thought, they were out there playing on a cold January evening because of Kobe, because playing the game he loved so much was the only thing they could think to do to honor him and feel close to him. And I then I thought about the fact that we will never see Kobe Bryant play basketball again.
I didn’t grow up a big basketball fan, but Kobe was Kobe. Everyone knew who Kobe Bryant was. He seemed, and still seems now, to have been larger than life. I remember kids in school wearing his jerseys, and kids who were Celtics fans teasing them for it, but still shouting “Kobe” when they crumpled up paper or their trash from lunch and attempted to toss it into the trash can. Because even when they were rooting against him, they still wanted to be just like him.
I saw a father walking his young daughters to school this morning, and I thought of Kobe. How much he loved his daughters, and how proud he was to share basketball with them, especially Gianna, who passed away yesterday with him. He loved coaching her basketball team, seeing her play, taking her to NBA and WNBA games, and experiencing the game in a new way with her. As someone who learned to love sports from her father, there really is no bond like it.
Kobe Bryant, like almost everyone on this planet, was far from perfect. But as one Twitter user so aptly put it, you are allowed to mourn imperfect people. And if you are not mourning, you can and should still allow others to grieve in their own way.
The way Kobe lived his life indicated that he wanted and strived to be a better man every day than he’d been the day before. In 2016, when he was on his Mamba Mentality Tour after retiring from the NBA, Kobe explained exactly what Mamba Mentality meant:
To sum up what Mamba Mentality is, it means to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself.”
“That is what the Mentality is,” he added. “It’s a constant quest to try to do better today than you were yesterday.”(ABS-CBN Sports)
Kobe championed female athletes, including mentoring players like Sabrina Ionescu and his daughter Gianna. He and his wife Vanessa were enormously philanthropic, becoming founding donors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, starting their own foundation to help youth and their families in 2007, working to end homelessness in Los Angeles, as well as working with numerous other causes. He granted over 250 wishes to sick children with the Make A Wish Foundation, and worked with Stand Up To Cancer many times. And he was especially generous when it came to youth basketball programs, a cause he championed everywhere from South Africa, to Singapore, to his childhood home country of Italy, to all over California. As recently as last week, he was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying that numerous current WNBA players were good enough to play in the NBA, and he was often seen at WNBA games with Gianna. He was a proud advocate for women in basketball and soccer, and he used his platform to give female athletes a lot of well-deserved attention. Mamba Mentality wasn’t just a marketing ploy to him; he truly embodied it in the many ways he tried to make this world a better place.
At the end of the day, most of our heroes are, in fact, human. It seems unfathomable that someone who seemed like a real-life superhero is now gone. But as much as we think and wish that our heroes are somehow untouchable, the sad reality is that at the end of the day, they are just like us: they, too, will live and then, they will die. I think that is why it hits us so hard when athletes or celebrities whom we did not know personally pass away, because it feels impossible that the worst part of life, death, could happen to them. What they gave to the world made us feel like anything was possible, like miracles were real; in their moments of greatness, there was only magic, no pain, certainly not death. So how can someone who was so incredible at what they did suddenly just be… gone?
Kobe Bryant was supposed to live a long life. He was supposed to continue supporting female athletes, get to watch his daughters grow up, keep coaching Gianna’s teams, and see her achieve her dream of player basketball at UConn and then in the WNBA. His youngest daughter is not even a year old, and the fact that she will not remember her father is incomprehensibly sad. He will live on in the hearts and minds of millions of fans, the children who looked up to him, players he inspired and mentored, his beautiful family, so many people around this blue and green marble on which we live. But he, himself, is gone, and many people are just going to be very sad for a while.
When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a giant mural of Kobe that I drove past every day. Painted on the side of a store on Melrose Avenue, he was depicted in the gold and purple he wore for almost half of his life. In that rendering, he is forever young, forever doing what he loved. So that is how I will remember him, larger than life, even in death. But more than that, I will remember him as a person who loved his family even more than he loved the game, and as someone who truly wanted to live each day better than the day before.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images, AP, Sports Illustrated