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Remembering Kobe Bryant

| Friday, January 31, 2020

Renee Yaseen | The Observer

I’m a Knicks fan.

I’ve been a Knicks fan my whole life. Outside of a few semi-magical seasons, I’ve been treated to two decades of bottom-of-the barrel, borderline unwatchable basketball. Sometimes a season will start out promising. But disappointment always rears its head by January.

When you’re a Knicks fan, you learn to enjoy the game in other ways. You have to. You pay attention to the other team. You get excited when big names come into New York. I grew up watching the Knicks, but I also grew up watching guys like LeBron James, Paul Pierce — and Kobe Bryant.

Like millions of basketball fans around the world, Kobe became one of my favorite players. I remember watching his 2009-2010 playoff runs, his legendary fourth quarter performances. I remember the day he signed his last contract with Los Angeles. I remember him dropping 60 in his last-ever game.

I followed Kobe’s career, but you didn’t have to in order to know his legend. He was an international superstar; he transcended his sport. Even if you never played basketball, I know you’ve done the “Kobe” — taking that balled-up paper or wrapper in your hand, shooting a fadeaway jump shot and shouting “Kobe!” as it lands in (or misses) the garbage. I still do it every time.

We all knew Kobe. And that’s why when he was killed suddenly in a helicopter crash Sunday, at the age of 41, it was so hard to believe. Perhaps more tragically, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, herself on her way to basketball stardom, died in the crash as well. The six other passengers, and the pilot, also lost their lives.

I don’t really know how to write about Kobe’s legacy. His career on the court speaks for itself — 20 seasons, five NBA Finals Championships, two Finals MVPs, two Olympic Gold Medals — I could go on forever.

I could talk about his unrelenting competitiveness, the “Mamba Mentality” for which he became so famous, his promise to work harder than everyone else in the world. There’s a million stories about that. My favorite is the time he played a casual round of ping-pong against Lakers reporter Mike Trudell. Bryant lost both games. The next week, he had an official Olympic ping-pong table delivered to his home.

I could talk about how his dominance continued into retirement — his burgeoning business career, his endorsements, his Academy Award. That’s right. Kobe Bryant won an Oscar. And I bet if he wanted to, he would’ve won another.

To try and encapsulate Kobe as any one thing, in any one statement, isn’t possible. He meant too much to too many. We saw that this week across the NBA, as teams voluntarily took 24-second shot clock violations in honor of his number. LeBron promised to continue his legacy. His longtime rival coach, Doc Rivers, said through tears that “We’re all Lakers today.”

Derek Jeter, who played 20 contiguous seasons with Kobe, had perhaps the most heartfelt take. In an article for “The Players’ Tribune,” he wrote: “When I think of Kobe, I really just end up thinking about those special few personal conversations that we were lucky enough to share together, each time one of us had a new baby daughter … I’ve seen him win gold medals and championship rings. But I’ve still never seen him look as happy, in those big moments on the court, as he looked the other day off of it: with an arm around Gigi, sitting courtside … Kobe just loved being a dad. Rest in peace to Kobe Bryant — who knew that his life was only as important as the love he had for the people in it. Who knew that he was born to play basketball. But it was family over everything.”

Kobe did love his family more than anything. And that’s why we all loved him — because to us, Kobe was family. We grew up with him. We thought we’d grow old with him, too. We thought we’d see him age and gray courtside at Lakers games, a legend of the old guard, imparting his wisdom onto a new generation of players that he could probably still beat. We thought we’d watch him mentor Gianna as she tore up college hoops, and later the WNBA.

We don’t get that now. The story of Kobe Bryant was cut shorter than any of us could have expected. But that doesn’t mean it’s over. Not completely. Not yet. Like a parent or a sibling gone too soon, a part of Kobe lives on in everyone he left behind. He lives in those he loved: in his wife Vanessa and their three young daughters. He lives in LeBron’s dominance and leadership; in Kawhi Leonard’s shot, his footwork.

He exists in every athlete who stays after practice for one more round, who wakes up at 4 a.m. to get that extra session in. His legacy hangs from the rafters of the Staples Center, it surrounds its hallowed floorboards. He’s there in all of us, in every fan, in every crumpled piece of paper shot into a bin, as a kid shouts his name, follows through and fades away.

 

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American studies and classics, and will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @PatKelves17 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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