The End of the Tunnel: A Look at Kobe Bryant's Legacy

I have to admit that I was late to the Kobe game. I have loved boys who loved Kobe, but I hadn’t loved him myself. He was always there - an idol, a religion - and the boys I loved, with their gold and purple jerseys, their barefaced admiration, and their own youthful dreams of greatness, knelt at his altar. 

I’m not an athlete. Even as a neophyte, however, one couldn’t help but notice Kobe. Still, I didn’t become a Kobe fan during the superstar’s lifetime. I became a “Black Mamba” admirer last Sunday, when the helicopter he relied upon to navigate his Los Angeles area life tumbled from the early morning sky, killing Bryant, his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other passengers. Images of Kobe on the Staples Center floor, sitting courtside with his daughter, cradled by fellow basketball great Shaquille O’Neal, and sleek in black-tie attire accepting an Oscar flooded my Instagram feed and dominated television programming. It took only a few images for me to understand why he was so beloved.

Bryant’s athletic greatness was, of course, well-documented. He made the leap to NBA play as the 1996 13th overall draft pick at age 17, straight out of high school. Bryant racked up 18 All-Star selections, four MVP awards in the All-Star games, two Olympic gold medals, a pair of NBA finals MVP nods, a 2008 regular-season Most Valuable Player award, an enviable 33,643 regular season points, and five championship rings. Even as a fair weather, only when convenient spectator, I understood that Kobe’s skill on the court was unmatched, one of a kind. 

Kobe’s rise in the NBA taught that success was born of ambition, doggedness, and dedicated work. He was committed to his purpose, to a sport he loved “obsessively,” to use his own words, and to the outcomes he chased. Fans are quick to remind us of the Lakers’ 2011 contest with the Miami Heat. Los Angeles suffered a 94-88 loss and Bryant passed on dinner with his teammates to go back on court, running through shooting drills solo, as the clock approached midnight. In a now-famous example of Bryant’s grit, in 2013, when playing in a potentially season-ending game for the Lakers against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant tore his Achilles, but refused to leave the court until he took his two free throw shots to tie up the game. Kobe’s drive to produce and perform was unwavering and fans not only appreciated it, but sought to emulate it.

I also see, however, that so much of Kobe’s magnetism was cultivated off-court, where he loved openly and gave voice to his emotions. In the poem penned by Bryant, Dear Basketball, eventually made into a short, animated film that earned him an Academy Award, Kobe spoke of his love affair with basketball and the passion that encouraged his work ethic: 

“As a six-year old boy

Deeply in love with you

I never saw the end of the tunnel

I only saw myself

Running out of one.

 

And so I ran.

I ran up and down every court

After every loose ball for you

You asked for my hustle

I gave you my heart

Because it came with so much more…”

 

“I did everything for YOU...”

 

Bryant was power and determination, domineering and a showboat, but he was also emotive, attached, expressive. He was not without blemish; a 2003 rape allegation that pre-dated the #MeToo movement was settled out of court and complicates Bryant’s legacy. Judging by the outpouring of love this week, Bryant seemingly won back the affection and admiration of the nation and much of the basketball-loving world. Kobe taught that dedication could deliver greatness, and that to be grateful, to dream, to love games and people might just be rewards in themselves. Our collective reaction to his death could be interpreted by some to suggest that we value athletic prowess, ambition, and drive more than a woman’s safety or, instead, that we are still a people who believe in big dreams and second chances.