When I was a young child, just like many young children, I was terrified of thunderstorms. And one of my earliest childhood memories took place in an early-summer thunderstorm in Decatur, Illinois. I was spending a week at my grandmother’s house, and a legendary midwest storm was broiling outside the house. The map on the corner of the television screen was alight like a Christmas tree, and I was desperately pleading with my grandmother to take us all downstairs.
There was just one problem: the Chicago Bulls were playing. My grandmother was a sweet woman, a tough and resolute leader on the forefront of first-wave feminism, and a tender and loving grandmother. But nothing, and I mean nothing came between her and her Bulls. Not while Michael Jordan was playing.
As much as I pleaded for a trip to shelter downstairs, I could not move my grandmother as long as the power was on and the feed was intact. I was just going to have to sit there and recognize that while God himself might have been knocking on the door, there was a titan on the court and that titan came first.
As I’ve grown older, the storm has grown stronger in my memory. What might have been a fairly ordinary spot summer thunderstorm has become a raging, tornado-riddled monsoon. What might have been a run-of-the-mill basketball game has become Michael Jordan’s flu performance, or the night Scottie Pippen reminded Karl Malone that “the Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.”
But always, the message has stayed the same: sports have power. Athletes are legendary not just because of what they can accomplish on the court or on the field, but because of what the evoke in people’s hearts and minds. They inspire hope, they stimulate courage, they build dreams. They unite people. And they speak throughout generations, even from grandmother to grandson.
Which is why the shocking news that Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a tragic helicopter crash in California on Sunday shocked the world. Kobe wasn’t only a great basketball player and a caring, terrific father. He was a legend. And legends are never supposed to die.
When an athlete has his own Wikipedia page entitled “list of career achievements by Kobe Bryant,” it’s little surprise he is numbered as one of the all-time great NBA players. Bryant is a five-time NBA Champion, a two-time Finals MVP, a one-time regular season MVP, and an 18-time NBA All-Star. He even won the Slam Dunk Contest in 1997.
Bryant is fourth all-time in career points, with 33,643. He is first all-time in field goals missed, but only because he is third all-time in attempts (26,200) and fifth all-time in made attempts (11,719). He is 12th in three-pointers made, and sixth in that mark in the playoffs, where he is also fourth in turnovers and third in minutes played. Kobe also has the second-most points ever in a single game, with 81 against the Toronto Raptors in January 2006.
Then there are the records: only Kobe and Dirk Nowitzki have ever played 20 seasons for a single franchise. Only Kobe and Bob Pettit have won four All-Star Game MVP trophies. He was the youngest player to score 32,000 points. He was the youngest player to score 33,000 points. And he was the youngest player ever named to the NBA All-Rookie and All-Defensive teams. He was the youngest player ever to start an NBA game at 18 years, 158 days, and he was the youngest ever to win a Slam Dunk Contest or start in an All-Star Game, which he did just 11 days later.
Books could be written solely about the NBA accomplishments of Kobe Bryant, and others have done it better. If basketball wasn’t enough, Bryant won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for his project “Dear Basketball,” which served as a love letter to the game that made him famous.
“To my wife Vanessa, our daughters, Natalia, Gianna, and Bianka, ti amo con tutto il cuore [I love you with all my heart] you are my inspiration. Thank you so much.” The Bryant family would welcome another daughter, Capri Kobe, in June 2019. Tragically, Bianca was with him on the helicopter on Sunday. They were traveling to one of her basketball games, a potent reminder that Bryant accomplished as much off the court as he did on it.
Bryant met his wife, Vanessa Laine, when he was just 21 and she was just 17. They fell in love quickly and were engaged in six months, causing a temporary rift between Kobe and his parents. But their love was strong and sincere, and that rift was healed when the couple gave birth to their first daughter, Natalia, in 2003. Gianna came in 2006, and Bianka in 2013, before Capri arrived in 2019.
Bryant’s father was a basketball player, and his career took the family to Italy when Kobe was still very young. As a result, he spoke fluent Italian for the rest of his life, as demonstrated in the acceptance speech above. He also conducted press interviews in Spanish.
Kobe’s legacy wasn’t without demerit. The sexual assault case brought against him in 2003 tarnished his reputation and damaged his personal life. But he apologized, owned his mistake, and began to recover.
By the time of his retirement in the 2015-16 season, he was a reconciled family man who loved his wife and his daughters even more than the game that had made him a star. In his now-viral interview with Jimmy Kimmel, he showed his pride in Gianna, the daughter he believed was going to carry on the family legacy in the WNBA.
Every decision Bryant made was to prioritize time with his family. In an interview in December 2018, he explained that he began to travel by helicopter more frequently precisely so that he could spend more time with his children. The helicopter that crashed on Sunday was carrying him, Gianna, and seven others upstate, with the two Bryants destined for a basketball game. But this weekend, it would have been Gianna, not Kobe, who was shining on the court.
There are no words to explain losses like this one. And while Bryant’s basketball legacy doesn’t make his passing any more tragic, it imbues this moment in history with an aura of the surreal. How can a legend be gone in the blink of an eye? It’s a reminder to hold your loved ones a little closer and be thankful for every moment. And while we do not have the words to explain the magnitude of this loss, we will let some of his peers in the basketball community do the talking.
Then there were the moments on the court. the first game after the news broke, between the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors, began with two consecutive shot-clock violations. The shot clock ticks for 24 seconds, the number Bryant wore later in his career. Other games in the league began with a shot-clock violation followed by an eight-second violation, to honor the other number most associated with Bryant.
These tributes on the court, and the many tributes off, served to recognize the true greatness of Kobe Bryant. Even the Grammys, hosted in the arena where Black Mamba played his home games, held a tribute for Bryant the night of his passing. There was no one in the country who was not touched by this loss.
And that, in the end, will serve as the greatest testament to Bryant’s legacy. Athletic greatness is fleeting. The greatest athletes of all time have all inevitably succumbed to age or injury. What separates the athletes from the legends goes beyond the game. Kobe will be remembered by his peers as one of the greatest basketball players to ever live. He will be remembered by his fans as the face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. But he will be remembered by his family as a loving father and husband. And for Kobe, it was that last memory which would have been most important to him.