The death of Kobe Bryant hit the basketball world like a thunderclap Sunday. We still don’t know exactly what happened but some details are emerging: Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people were on his helicopter when it crashed near Calabasas, about 30 minutes from LA.
According to ESPN, the helicopter was flying at 185 mph and fell at a rate of 45 mph. The pilot had asked for permission to ascend due to heavy fog and then fell suddenly.
Witness Colin Storm said that “[I]t was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything. But then we heard some sputtering, and then a boom.’’
That suggests a mechanical issue but we’ll have to wait for the investigation to know for sure.
However, a later report suggests that the pilot flew too low and simply ran into the hillside in what is known as a CFIT (controlled flight into terrain).
What we do know is the impact this had on so many people.
We live in an age of deep cynicism and alienation. There’s very little that binds us together. We tend to wander off with whatever group we identify with and curse the rest. This is partly due to social media and the like, but whatever it is, here we are. Very little unites us.
Well this has united many people in grief and mourning and in particular people who came of age after Michael Jordan retired.
Because those who saw Jordan and his indomitable will to win believed that no one could ever match, much less exceed his accomplishments.
Bryant is as close as anyone has been though. His will was as powerful as Jordan’s. He became a tremendous offensive performer and ultimately a supreme defender. In his last Olympics, Bryant offered to be a stopper because that’s how he felt he could best help. And he was brilliant in the role.
Obviously he was complicated and flawed. Especially early in his career, his teammates found him to be aloof and distant. But when you look at his life, it’s not hard to understand. He grew up mostly in Italy - the Italians will tell you that he truly understands the culture.
He came to the US as a teenager and despite having profound athletic gifts felt isolated. People don’t think of guys like him as not fitting in but for a long time, he really didn’t.
And coming to LA as an 18-year-old who was an American but who probably understood Italy better, where he grew up, it must have been hard.
Not that he ever let on. All he did was work. You got the sense that his first few years in the league were painful to some extent and it’s not uncommon for rookies who come straight out of high school. Kevin Garnett not only had to deal with Christian Laettner’s demanding personality when he joined the Timberwolves, he had to also mostly stay in when the team went out because he wasn’t old enough to go to bars. He talked at one point about playing video games alone in hotel rooms on road trips. It can’t be easy, much less for a kid who didn't really grow up in the culture.
Over time people began to understand Bryant better and the Lakers began to coalesce around him. His relentless work ethic won immense respect around the league and his teammates grew more accommodating as he emerged as a leader who was occasionally ruthless but always reliable.
When LA traded for Shaquille O’Neal the Lakers appeared set for one of the great dynasties of all time. The two stars didn't get along though, at least partly because Bryant felt that O’Neal didn’t work as hard as he did.
And he was right too.
If you look at young O’Neal, like here, he was relatively slim and in great shape. And no one could touch him. But he got a lot bigger in the league, and slower, and it cost him.
If he had worked as hard as Bryant did, they might have won enough titles to have rivaled Bill Russell’s Celtics. It’s a great pity that they didn't get along as teammates.
Then there was the accusation of rape.
When he stayed at a hotel in Colorado, he had an encounter with a 19-year-old employee who later filed rape charges, accusing him of violently choking her during the act and later warning her to tell no one about the encounter.
Charges were ultimately dropped when the woman decided not to testify, but in a civil suit settlement, Bryant was required to apologize and said this:
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.
“After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
It’s a hard thing to dismiss or overlook.
Bryant largely managed to move past it though and his reputation was more or less rehabilitated although this was never forgotten, nor should it be.
We should also consider the possibility that he may have sincerely repented for what happened in Colorado. We’re not saying that we have any knowledge of this, only that we should consider the possibility that Bryant did something terrible and ultimately it changed him in a positive way. He could never undo it but he could become a better man because it forced him to take a painful look at himself and what he had done.
We’d like to think so.
The Kobe we saw in later years was still fierce, still had the Black Mamba mentality, but he seemed mellower. Living with his wife and a growing family of daughters may have done that, and may have also helped him to look at his situation with the young woman in Colorado in a very different light. With three daughters and very recently a fourth, how could he not?
