I was never a Kobe guy.
Heck, I was watching NBA games long before anyone outside the Jellybean Bryant household had ever heard of anything called a Black Mamba.
I was much more of a Jordan guy. Ultimately, you had to pick a side. Jordan had established himself as the greatest basketball player (arguably) of all-time but not long afterwards, there would come a man who would not rest until he was mentioned in the same breath. Or even be considered, dare I say, better.
Ludicrous, thought the Jordan fan. How could that be?
The divide between Michael and Kobe fans is not strictly generational although perhaps it once was. In reality, Kobe bridged the gap between Michael and what is now the greatest player of his generation, LeBron James, who now wears the uniform Kobe did for twenty years. There’s a reason for that.
The night before Kobe’s passing, which was eerily the night LeBron James passed him for 3rd all-time on the NBA scoring list, LeBron spoke glowingly of Kobe Bryant, of what he meant to him, of how supportive he had been over the years and how, in all likelihood, with no Kobe there is no LeBron just as with no Jordan, there might be no Kobe.
The NBA, God bless it, is a hand-me-down league, a league of shared respect, a league that is now in mourning.
“Kobe Bryant is gone and so, too, is a little bit of all of us,” wrote L.A. Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke, who covered Bryant ever since he came into the league. I sat at the breakfast table with my girlfriend when I heard the news. Like so many others, I broke into tears, wondering how this could possibly be. We later went shopping for a belated birthday present for her youngest son. Upon walking into the store, I broke down again.
I was never a Kobe guy but this was an incomprehensible loss.
I was so firmly in Michael’s camp that I found a young Kobe pompous. How could so many people think Kobe was even in the same conversation? Sure, he finished with five Finals to Michael’s six, as close as any driven superstar has come to fitting Michael’s shadow but Kobe Bryant was so determined to be the best he could be, it is no shock that he and Michael were cut from similar competitive cloths yet altogether different personalities.
Upon hearing of his passing and all the people Kobe touched along the way, maybe I was mistaken about these two all along. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speak of Michael Jordan the way LeBron spoke of Kobe the night before his death. Maybe it wasn’t Kobe Bryant who was pompous and inaccessible but rather Michael Jordan after all. No one ever talks about how Michael mentored them. Michael gave back in his own way but his contributions were far less personal.
Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, with his 13-year old daughter and other passengers, on the way to a kid’s camp that he supported, not only with his pocketbook but with his presence.
Kobe was not without flaw. None of us are. But to see the effect he had on so many is otherworldly. This will not be the only tribute piece you’ll read about Kobe Bryant. It shouldn’t be. I’m not doing this for traffic. I’m doing this, as I do most work on this site, to process what the hell just happened.
Here’s the real difference between Michael and Kobe. I went to see the Lakers play in Orlando last December. The 2020 version of the Lake show has become must see-TV, now on their way to what LeBron James will most certainly ensure is another NBA championship.
I took this picture.
What you see here is three gentlemen, of early to middle age, all wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys. Kobe Bryant has not played professional basketball for years yet his impact remains immeasurable. Upon his passing, the ultimate Laker Magic Johnson called him the greatest Laker of all-time. One could argue that point but we’ll leave that for another time once our heads and hearts have cleared.
The point is that, as great and iconic as he was, if the Bulls came to town, you would never, EVER see three guys sitting next to each other at a game wearing Michael Jordan jerseys. It just wouldn’t happen. And therein lies the difference between these two mega-stars. Jordan may be more revered but he may never be as beloved.
“How can Mamba be dead? Mambas don’t die,” continued Plaschke as he mourned for all to read. But they do die which is what makes this news so earth-shattering.
A self-professed basketball geek of the highest order, like Plaschke and everyone else who heard the news on Sunday morning, I cried and cried and cried some more. It was hard not to as once again, a giant part of us has been ripped from our hearts and our memories.
Kobe’s determination to be the best, or at best his best, was rivaled only by the man he was trying to chase. Ultimately, Kobe did something that Jordan never has. He opened up. He smiled. Instead of harboring that competitiveness, he decided to embrace that in others.
Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter at the ripe old age of 41. It made the world very, very sad.
Upon hearing the news, a visibly shook Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters “We laughed and joked about the ‘mamba mentality.’ We’re all going to need it right now.”
I’m reaching deep down to find mine. Here’s to you doing the same. And here’s to the memory of one of the greatest talents to ever lace ‘em up.
I was never a Kobe guy. Little did I know, in the end, we all were.