Updated: Feb 16
The words are just as hard to come by as the reality of what transpired this past Sunday. Death is certain and inevitable. The sting of death is felt by those who mourn. For the Bryant, Altobelli, Chester, Mauer and Zobyan families, the pain is far beyond our comprehension.
Looking back on Kobe Bryant's life, he was the sole architect of a blueprint designed for his pursuit of irrefutable greatness. His foundation was built on tenacious work ethic and unbridled passion...and that was just as a ballplayer. The second edition of Kobe Bryant revealed a man with those same attributes in his roles as businessman, coach, public servant and most importantly,a family man.
A man whose persona at one time seemed impenetrable was living in full transparency at eye level with us. Basketball dad, an savant turned NBA fan in sweats and sneakers living in his moment as he taught his daughter the intricacies of the game they both love.
Until the very end.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon that rested between NFL Conference Championships and Super Bowl XLIV, the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, NBA basketball and Tiger Woods' pursuit for victory at Torrey Pines served as buffers for America's sports fans before the NFL took center stage on Monday.
Then suddenly our world was shaken by news so shocking and tragic it reverberated in every corner of the planet.
A private helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13 year-old daughter Gianna (the second of Kobe and Vanessa Bryant's four daughters) along with fellow passengers, John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauer, Payton and Sarah Chester and pilot Ara Zobyan crashed into the side of a mountain in Calabasas, Ca. at approximately 9:45 am PST.
There were no survivors.
Sources were checked to confirm everything, from this being a hoax to who was on the helicopter. The number of passengers on board was first reported at five but sometime later was changed to nine.
As our worst fears unfolded, grief came in waves of shock as the realization that Gianna and two of her teammates and either one or both parents were on board along with another coach, including Bryant. The pilot was trusted by Bryant to navigate this trip and previous others.
News of the tragedy was brought to us in real time as viewers of the Pro Bowl and other sporting events that day were informed of the news. The Pro Bowl is a non-formal exhibition so sideline interviews were constant. Players being told of Bryant's passing seemed more shocked than accepting at that point of the game. When things like this happen people look for tangible proof as word of mouth doesn't always settle things. Then there was an announcement of the tragedy as Bryant's image was posted on the jumbotron.
The San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors took the floor around the time of the confirmations. Tyson Chandler, DeMar DeRozan and several other NBA players were visibly shaken by the news. Tyson was a former teammate of Bryant's and DeRozan worked out with Bryant in the off-season. This scene played out in college and professional arenas throughout the country as this horrible reality forced its way into our lives.
Moments of silence, intentional 8 and 24 second clock violations, sneaker tributes, social media videos, Tweets from grief-stricken fans, former players and teammates poured in from around the world. Thousands of fans gathered outside of The Staples Center, instantaneously setting up shrines to honor the victims. As The Grammy Awards were being held inside, Alicia Keys and Philly's own Boyz II Men opened the award ceremonies with a musical tribute to Bryant. This was only the beginning of tributes to Bryant being orchestrated from around the world.
The outpouring of love for Bryant was only matched by the grief and shock on the faces of those who knew him best. Jerry West as GM of the Los Angeles Lakers was responsible for orchestrating the trade that brought Bryant to Tinseltown back in 1996. West said the only thing more traumatic to occur in his life was the loss of his brother in the Korean War. Tuesday night on a TNT telecast West proclaimed the passing of Kobe Bryant as something he may never recover from. Bryant's former teammate Shaquille O'Neal struggled through tears as he talked about his ups and downs with Bryant. The two eventually cast everything their differences to the side to the point where they're in the lives of one another's children.
Let's face it, the love for Kobe Bryant wasn't always there. But as I look at his life in three phases, it's given me a better understanding of who he is and what drove him to be this mythical figure far beyond The Staples Center.
The Crazy Eight Years (1996-2006)
These were the formative years of a young Kobe Bryant on and off the court. In his first playoff appearance the Lakers reached the Western Conference Semifinals against the Utah Jazz. In a decisive Game 5 Bryant filling in for an injured Byron Scott saw time as the lead guard. When Shaquille O'Neal fouled out with 1:46 remaining in regulation all eyes were fixated on Bryant to pull the Lakers through. Bryant air balled on four attempts including the potential game-winner in regulation and three 3-point attempts in overtime. O'Neal commended Bryant's efforts by saying, Bryant "was the only guy who had the guts at the time to take shots like that.". Bryant improved considerably in his second and third seasons but the Lakers as a whole were unable to get out of the second round.
The arrival of Phil Jackson and the Triangle Offense in 1999 paid instant dividends for the Lakers as they would win three consecutive titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Bryant and O'Neal were regarded as a legendary one-two punch. Ultimately, the Lakers were going to have to make a decision between Bryant and O'Neal as Bryant's star continued to rise causing tension between the two stars.
In the summer of 2003, Bryant was arrested in Eagle, Colorado in connection to a sexual assault involving a 19 year-old woman. The case would ultimately be dropped by Bryant's accuser. Bryant denied the sexual assault allegation but admitted to a consensual adulterous encounter with the woman. Bryant was later acquitted of the charges and settled a civil suit the accuser.
But the damage had already been done.
Bryant's popularity among fans shrunk and his public image took a tremendous hit. More importantly his marriage to his new bride Vanessa Bryant hung in the balance. The walls seemed to be caving in. Viewed by some as the reason for tension within the Lakers organization and his personal life in turmoil as endorsements and relationships faded. Bryant was a pariah in circles around the NBA and in the court of public opinion. In that time, there was one word I never heard associated with Bryant...quitter.
