A year ago today, we witnessed the greatest and vastest collection of stars pile into Staples Center to memorialize late great global icon Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in the house he built. But among all the famous appearances and speakers in basketball and beyond, Kobe’s widow Vanessa and her breathtaking eulogy was the only voice that really truly mattered that day.
Personalizing Kobe and Gigi from a wife and mother’s perspective so eloquently for individuals like myself and many other fans around the globe who only knew of him from afar up until then.
So I figured it’d be more than appropriate to commemorate that special 2/24 day in which Vanessa detailed why she’d miss Kobe and Gigi for the people they were as a whole rather than just the athletes with recounting everything outside of what Kobe did in the purple and gold that makes him such a bonafide legend pre and post his tragic, untimely passing.
Let’s start at the beginning, in a city or rather citta that you wouldn’t expect to forever be etched in NBA history but most certainly is: Reggio Emilia. The northern Italy province with roughly 171,000 residents just outside of Tuscany, where a young Bryant spent elementary and middle school years age 6-14.
His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant played there professionally for eight years after an eight-year NBA career. He and his older sisters were fully immersed in Italian culture from the start, going to school with the other born and bred Italian kid.
In a 2001 60 minutes interview as Kobe had just risen to full-blown NBA superstardom, he simply explained how such a unique upbringing for a kid born in Philadelphia benefited big time in the long run. “It made me more mature you know, (my sisters and I) had to grow up a lot faster.”
That he did, as the next astounding non Laker feat of Kobe Bryant’s is the rare command he possessed when he spoke. The diction, cadence, articulation, and intensity in his voice were so rare. He speaks, you listen. Period. Pick up something value that you can apply to almost anything, or leave it. A simply astonishing truth for a man who skipped out on a formal college education.
As spectacular as he was, given we saw this more heavily towards the end of his life, the motivational speaking and special love for his family will always be the first thoughts in remembrance.
Among all of the insightful quotes he provided to us over the years, one, in particular, stands out in mind. Pointing out how playing sports at a young age can be beneficial long-term and help with daily life challenges outside of the playing field or court.
“There’s no greater metaphor for life than sports itself,” he said. “The fact that we can have a collection of athletes that come from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, different political views, but yet can figure out ways to understand each other, how to work well with each other towards a common goal, there’s no better metaphor for life than that.”
In a separate interview, he touched on it again saying “It teaches you a lot of valuable lessons, aside from being physically fit and the mental health benefits there’s an emotional component too. Teaching you things like how to deal with anxiety, deal with communicating with each other, leadership, performing under pressure, all very valuable lessons.”
This is the first thing I’d show to any parent who believes the potentially bad outweighs the potentially good when feeling torn between the benefits and risks of their kids playing sports. For Kobe to perfectly explain the greatest upside in sports with a big-picture outlook like this is simply amazing. Then again I wouldn’t expect any other athlete to execute it as well or better either.
Now although Kobe was a global icon and the most storied athlete of this century because of unprecedented things he accomplished off the court for an athlete, he rose up as a basketball player first and foremost, becoming surely one of the seven or eight greatest players to ever live by careers end.
Here’s the laundry list of historic feats that helped shape this once-in-a-lifetime legacy. He entered the NBA before he could buy lottery tickets at age 17 when he was drafted by Charlotte and traded to the Lakers.
He played his first game that November at age 18, the youngest to appear in an NBA game at the time. That same year he won the slam dunk contest, reminding us through the most captivating part about his game was skill and footwork based, he could fly and put on a show as a pure athlete too.
Fast forward to prime Kobe, 2006, a struggling Lakers dragged by him as they were recovering from the Shaquille O’Neal departure. Somehow, someway, Kobe dropped 81 points in a 21st century game versus the Toronto Raptors.
The equivalent of an eight home run, 25 strikeout, six-goal, or ten touchdown passes game. To be that dominant and put up such an absurd videogame-esque scoring output against the level of competition that modern athletes are, it’s unthinkable.
Not to mention the five NBA titles in seven appearances, 18 all-star game appearances, two scoring titles, 12-time first-team all-defense selections among others we’ll brush over in the spirit of keeping this to non-Laker specific feats, it just goes to show what an astounding total resume this is for a man gone so young at 41.
Both the most heartwarming and devastating feat of Kobe Bryant’s on the list is the compassion and devotion to guiding the next generation of kids, athletes in particular.
But mostly to his four daughters. Combining his love of sport and fantasy to create stories in books and podcasts as learning tools for kids, centralized and structured around both of those things.
He used his love for storytelling and writing talent to create “Dear Basketball” an animated short that won an Oscar in 2018. A championship trophy exclusive to Kobe among all-time great athletes.
His late daughter Gianna who perished alongside Kobe Bryant in the Calabasas helicopter crash, the bond between her and Kobe was genuinely special even for a father and daughter. And although the recently viral footage of an 11-year-old Charlie Woods is astounding, it’s safe to say we haven’t seen an athlete’s child, man or woman, impress in their parents’ sport at as young an age as Gianna had.
She was the true air to Kobe’s basketball legacy. Possessing a clean step-back jumper to her right, or fluid spin move to layup, playing with the exact same flair and intensity as her dad. All at 13? Some guys entering the league struggle with those moves and playing that hard, she was ready for prime time and filling her dad’s big shoes immediately.
She was going to be something special as the face of women’s basketball, with dreams of attending UCONN and joining their rich basketball tradition before entering the WNBA. It’s such a shame that we won’t see that come to fruition.
She won’t get the chance and we won’t get to see it unfold because of the final, still unthinkable and nonsensical feat making the “Black Mamba” the most storied athlete of modern time. His untimely passing in late January 2020.
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The suddenness and shock of a celebrity death is unparalleled. For a man who embodied mental and physical health, we all should’ve witnessed at least 50 more years of his post NBA career life. He really seemed damn near invincible and was so full of life and enthusiasm that just the word ‘dead’ next to his name in a headline seems like we’re living in an alternative universe. It’s so unfair. So wrong. Always.
In addition, NBA stars just haven’t died young, and we haven’t seen an athlete close to the caliber of Kobe’s in any sport gone so young. Wilt Chamberlain is the only other late top 10 and maybe even top 25-30 player in league history besides him. If you told me the morning of January 26th that a famous retired athlete would pass away suddenly, like a lot of people after the news broke said, Kobe would’ve been my absolute last guess.
It’s especially haunting and deflating considering the global pandemic began just six weeks after the fact. A jarring sequence in the sense that his voice would be especially beneficial to get through in this time of so much uncertainty, isolation, and daily life limitations.
But even though the pandemic has brought some dark days, the finality of this man’s life can be justifiably labeled as the most saddening and shocking day of my life outside of losing close family and family friends. He meant that much the sports world, on the shortlist of “one of our own.”
And for him to maybe be the athlete with the most admirable and devout work ethic ever, it’s so sad that he won’t get that time that he missed with his family during his career back moving forward in this time of isolation and staying home.
And so with all that, and with the year anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s memorial today, the day his life was finally collectively celebrated in public and the reality of him being gone had finally set in after nearly a month of ongoing disbelief, let’s celebrate the totality of the late Kobe Bryant’s greatness. Both in and out of the spotlight he stole in the arena for 20 years. Nearly half the length of his incredible life.