Kobe Bryant: A life well lived

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Sports Was Found In Kobe

With the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant, we are reminded of all that is good, bad, and ugly about sports because it was all on display with Kobe Bryant. Now that he is gone we begin to realize just how high we place generational athletes like him on pedestals.

Kobe Bryant in his final game with the Los Angeles Lakers; April 13, 2016, against the Utah Jazz. In the 4th quarter Bryant outscored the entire Jazz team, 23-21.
The Lakers won the game, 101-96.

I was never a fan of Bryant mainly because he wore the purple and gold of the Lakers. No self-respecting Celtics fan could ever cheer for him. That said, when I separated myself from the Celtics fan and saw him through the eyes of someone who has spent a good deal of life coaching kids, I was awed by his talent.

At his best, Kobe was as talented an offensive player as anyone to play basketball, as well as a shutdown defender.

As he aged, his defensive effort waned but he remained a prolific scorer. Throughout his career, he worked harder than anyone in the gym and expected nothing less than maximum effort out of every teammate, something that did not always set well with them.

He could be stubborn and test the patience of Phil Jackson, but even Phil knew there were more titles to be won with Kobe than there were with Shaq so Kobe remained a Laker for life while O’Neill spent his final years moving from one team to the next.

In the end, riddled by injuries and two decades of professional basketball, Laker fans still believed Kobe, and only Kobe, could come back and rise again to the top of the hoops world. When he retired, the Lakers were left to raise two jersey numbers, 8 and 24, in his honor.

Kobe was never going to be the next Michael Jordan. He was going to be Kobe. While Jordan might suffer through a cold spell of shooting, he would always find ways to involve his teammates and contribute in other areas. Not Kobe. He’d launch shot after shot even if it meant costing his team victory because as a gunslinger, he believed everything he threw at the rim was going in and no one on his team was better for the job, no matter how many he missed.

All that was exciting about basketball could be found in his game. Jump shots from all over the perimeter, explosive drives finishing in dunks, lightning quick reflexes resulting in steals, and always the ball in his hands when the game was on the line. He craved competition and demanded excellence from anyone associated with him and the Lakers. Anything less was selling out.

Then came the events of Colorado and suddenly we were faced with a different Kobe Bryant. In the end, you either believed he was being taken advantage of by a woman looking for money or he was paying his way out of a rape conviction. Kobe was proof that the justice system is far kinder to people with money than those without it. His work was cut out for him in an entirely different way. He had a marriage and professional reputation to repair.

Kobe Bryant

We would go on and see a new Kobe Bryant, one who not just wore a new jersey number, but one who seemed more determined than ever to prove to the world, like him or not, he was to be considered when talking about the greatest players ever.

Bryant was proof that most people love a winner and when the Lakers were hoisting more championship banners in their rafters, Kobe was now back in the good graces with most of the public. However, there would always be detractors, but if it mattered to him, he did not show it. He just kept pushing himself and his teams to accept nothing less than excellence.

Two horrific injuries would eventually be enough to get the best of Kobe Bryant. However, rather than limping away from the game he loved, he chose to will himself back to prove to everyone he would leave the game on his terms, just as he always played it.

I remember writing a few years back as his retirement approached how I felt he would make a great coach and if UCLA was wise, they would hire him to be their head coach. I still believe had such an offer come his way and he accepted it, Kobe Bryant would have been a great coach. Instead, he chose to follow new passions and was reinventing himself. He was going to be the person who took women’s basketball to an entirely new level as he was coaching his daughter’s team while mentoring both professional men and women.

His death instantly made me think back to that New Year’s Day when I was watching a bowl game on TV and they announced the death of Roberto Clemente, my favorite baseball player. Both packed in a lot of accomplishments, not just as players, but as human beings in a position to help others. Both left huge voids with their passing.

Kobe Bryant never quit. He didn’t quit when others doubted him early in his career. He didn’t quit when the public and media wanted his head on a platter. He didn’t quit when injured and he was not quitting just because he was retired from playing in the NBA. He could have played it safe on that foggy January 26th morning, but he never played it safe in order to become the best.

L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant in his post game interviews. “It makes me really remember the challenge of being 36 and being 19 years in and your body just won’t respond. You’re sick and you used to be able to fight through those things.”

In my life, we are used to the news of rock stars dying young or suddenly. The road is littered with the corpses of singers, guitarists and drummers who paid the price for living on the edge. However, athletes are supposed to be immortal. We are supposed to get to watch them grow old and tell stories of their greatness. We are supposed to see the Muhammed Ali’s of the world trembling with unsteady hands lighting Olympic flames while we tell our children and grandchildren there is one of the greatest, if not the greatest ever.

Kobe Bryant was supposed to be one of those athletes. When he turned 50, we were supposed to be able to say we felt like he could still play the game. By 70, an entire generation was to only know of him for his post NBA contributions. Upon his death as an old man, we were to be reminded of an entire life in which he seemed to be a part of it.

Life goes on. There is a Super Bowl this week that hopefully will serve as a pleasant distraction from the nonsense of the world we live in. Next Monday, we will have something else to talk about, but for now, we mourn the passing of a man who came to symbolize everything sports represents in our culture. If his death teaches us anything, let’s hope it involves giving nothing less than your total self to what it is you are passionate about.

Photos by Claudia Gestro