The Mamba Years (2006-2016)
"A successful man makes a foundation with the stones thrown at him" - Unknown
Kobe Bryant stood at the crossroads of his basketball career and life. The Lakers traded Shaq to Miami so the team was now his. Vanessa was considering divorce. Bryant had his work cut out for him.
Bryant circled his wagons, he focused on basketball and family with a manic obsession. He worked tirelessly to improve his game in every facet. He and Vanessa called off their pending divorce and decided to work things out. Things slowly began to turn in Bryant's favor as the Lakers were piecing a team together for another championship run, Bryant was putting his personal life back together.
The transition was completed before the 2006 season when Bryant switched his uniform number from 8 to 24, the number he wore at Lower Merion High School. When he speaking of the number 8 said, "When I first came in at 8, is really trying to ‘plant your flag’ sort of thing,’. The number 24 held a greater meaning and became symbolic of the individual we would see for the rest of his life, "It’s kind of a clean slate,’ he said. ‘I started new. Just start completely fresh, focus on the number that meant a lot to me.".
Enter The Black Mamba.
Bryant and the Lakers opened the 2007-08 season as residue from the front office fallout with Jerry West. Bryant requested a trade if West was not brought back at full status. Bryant later reneged his request. On the court, the Lakers were serious title contenders for the first time since Bryant and O'Neal were teammates. Bryant went on to be named the league MVP for the only time in his career. The Lakers went on to meet the Celtics in the NBA Finals but lost to the Boston Celtics in six games.
Things would come full circle for Bryant and the Lakers in 2008-2009 season as they would win their first title since 2002 with a victory over the Orlando Magic in five game. Bryant was named the Finals MVP.
The 2009-10 season would be Bryant's finest hour as he passed Jerry West to become the Lakers all time scoring leader. Bryant was the games most lethal offensive weapon and a terror on the defensive end. The Black Mamba moniker which he gave to himself was on full display. The Lakers met the Celtics in a long awaited rematch. In Game 7, Bryant shot 6 for 24 from the field but his 23 points and 15 rebounds were enough to give the Lakers back to back titles and Bryant's fifth NBA Championship along with his second consecutive Finals MVP. Bryant would later say this was the most gratifying of his five championships.
In six years, Bryant had stepped out of the shadow of Shaquille O'Neal and put the dark days following the Colorado incident behind him. More importantly, the Bryant family continued to grow.
Bryant and the Lakers never made it back to the NBA Finals but Bryant was no less thrilling. For the next three seasons he climbed the NBA's all-time scoring list with reckless abandon.
Eventually, father time catches up to you.
On April 12, 2013, Bryant tore his Achilles tendon against the Golden State Warriors. At age 34, Bryant was only second to Damian Lillard in minutes played at over 40 per game. His averages of 27/6/6 were considered by some to be Bryant's best all around season. For the next couple of seasons Bryant would battle injuries as the Lakers would miss the playoffs in the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
On November 29, 2015, Bryant announced he would be retiring at the end of the season. He requested no fan fare or center court ceremonies as he opted to hear boos from the opposing crowds.
In Kobe's final NBA game a sold out crown in The Staples Center witnessed one of the great retirement performances in sports history. On a stage tailor-made for Bryant he did not disappoint scoring 60 points in a 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz. Bryant became the oldest player to score 60 points in a game at 37 years 234 days.
Retirement was imminent but there were more worlds to conquer.
Post-Retirement Kobe Bryant
With the rigors of NBA life behind him, we were introduced to a different Kobe Bryant. The man who was once called by Phil Jackson "uncoachable" and a difficult teammate by other was man living in the prime of his life. With basketball in his rear view, Bryant could focus on things like his love for soccer, his business ventures which garnered him an Academy Award in 2018.
But more importantly, just being Dad to his four daughters.
You somehow knew between Natalia, Gianna, Bianca and Caprice one of the Bryant girls was gonna pick up the family business when dad left off. Gianna was the chosen one, rather she chose to be the one to follow in Kobe's footsteps.
It was a beautiful thing to see, father and daughter sitting courtside as he taught her the game from the greatest vantage point. You knew if Kobe was teaching the course was an accelerated one and by all accounts, young Gianna was taking it all in to the point where by Kobe's words she was "hellbent" on going to UConn. Bryant has been a longtime advocate of female athletics including women's college basketball and the WNBA
This tragedy has done something to all of us and given us lessons to grow on. The fragility of life, taking time with your children building your foundation on family and faith. Disagreements over trivial matters that don't have to linger for as long as they do. Don't ever give up on anything you want in this life. Most importantly, don't put anything off for tomorrow whether it's paying a bill or making a phone call to a friend or loved one. Had some told me a year ago I'd be writing a memorial tribute on Kobe Bryant and his daughter I wouldn't have believed you.
My lasting memory of Kobe Bryant came on the night he tore his Achilles tendon. With the Lakers trailing by two he knew what his team needed. After getting to his feet with his body searing in pain he knocked down two free throws to tie the game. Incredibly, walking off the court under his own power.
In the days in hours since this past Sunday, the world seems a little darker and things don't seem to be quite at peace. Sometimes you can look at the scope of a man's life and find answers to some of the questions you're facing. I believe in his words and countless deeds he as have many others have given us the blueprint, the confidence and the inspiration to sink the free throws needed to get back into the game.
Mission Accomplished Mamba.