On Sunday, Jan. 26, Kobe Bryant, the famed Los Angeles Laker, was killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. The accident killed eight other people, including Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
I knew who Kobe was, obviously. He was beyond famous. But I don’t really care about basketball—certainly not the same way I do about football or baseball. So, his passing didn’t hit me nearly as close to home as others closer to my fandom may have.
But, hearing the news crushed me all the same. Particularly as a father of daughters.
I’m outside the NBA fanbase as much as any sportswriter can be. I rarely look for highlight reels on ESPN. I don’t follow when someone gets traded to a new team. And I’m not likely to root for playoff underdogs running the table toward a championship. I don’t watch. I don’t track. It’s just not my game.
And yet, Kobe’s career in basketball is the stuff of legend. His relentless competitive drive pushed him deep into the record books, while this week, mourning fans literally everywhere have spoken again and again to his #MambaMentality as the key source of inspiration to their own lives—both athletes and non-athletes alike.
Meanwhile, his life off the court transcended the game itself. His ambassadorship for basketball around the world, a documentary film offering a look behind the curtains, and his basketball academy for young players, including his daughter, all reflected a self-aware man with a larger set of goals.
But Kobe was far from perfect. Even as a non-basketball fan, I was aware of the credible sexual assault charges filed against him in 2003. I’ve read others that explain this disgraceful part of his life as him being “complicated” but I think it’s bigger than that. At that time, he exploited his fame, power, and influence to have alleged non-consensual sex with a 19-year-old woman. Then, he used those same attributes to make her allegations go away. That’s not complicated—that’s criminal.
Should Kobe have paid a greater price—a legal price—for his actions? Yes, I think so. But should that atrocious, disgusting, violating moment define the meaning of his life? No, I don’t think so. And I fully respect anyone’s opinion that I’m wrong about that; everyone can judge the totality of a person’s life for themselves. His victim, for instance, might fairly evaluate him very differently.
While it was clearly the darkest mark on his star, when taken in the context of his entire 41 years of life and actions on and off the court, so many other bright things stand out. And that’s how I hope everyone’s life stacks up at the end—a vastly greater amount of good than bad, and a generally better reputation than not.
Just a few years ago, Kobe retired from the NBA after 20 seasons. For some, this served as a kind of mini-funeral for the player he was, but as sad as that day may have been for fans, it came with the inherent silver-lining of a post-player career to come. Imagine the things a person with that mentality, means, experience, and sense-of-self could do?
From what I’ve learned about him over the last few days, what he wanted most was to spend more time with his children. Clearly in response to a career spent largely on the road. Tragically, his helicopter crash is a direct result of prioritizing his family time, as he had decided that flying between practices, meetings, and appointments offered larger blocks of time at home with his kids.
And that’s what hit me the hardest about the accident. As a parent, my greatest fear is danger finding its way into my children’s lives. To imagine Kobe trying to make his daughter feel safe when he knew they weren’t is unthinkable. It crushes my heart beyond comprehension.
In the post-Michael Jordan era, Kobe was the player that my generation adopted as their own. Jordan may have been your dad’s favorite player, but Kobe was yours. And long before his scandal, he had cemented himself in the hearts of fans around the world as one of the greatest players of his era. Jordan was unprecedented, but once he was on the decline, fans started looking for someone to take the mantel, and there was Kobe. A worthy heir to the throne.
He wasn’t the most gifted basketball player, maybe not even on any one of his five championship teams, but his focus and approach to the game fueled and elevated everyone around him. As an example, his participation on the USA Olympic teams not only brought home gold medals, but for those fortunate enough to call themselves his teammates, he measurably elevated their games the following season.
But, of all the stories, stats, and highlight-reel moments I’ve consumed this week, to a non-NBA fan like me, Kobe’s true legacy is a simple one. It can be commonly heard echoing through classrooms and offices everywhere when would-be-ballers attempt to throw away a piece of trash by leaning back and tossing it towards the bin with the synchronized moniker “Kobe!”
That’s an admittedly small, but profound impact for one person to have on culture. Kobe may have been a Laker for life, but his legacy, however complicated, will resonate forever.
My deepest condolences to the families of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan. Rest in peace.