I can’t remember exactly when I started to follow basketball, but I do remember the player that first captured my imagination and became my first favorite basketball player. Growing up on Long Island, it was probably a sin, but that player was Magic Johnson. And so, by default, the Lakers became my favorite team. Those no look passes were, and remain, completely mesmerizing. All I really remember from that part of my life, as a basketball fan, was Lakers versus Celtics and Magic versus Larry Bird. The Knicks, rightfully, soon became the team I rooted for, but the Lakers were the team I enjoyed the most.
As a fan of Magic Johnson, I spent too many years dismissing the idea that Michael Jordan could be the best player of all-time. His gifts were obvious, but a guy who could play all five positions just had to be the best all-around player, I mean, just by default. If ‘all-around’ means “in all respects” than the guy who could do more, was just logically the superior player. Plus, I knew I’d never be able to dunk, but I could make a beautiful no-look pass off the garage door, so there was actually a way to relate to these giants.
In 1991, just two weeks before I turned 15, Magic announced his retirement from the game due to his HIV diagnosis. In my eyes, he retired as the best ever, and at that point of my life, I had become obsessed with statistics. So I could easily rattle of the numbers to back my position. But this isn’t about stats or Magic. This is about how November 7th, 1991 was a devasting day in my life as a sports fan, and that feeling wasn’t matched until yesterday, when the first texts came in and then when I ran to twitter for confirmation, that Kobe Bryant, was in fact, dead.
I can’t say I was a lifelong Kobe fan. In the 25 years that I was aware of him, I’ve been both a fan and detractor and then a fan again, and now a mourner. Kobe appeared in my, then extreme narrow range of focus, back in 1996. I was, before the term became popular, a ‘one and done’ student at the University of Kansas. Sadly, my talents didn’t take me to the NBA. But, at that point in my life, I was obsessed with the NBA. The year before, as a high school senior, I wrote an NBA preview that was so long, the pain in my ass advisor, stopped running it after two issues. See, back then, we produced one paper per month. My article was so long, it would have needed two full pages for it to fit in one issue, which was never going to fly. So only the few, more likely two, on staff, ever saw that I rightfully predicted a Knicks-Rockets Finals match-up. Did I also call that a game would be interrupted to follow OJ’s ride up the 405? You’ll never know. (No, I did not.)
One of, if not my favorite aspect of following the NBA, was catching a glimpse of greatness before my tiny circle of friends. In 1989, I was the first of my friends to talk about this freak that played at LSU. I can’t spell his name correctly now, and I’m sure I couldn’t then, but Shaq was a beast. The same year, I saw the first next Michael Jordan, when I caught a USC game on some random weekend and a Harold Miner. In the end, I was right about Shaq but missed the mark with Miner. And this was all before anyone had the internet in their house, so for the few that really cared, we’d buy magazines and devour scouting reports and rankings.
To this day, my buddy V likes to needle me for my love of, what I then, horribly, called, ‘tha youngstas.”I mean, I was listening to A LOT of hip hop then. So in 1996, I was very much a fan of this kid from Philly, who was passing up college to enter the NBA. And at the time, I think this has long been forgotten, the Lakers had planned on using him as their point guard. Which made sense, since they had a talented two-guard in Eddie Jones. So, as a Magic guy, I was all-in on the idea of another big point who had a million watt smile. And they were going to pair him with Shaq, it was the makings of something special. But I had since soured on Shaq. In fact, I turned on him fairly quickly into his pro career. Before his second season in the league, he was putting out a rap album, which was complete garbage. The next year, he started doing movies. All the while, he couldn’t shoot a free throw. While Georgetown alum, and by proxy, Patrick Ewing disciple, Alonzo Mourning was playing like a warrior. I recall many arguments where I, embarrassingly, called ‘Zo the superior all-around player. So long before Kobe and Shaq asked us to pick sides, I was team Kobe. I remained team Kobe until the summer of 2003, when news broke that he had been accused of rape. I was pissed and disappointed. I mean, at this point, I worried that there was something wrong with me, even though I had always thought of myself as feminist and fan of women. But Kobe wasn’t the first athlete/celebrity that I cheered for, who had been accused and/or charged with rape or sexual assault. Before there was #MeToo, I was going through “not him too?!”
Mike Tyson and Tupac were both convicted while Dwight Gooden was accused, but never charged. And now Kobe? And he’s married? With a brand new baby at home? Oh, hell no. At the very least, he was guilty of cheating on his wife and baby girl. That kind of lack of loyalty was not acceptable. Then to top it off, he rats to the police, and says Shaq just pays girls off when he gets in similar situations. Now, it’s not that I support that kind of behavior, ever. Snitching is against my code. That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t tell the police if, for example, I happened to be carjacked. No, snitching is telling on someone else, to get yourself out of trouble. If someone is doing what you do, or what you’re okay with, you keep it to yourself.
So I hated Kobe. And soon after he became a very prominent figure in my life. Well, at least my digital life. This is when I began swapping emails with my cousin, and shortly after, Josh Rose. I’d rip Kobe and the Lakers for anything and everything. Kobe was good, but selfish and overrated. He was arrogant and fake. A cancer, who had no friends on the team. They defended every single one of my attacks. With honor, and logic and far too often, facts. But I stood my ground. I wasn’t just defending my honor, but that of his wife and my mother, sister and nieces. My hate blinded me to something though. Kobe Bryant was a great basketball player. And Kobe Bryant had a work ethic, that shouldn’t just be respected, but should be emulated. Kobe Bryant had focus that probably qualified as an actual super power.
Then as Kobe entered the back-end of his career, I found myself turning the corner on him. The young arrogant kid, became the old crotchety vet. The new generation idolized him, and his impact on Team USA is well documented. There’s no way he’s a better basketball player than Lebron James, but….he’s also one of the main reasons that Lebron was able to be so great. I watched Kobe’s last game, while texting with Josh, and that was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve ever had watching a basketball game.
Kobe’s intelligence was never in question, and before he retired, I was intrigued to see what his life would be like after walking away from the game. He gravitated towards storytelling, which is my personal favorite part of sports, and life in general. He won an Oscar. There was no limit to what he was going to do. But my very favorite part of retired Kobe, was seeing him with his daughters. These weren’t photo ops for his image, this was a man, who made plenty of mistakes and had plenty of flaws, who just loved his daughters. And loved being a dad.
We lost a lot on that hill in Calabasas. Fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and friends. But in honor of the story teller that Kobe became, I want to point to the one sliver of light that I can see. In 2020, when we can’t even agree that the earth is round or come together to call all Nazi’s bad, Kobe and Gigi Bryant, along with seven others, united, not just this country, but literally the world, in a moment of grief. For one of the most polarizing athletes ever, this is inarguably momentous.