I was in a drive-thru waiting for my breakfast when I first started to see alerts popping up on my phone, all saying roughly the same thing: Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. I didn’t believe it at first. I told myself, “Kobe can’t die. He’s Kobe.” But it was true. By the time I got back to my room, I was crying. I didn’t know Kobe, obviously. His best days on the court were behind him by the time I started watching basketball. But he was still a magnetic presence, even when he was on the bench. He was a pillar of not only the sports world but the world as a whole. He was the guy who, along with Shaq, secured the first and only three-peat since Jordan’s Bulls. He was the guy who dropped 81 points on the Raptors, who sank two clutch free throws on a torn Achilles, who dropped 60 points in his farewell game.
Kobe was, no question, a fantastic basketball player. But he came up in a draft class that included Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Ben Wallace, and other great players. What made Kobe better than all of them was his work ethic. Immortalized as the legendary “Mamba Mentality”, it was what made him spend a summer working out in an empty gym, using folding chairs as defenders. The Mamba Mentality made him get to practice two hours early and shoot in a dark gym–while he was still a high school student. It made him convince Nike to shave a millimeter off of his shoes so he would have an extra one-hundredth of a second of reaction time. Kobe was famously demanding of his teammates, even to the point of cruelty, as he has admitted in the past. But Kobe would only accept perfection in himself, as well, and that was what made him so beloved. As the news broke Sunday, tributes poured from all around the NBA and the world. Teams took 8 and 24-second penalties in honor of the two numbers Kobe wore throughout his career. The Grammys, taking place in the Staples Center that night, kept a spotlight on Kobe’s two retired jerseys in the rafters.
Kobe inspired me, even outside of sports. When I first picked up a camera, and when I first started to write, I thought that I was never going to get better at either craft. But I watched Kobe, and I listened to him speak. Greatness took work, he said. It required dedication and sacrifice, and sometimes it meant being a jerk to everybody, but in the end, those who had the will to persevere found themselves on the mountaintop. Losing a role model like Kobe is a hard thing to come to terms with, and I don’t know if I have yet. I cried off and on for most of Sunday and I cried some more when I went back to edit this article on Monday. I miss him. It still doesn’t make sense that he’s gone. He was just 41, with an entirely new career ahead of him. The animated short “Dear Basketball”, in which Kobe read out the poem he composed ahead of his final NBA season, won an Academy Award. He wrote a best-selling book and opened a basketball training academy. He was a monumental figure that had been present in the culture my entire life. That he was taken away is cruel and baffling.
In the end, I believe Kobe would agree with the statement that his greatest legacy will be as a father. My heart breaks to know that his daughter Gianna, just 13 years old, was with him on that helicopter. She was hellbent on playing in the WNBA, and Kobe knew she had the talent to do so. The light in his eyes when he talked about her made it clear that his children were his greatest joy. It wasn’t the five championships, or twenty years of fame in LA, or retiring as the NBA’s third-leading scorer of all time. His family was his pride. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so if you haven’t reached out to your friends and family recently to tell them you love them, do so. Give up on petty grudges and arguments. Life’s too short for us to hate each other. Rest in peace and power, Kobe, Gianna, as well as the other victims of the helicopter crash.