As a lifelong NBA fan and self-admitted Kobestan, I have felt compelled over the last few days to pay tribute in my own way to my generation’s Michael Jordan. That man is, without a doubt, Kobe Bean Bryant, who passed away suddenly at the age of 41 in a helicopter accident this past Sunday, January 26, 2020.
But Kobe wasn’t Michael. Kobe was Kobe.
Author’s note: This is just a short piece I wanted to get out there. I’m planning to pay homage in other ways over the coming weeks.
I was a skinny 14 year old kid when a skinny 17 year old kid made his way to the NBA, after having gained the attention of Lakers exec and NBA legend, Jerry West.
An emotional Jerry West pays tribute to Kobe Bryant
“He’s going to be a superstar,” West had said. And West, a man who believed in Kobe’s potential when twelve other teams passed on him in the 1996 NBA Draft, saw his prediction come true over twenty years in Los Angeles from 1996-2016, when Kobe, after scoring 60 points in his final game, played his last.
“What water is to the human body, Kobe is to Los Angeles,” Matt Barnes said shortly after Bryant’s tragic death, which claimed the life of not only Kobe, but his thirteen year old daughter, and seven other passengers.
I fell in love with professional basketball from a very young age, and grew up watching Magic vs Bird, then the Bad Boys, then Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the crew. I’ve been watching the NBA since I was four years old. I never cared much for the college game. The physicality and fluidity of the NBA. The sheer athleticism and grown man strength was unparalleled. When the NBA came on broadcast, I was glued to the television set. And often, I would abruptly spring from my seat mid-game and run over to the basketball court across the street to mimic the superheroes on my television screen. Because my superheroes didn’t wear capes. They wore basketball jerseys.
Growing up, when everyone else wanted to be like Mike, I wanted first and foremost to be like Scottie Pippen, my favorite player then and still my favorite player today. I wanted to be a strong ball handler who could drive the line, hit the mid-range, and took pride in guarding the opposing team’s best player, making their life hell and disrupting their offensive rhythm. I wanted to soar through the air like a bird, like Shawn Kemp. I wanted to bang in the paint and grab rebounds like Dennis Rodman.
Then Kobe came along. He was a kid just like me. And he wanted to be the greatest. And everyone thought he was a crazy and naive teenager for thinking it, much less saying it out loud.
Shaq remembers his former teammate and friend
Michael Jordan, to this day, is still the greatest player I’ve ever watched. When people nowadays try to argue who is better, MJ or LeBron, I shake my head. “LeBron has to pass Kobe first,” I think.
“We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much,” Jordan said in a statement following Bryant’s death. “He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force . . . He was like a little brother to me . . . Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply – and took great pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball.” Michael Jordan
MJ > Kobe > LeBron in my book. Forget the stats. Do the eye-test. Check the pulse. Check the calm under pressure. And it’s because of this killer instinct of guys like Michael and Kobe. The will to win. The overwhelming urge to destroy your opponent. Few guys ever have that tenacity. It’s why I’d still pick Larry Bird over LeBron despite Bird’s lack of athleticism and physical strength. Bird wanted to rip your heart out, grill it, and eat it for dinner in front of you while you sat at the table with a napkin under your chin. MJ was like that. So was a guy by the name of Drazen Petrovic whose life was cut short at age 28 in a car accident. So was Kobe.
Kobe was the closest I ever saw to Jordan. His moves, his mannerisms, his relentless competitiveness. But he was also more accessible than MJ ever was because he was just a skinny kid when he entered the league and he grew to be so much more. Following him all these years, I felt like I watched him grow from a skinny high school kid like me to a grown man and father like me.
Kobe’s sudden death was the first celebrity death where I ever felt like I had just been punched in the gut and physically ill upon hearing the news. And while Scottie Pippen was and still is my favorite player of all-time, Kobe was and will always be my number two. But he’ll be my number one when I need that bucket at the buzzer.
Rest in peace Kobe. You were a legend before. And, so you will be forever. We none truly ever die.