If you played basketball growing up, you’ve probably had this experience:
Hunched over, at the top of your driveway, slowly crossing a weathered basketball back and forth between your fingertips. In this scenario you’ve conjured up, you had that ball at the top of the key, down one, five seconds left, with multiple imaginary defenders draped all over you.
You counted down the clock out loud, “four…three…two…”. Maybe you even did your best Kevin Harlan impression, providing some colour commentary for the neighbours. As the clock began to tick, you took a couple dribbles towards the hoop, pulled it back into your other hand and let an off-balance fadeaway fly. You attempted the shot as many times as it took to go in, but when it dropped, you celebrated that game winner like it was the first one you let go.
You weren’t just simulating a basketball play. You were emulating a person. For a fleeting moment, you became someone else.
Depending on the era you grew up in, that person might have been Michael Jordan. Maybe it was LeBron. But if you’re like me, or anyone else I grew up playing basketball with, every single time I teleported myself to Game 7 of the NBA finals on my driveway, I became Kobe “Bean” Bryant – the coldest dude on the planet.
When I heard the news, and realized he was actually gone, I was shaking. Unable to conjure up the words to describe how I was feeling. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t remember being this bothered by a non-family death in my entire life. I tried to pinpoint why my emotions were so strong, then at some point I realized – this wasn’t just about basketball.
Kobe sank the most game winners in league history (26), won 5 titles, an MVP and a Slam Dunk Contest and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all-time. But the legacy that Bryant left on the game of basketball, transcends the sport entirely. Kobe Bryant wasn’t just a basketball player, Kobe Bryant was an attitude.
Maybe you have the same mental picture as I do right now? Kobe, holding the ball at the top of the arc, sporting an aggressively forced underbite and clenched jaw as he stares through his defender, plotting his path to the hoop.
Moments of great pressure are when an athlete’s true character gets revealed. Some crumble, while others are better suited to handle the spotlight.
What made Kobe Bryant such an iconic athlete was his ability to harness pressure and expectations put on him, and leverage them to propel himself upwards. There’s nobody I’d rather have on my team at the end of a close game than a pissed-off, laser focused Kobe with a purple and gold jersey hanging out of the side of his mouth.
Beyond his control of the clutch, Bryant revolutionized the isolation style of basketball which is so prominently featured in the NBA today. That “give-me-the-ball-and-get-the-hell-out-of-my-way” mentality, is one that Kobe fostered in the high school gyms of Philadelphia, shared on the world stage and subsequently injected into a generation of basketball players and fans.
On and off the court, Kobe Bryant led a complex life. The decisions he made and the way he carried himself built the construct of a man who was extremely polarizing. But no matter if you loved to hate the guy for his shot selection, over confidence or dropping 81 points on your favourite team, or adored him for the late game heroics and irrepressible determination to compete – we all ended up in the same place: paying attention to him.
Great authors, politicians and athletes all have a way of eliciting strong, heated emotion from their audience. For some, that emotion takes the form of intense rage. For others, it manifests itself in quite the opposite fashion. But the nature of what makes great ones great, is their ability to captivate.
Debating sports is part of what makes them so awesome. We get caught up in heated arguments, engage in screaming matches, and say things we don’t mean. If we overrate a player, there’s plenty of time for them to prove their consistency. When we berate them with everything we’ve got, there’s time for them to earn our love back.
The reason it was so unthinkably hard to articulate my emotions when we heard Kobe and his daughter Gigi died in a helicopter accident, is because it seemed impossible to imagine that someone of Kobe Bryant’s magnitude could actually die. He meant too much to.
Legends are often viewed as these angelic, almost immortal beings. They become such staples in everyday life that we can end up taking our time with them for granted. But as the events of January 27th, 2020 revealed, we are never guaranteed time. Life is precious, and it’s important to savour time with the special people in our lives.
Bryant may be gone, but the legacy and impact he left behind on the game of basketball will never fade.
Whether it’s channelling his energy the next time you’re down a score at the end of a pick-up game, working on your footwork alone in the gym after practice, or screaming his name as you toss an apple core into the trash can from the other side of the room, Kobe Bryant really isn’t going anywhere. Mamba forever.