Yesterday was just like any other day for awhile. I had worked out in the morning, gone to a Jiu-Jitsu class, and then met my girlfriend for brunch. Shortly thereafter, we dove deeper into the documentary about Aaron Hernandez we had recently started. I was feeling a little bit sad that I would have to leave home again in just a few hours for another work trip, this time in San Francisco and Phoenix. I get homesick pretty much any time I travel these days.
For a moment, I picked up my phone and quickly checked Twitter and saw a tweet about Kobe Bryant dying in a helicopter crash. I found this to be so unbelievable and ridiculous that I almost did not even dig any further into it. But as I looked around a bit and realized the source was TMZ, I realized that the cruel joke might be true. I felt a pit in my stomach.
A wave of emotions came over me. Really, I felt like crying. I was shaken. How could Kobe Bryant – a seemingly infallible superstar enjoying the potential of his retirement and life as a father – be dead so young?
And why was I – someone who had no relationship to the man – so devastated?
I have spent some time thinking about it, and I want to explain what Kobe Bryant meant to me, and maybe what he meant to many of us.
Being from Boston and being a huge sports fan, the Lakers have always been one of my most hated teams. I’m not particularly into the NBA compared to other sports I follow, but I care and follow it closely enough to have always rooted against the LA Lakers. But I never rooted against Kobe Bryant specifically because deep down, I guess I liked him for some reason.
There are some players on teams I am predisposed to hate that I instead have a special appreciation for. I always had a Mickey Mantle signed poster hanging over my bed growing up even though I was a diehard Red Sox fan who dreamed of making it to the big leagues and even thought about what it would be like to turn down a contract with the New York Yankees.
But it’s still been true that there are a handful of players who – despite playing on teams I hated – filled me with much admiration.
On the New York Yankees, it was Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. On the Montreal Canadiens, it was Carey Price or Saku Koivu. And how could I ever hate Peyton Manning, no matter what kind of rivalry he had with Tom Brady?
In the NBA, and on the Lakers specifically, it was Kobe Bryant. And let’s be clear about something. Kobe Bryant got under my skin all the time. He was arguably the best player to ever play the game and undoubtedly in the top five. While on one hand I got to see the Celtics win an NBA Championship over one of his teams, I also got to witness Kobe exact his revenge on my Celtics in a 7 game series, denying the Celtics of a second championship in an era where people really felt they ought to have won several.
As a rival fan, you learn to admire and appreciate players on the opposing team for the way that they carry themselves. Kobe was somebody who I always thought did things the right way. And it turns out I was not alone. Celtics fans gave Kobe a standing ovation in his last game in Boston. He had made such an impression on everybody who bore witness to his greatness.
Kobe Bryant was living testimonial to all of us about what you can be if you decide to work hard enough at something. When I think of Kobe Bryant, I think of worth ethic, competitiveness, and drive. There are countless stories from coaches and players that talk about the insane amount of dedication that Kobe put into life and basketball.
For people in my generation, Kobe Bryant bridged the gap between Michael Jordan and the current wave of superstars like LeBron James. For a period of time, he was arguably the most important and recognizable human being on the planet. When playing pick-up basketball with my friends in high school or college, you would yell “Kobe!” when finishing a nice play. Like Google, he was putting his own name in the dictionary as a commonly used word.
I say all this while being mindful that I was not necessarily a Kobe Bryant fan growing up. I did not spend too much time thinking about him, and he certainly spent no time thinking of me. And yet, I still feel completely devastated. Maybe it is with people that hold the key to a moment in time in our lives that we feel some sort of connection. We may not have truly known them, but we always felt like we did. I am ashamed to admit it in some ways, but the sadness I’ve felt within myself and within the people around me feels like the type of sadness that percolates when one has a death in their own family. That cannot be by coincidence.
We all feel terribly because of the things that Kobe had yet to do. There was a legacy he was going to leave for the next 40+ years that expanded well beyond the world of basketball. He was a coach and mentor to his daughter, who tragically passed away in the crash with him. He was a strong advocate for the WNBA and women in sports who, I imagine, was going to do a lot of good for her future and the future of other girls who dreamed big. Like Magic Johnson (and perhaps LeBron James), he seemingly was poised to do a lot of good for a lot of people with the platform he had created for himself and the resources he had accrued. He leaves behind three daughters, a wife, and family. My heart goes out to all of them and the others who perished and their families and loved ones as well.
Maybe we all feel a little bit vulnerable when someone we thought was invincible proves to be mortal. When I was a kid, I idolized so many athletes. Then I got a job on the Boston Red Sox grounds crew and one of my peers told me that they all put on their pants the same way that we common people do. Maybe that changed things a little bit, but not entirely. It is easy for many of us to think famous celebrity athletes have it good, and maybe they do in some ways. But in other ways, they are doing a job just like the rest of us. The difference is that only a few of us can say we are the absolute best at what we do. Kobe Bryant was one of those few. Losing a human being of his caliber hurts for everyone.
At the end of the day, there is no denying how much work Kobe Bryant put into making himself the best in the world. We are all sad today to see so much work put in only to never realize all of the fruits of his labor. We all may think that his many achievements on the court were everything he wanted to accomplish, but there were so many things he was yet to do in life with his family and his career. It hurts to see someone work so hard never to quite make it to the proverbial finish line they envisioned for themselves. It is unfair.
Rest in peace, Kobe Bryant. Thank you for the impact you made on so many people and for inspiring us so often. You will be missed.