He was the only male in a house full of females and aside from his wife, he saw his daughters as infants and then young women. You’d have to be profoundly insensitive or morally flawed not to look back at your own life and your own transgressions and not see things that you wish you could revisit. He was a devoted father and we’re sure as his daughters grew up, he was concerned about their safety. It’s not a big leap to go from a paternal concern for his own girls to realizing that the young woman in Colorado cried to her own father and then to reflection and regret.
Again, we’d like to think so.
After his career ended, Bryant spoke of a desire to tell stories. He did it well enough to win an Oscar for an animated film but an on-line petition sprang up in protest, referring to his trial for rape, and urged that he not be considered.
He was, however, and won.
He also clearly enjoyed spending time with his family and appeared to be a good father and an improved husband.
It seems fair to us to say that at least as a young man, Bryant dealt with a lot of anger. Who knows why and it’s not really anyone’s business to know, but young Kobe certainly seemed tense and often unhappy.
He apparently came to terms with that and, post-basketball, he seemed like a much happier man. A lot of guys who leave the game behind seem lost and uncertain. In Bryant’s case, he wanted to tell stories and make a difference.
That his wife and daughters lost him, and Gianna, is cruel enough. We can’t imagine what those girls are going through losing their father and a sister and we can’t begin to imagine the pain that Vanessa feels in losing her husband and a bright and talented daughter.
But we can see the pain it has caused in people who respected and deeply admired Bryant.
Bill Russell expressed his sorrow. Phil Jackson called him a chosen one. In LA, people spontaneously showed up at the Staple Center to grieve.
Even O’Neal, long since past his beef with Bryant, issued a statement and said that he loved him. Kobe also looked in on O’Neal’s son Shareef, formerly of UCLA, when he had heart surgery and one of the last things that Bryant did in his life was to text Shareef early Sunday morning to see how he was doing.
And Coach K issued a moving statement about Bryant as well.
It’s easy to admire someone from a distance but impossible to know them. Millions of people admired Bryant and their emotions are obvious.
Look to the people who knew him best though. He was never an easy guy to get along with. He clearly had some serious flaws and at least one transgression that proved devastating to everyone involved.
But the people who knew him best loved him most. They saw sides of him that we never could and admired him greatly.
What is his legacy? We’d say it’s a man who dared to enter the NBA out of high school, who had to mature in public but who nonetheless managed to do so, and who became one of the finest basketball players in the history of the game.
His off-court maturation may have been bumpier, and wasn’t achieved without cost and pain to others, but ultimately he seems to have got there. In the end he appears to have become a devoted husband and a first-rate father, a guy who conquered his demons only to die tragically young.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s very close to the life arc of John Lennon. Like Bryant, he was immensely talented, craved fame and grew up to an extent in public with the Beatles.
Like Bryant, he had some emotional issues to work through, ultimately realized that fame wasn’t all it was supposed to be, and was, to be kind, imperfect in how he dealt with women.
And like Bryant, at the end of his short life (Lennon was killed at 40; Bryant was 41 when he died) he was a notably different person. Both found a measure of calm after a frenzied career ended and both lost their lives as they were just truly beginning to grow into better men.
Of all the sorrow of this story, to us that’s the worst. Bryant appeared to be growing in ways that no one could have expected. Aside from his artistic endeavors, he was happy in a way that we don’t think he ever was in basketball. Not that he didn’t relish the game - obviously he did - but the happiness he got from his family and his own growth was a different sort of happiness than he derived from competition. Like Lennon, he could not have understood that as a young man who was in pursuit of fame and greatness, but in the end we believe he did.
The sorrow is that it can’t continue. The beauty though is that he got there. And after you factor in all the rest of his legacy - the appearance of coldness of his youth, the championships, the feud with Shaq, the accusations of selfishness - the journey brought him to a happiness he couldn't have imagined as a young man.
We would have loved to have seen what he would have done next and to have seen what Gianna could accomplish in the game she had grown to love. Sadly, that’s not going to happen.
Correction - we had his birth year wrong originally. It was 1978 not 1980.