The first time I watched Kobe Bryant play basketball I was eight years old. It was his second year in the league and I was a bright-eyed budding NBA fan in a family that still prefers the collegiate game.
Michael Jordan was still the man in his last year with the Chicago Bulls, but everyone who was watching knew Kobe had next, even a short, skinny mid-western kid barely old enough to play with a full ten-foot rim.
I don’t remember how many points he scored or how many shots he took. I don’t remember the date of the game or even the opponent. But I remember the feeling of watching him play. Even his mistakes were captivating. I wanted to be able to do what he could do, and to make it look as easy as he did.
There are, beyond a doubt, tens of millions of others with more or less identical accounts. The outpouring of grief following Bryant’s untimely passing from fans, players, and admirers across the world is reflective of the deep reverence which so many of us will always hold for him.
There will be plenty of time in the coming weeks to recount his achievements, and it would likely take at least that long to get to them all. He was among the greatest scorers, leaders, and winners the game has ever seen, and we cheered for him because of it. But it was how and why he achieved what he did that made us love him.
He was brilliant, curious, creative, obsessively competitive, and above all absolutely relentless. Spoiled Laker fans always rallied to him because he so eagerly embraced our championship-or-bust, excellence-or-nothing mindset. An entire generation of NBA players came of age armed with their own cherished legends about his work ethic and focus. Professional athletes are famously competitive, but no one ever claimed to work as hard as Kobe Bryant.
None of which should be taken to imply he was a perfect man. He was brash and impatient, especially in his youth. His exacting standards alienated those teammates who failed or refused to live up to them, which in the end amounted to most of the people with whom he ever played.
Yet it was how he reinvented himself in the wake of those mistakes and challenges that inspired us the most. After the blow up of the 2004 superteam that finally ended his playing days with Shaquille O’Neal and the resolution of his court battles, Bryant found himself stuck on mediocre teams and vilified in the media.
Watching O’Neal win an NBA title with the young Dwayne Wade during this time added insult to injury. Bryant’s career could easily have come off the rails under the strain of it all.
Instead, he withdrew into himself and redoubled his focus. If he couldn’t control many of his external circumstances, he could control his own effort and learn from his missteps. He created the alter-ego of the Black Mamba to isolate his personal problems from his performance. He emerged from the experience a better player, teammate, and person.
His reinvention culminated in two additional championships and, more importantly, his emergence as the supreme elder statesman of the NBA. Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and others cited his example from the 2008 Olympic team as essential in their own development into true superstars. Every subsequent cohort of young talent sought his knowledge and advice, and he relished the role.
For all of us who grew up idolizing Kobe, seeing him respond to extreme stress by learning and growing was an important lesson. The Mamba Mentality became about more than one person overcoming his personal problems to succeed at basketball. It became a symbol of persistence, an archetype for how to face down adversity with poise and intelligence. It made Kobe Bryant a role model in the purest sense: not as a perfect person to emulate, but as a highly imperfect person who showed us how to make ourselves better.
After basketball, Bryant had taken his passion for mentorship and communication to its logical conclusion. He produced children’s videos and stories. He turned his goodbye letter to the game he loved into a short film that won an Oscar. Every indication was that he had only begun to scratch the surface of his post-athletic potential.
There is never a good time to lose a childhood idol. Even so, losing him now seems particularly cruel. We can only imagine and sympathize as much as possible with the awful grief of his family and close friends. For those of us who knew him only as an icon and exceptional public figure, there is nothing for us to do but remember, commiserate, and raise a glass to the memory of a man whose absence will make the world a little darker.