On May 15, 2021, Kobe Bryant was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Below is an entry I wrote in my journal shortly before the coronavirus changed all our lives. Here is updated version of a journal entry I wrote on Kobe, one of the best we’ll ever see.
It was a few days after January 22, 2006. I was at home in Louisville, spending some time with my parents, taking a break from the University of Kentucky, where I was more into the Wildcats, playing music, getting wasted and studying journalism than I was the NBA.
But during that visit something happened that would reignite my passion for The Association. I picked up the paper and flipped to the Sports section: Bryant scores 81, second highest total.
“It just happened,” Kobe told reporters after shocking the Toronto Raptors…and the sports world. “It’s tough to explain. It’s just one of those things.”
I was standing when I started reading and had to sit down. I wanted highlights immediately, but this was before the days of YouTube, Twitter or the Score App (which I recommend), so it was harder to access. Visiting my parents at that moment made it extra nostalgic. It brought me back to the days I’d pick up the Indianapolis Star, flip to the Sports page and check out the standings.
Reading about Kobe’s 81 reminded me why I love the game, the game I’d been distant from since November 2004, when my hometown Pacers got in a melee with Detroit Pistons fans in the Palace at Auburn Hills. I was devastated, disappointed and disillusioned. I lost my love for the league in the aftermath, love that was sparked in May of 1995 when Reggie Miller score eight points in nine seconds against Pat Riley’s Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
That’s what legends do. And, when you’re rooting for them, there’s nothing like it.
On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven of their friends were killed in a helicopter crash in California.
The sports world stood still. The sports world and beyond. A dark cloud of grief hovered over Los Angeles, and the nation as a whole.
Even those disinterested in the NBA felt the loss.
For those of us who were NBA enthusiasts, Kobe’s loss was a gut punch.
I respected him, I admired him, I hated him, I feared him and I was amazed by him more times than I can recount.
When the Lakers met the Pacers in the 2000 Finals I couldn’t help but pull for Kobe. Game Four of that series was perhaps his breakout performance. He scored 28 points and – with Shaq fouled out – led L.A. to an overtime victory, giving them a decisive 3-1 lead.
I wasn’t even mad. Kobe was rising just like he said he would. He was becoming a star, and I wanted to witness it. So did Reggie, although Reggie really wanted that championship. Whenever he was close Shaq was there to stomp his dreams. Shaq or Michael Jordan. And now Kobe, the kid from Philly he mentored when he came into the league. Reggie saw a kindred spirit in Kobe. The fire. The will to work. The drive. The outright obsession for the game.
Kobe was a polarizing figure. He took his alpha status to a level that drove some great players and coaches away. He was relentless, uncompromising, cutthroat and vicious. That ferocity is one of the elements that made him a 5-time champion and the ultimate competitor who defined basketball – who defined greatness – for a generation. He’s the closest to Jordan there’s been and the closest there will ever be. That’s why MJ called him a little brother in his eulogy.
And Kobe spent 20 years with the same team, commitment practically unheard of in today’s NBA. But Kobe always wanted to be a Laker… the ultimate Laker. Many considered this overly ambitious, especially when he was young. But reflecting now, just a few days after he was posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame by MJ and his wife, Vanessa, it’s safe to say he accomplished what to so many seemed out of reach.