Death generally never comes at a good time, though it was heartbreakingly tragic Sunday when Kobe Bryant, his daughter and family friends died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles.
The NBA family, of course, was devastated with the loss of Bryant, just 41, so soon after the death of commissioner David Stern, whose memorial service was just last week at Radio City in New York.
It was just so sad because after all those years of civil ambivalence and controversies, of Bryant's endless striving for his version of athletic perfection, chasing the ghosts of the greatest, most notably his childhood target (Kobe didn't idolize) Michael Jordan, clashing with teammates not as committed and emerging on basketball's olympus, Bryant finally was able to settle comfortably into the role of hoops eminence grise.
This audacious kid who dared challenge the status of the game with an imperturbable righteousness, that his position was deserved because of his conscientious commitment, could finally settle back to become the parent and pillar that he so much desired. His quest was complete and he could move on knowing he accomplished his goals to be recognized among the elite while setting a standard that was admired by both basketball's beau monde and the loyalists to the game.
After all the work, the hardship, the ache, the pain, the pursuit and the reward, Kobe Bryant finally could sit back surrounded by those with the most innocent love for him and admire a classic portrait of a quest classically accomplished. And pass on the message from experience and wisdom with gratitude. Finally a mentor instead of only being mentioned.
And then he was gone; just like that. At 41. So sad. So unfair.
It was March 2004 and Kobe wanted to have lunch when the Lakers were in Chicago.
Could I meet him at the team hotel? The president still hadn't called, so I was available.
Before that season, Bryant had gone to Colorado for surgery and was staying in a hotel in Eagle and was accused of sexual assault by a hotel employee and arrested. Bryant was facing life in prison. And then Kobe Bryant had to play a basketball season. It would be a remarkable one statistically, if not so fulfilling, given frequent excursions to testify at preliminary hearings. The Lakers were coming off three of the most unusual championships given the enmity between Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, a feud often played out in the media with O'Neal generally the good guy because of his embrace of reporters.
Kobe generally stiff armed the mandarins of the media.
That sort of image probably was not good for the trial Bryant might be facing, so he began to reach out to some of the reporters around the NBA who were not complete Shaq-o-files. Not to be disingenuous, but just to be himself and not who he had to be on the court to get where he was going.
I'd actually taken sides with Kobe in the Shaq/Kobe contretemps. You had to choose sides. Shaq took names. He was just so much fun to be around, the ultimate really big kid who delighted in playing Santa because he loved being with the kids and not because it was a team function, who rode water scooters and seemingly took those goofy movie parts because he was like those characters. Kobe's arrow went straight to the heart of the opponent. Shaq gave him the tap on the left shoulder when he was on the right side.
Shaq's theory of the game was you had fun for six months, joked with your opponents and bought dinner for everyone, and then in the playoffs you kicked butt. Shaq did and was Finals MVP every year. Kobe wasn't as naturally gifted. Actually, he never should have been as great as he was.
He was maybe 6-4 and didn't have those big hands most common among the great players. He couldn't do that where-is-it-now palming of the ball thing Jordan did in showing it to an opponent and taking it away. So Kobe just worked at it like perhaps no one ever.
He had to and he knew it. It still was legend late in his career even in summers. Most of the NBA big shots stayed at the Las Vegas Wynn for Summer League and various events and meetings. Though mostly really expensive meals and golf. They'd come in one after another talking about these workouts Kobe was doing at 6 a.m. Then again at 6 p.m. Work, work, work. So Kobe couldn't understand Shaq. Shaq didn't seem to care because he just wouldn't get ready for every game like Kobe did, knowing every game was a measure and that you owed the game your best every moment, every day. That they won three straight championships given that division was remarkable. Shaq would later grudgingly admit it could have been many more if he had compromised and cared a bit more.
Shaq even once cornered me and wanted to know why I was making fun of him and taking that guy's side. It would be the reason the Lakers chose Kobe over Shaq, my interactions notwithstanding. It was shocking to everyone after the Lakers Finals meltdown against the Pistons in 2004 that the Lakers would trade Shaq. It was clear Bryant finally was ready given his commitment to the game. Phil Jackson virtually begged Shaq. Step back just a fraction because the kid is coming fast. Choose, Shaq demanded: Him or me.
Buss chose Kobe for the commitment even if it seemed a misguided choice when Shaq latched onto Dwyane Wade for a title in 2006.
But that day at the Ritz for lunch Kobe was just trying to be Kobe. Anyone can be on good behavior for an hour or so, and he was relaxed, conversational. What I remember most was asking him about being that next Jordan that everyone predicted and then doubted. Bryant had spent his early years in Italy, where his father, former NBA player Joe Bryant, was finishing off his career as many Americans did back then. Friends from the U.S. sent Jordan tapes, which Bryant meticulously studied and became a remarkably accurate mimic of Jordan. He'd walk, talk, pause, act similarly.
It was a solitary life for an American as Bryant learned several languages, studied basketball primarily and returned in summers to play in leagues, eventually going to high school in Philadelphia where his dad had played in the NBA.
I asked Kobe about trying to surpass Jordan, which he clearly maintained as a goal because, after all, everyone said Jordan was the best. So who else would you work to be better than? It was no secret Bryant's number change from No. 8 to No. 24 was to symbolize he would become one better. Jackson once told me a story of getting Kobe to sit down with Jordan while Jackson still was coaching the Lakers.
Jordan never was close with too many players, and not really Bryant, who saw Jordan more as goal to surpass than a mentor to embrace. Jackson invited Jerry West to sit in on the royal session. So, as Jackson told it, Jordan was gracious and relaxed. But Kobe begins to challenge Jordan, calling him out, telling him he'll take him out on the court right then and kick his butt right now and he would have done that in Jordan's prime, too. That was Kobe. Never backing down. Perhaps a bit too intense at times. But always for the right reasons.
I remember Jordan telling me early in his career he might never have become the player he did without the confidence he had, buttressed by the support of coaches, the daring in the game. That was Kobe, and why more than LeBron or any of the others he was the closest ever to Jordan. Perhaps not as talented as LeBron, but with that unique combination of confidence and daring. Right from the start. Bryant wasn't a starter as a high school-to-pros rookie. But with injuries late in the playoff series against the Utah Jazz, it was Bryant shooting the Lakers out of the final game with multiple air balls. He was much mocked, though never apologetic. He believed when others didn't want the shots. Give me the ball and get out of the way became his business card.
In his first All-Star game so much for seniority. Anxious to challenge Jordan in an era when the games were seriously contested, Bryant opened the game waving Karl Malone out of the post so he could go at Jordan. The other All-Stars were furious. Who was this kid! Kobe Bryant.
So I was wondering, would, could Bryant surpass Jordan?
Kobe laughed and offered a welcoming smile. Jordan was mortal, he said. Jordan was an urban legend. Fans believed the guy never missed a shot, never made a mistake. You can't overcome what everyone will always keep out of your reach. Which only made the quest, the challenge even better for Bryant. He always wanted to go where no one said he could.
You know, like Chicago.
Bryant actually had two infamous flirtations with the Bulls.
Twice, in 2004 and 2007, he stated his interest and even intentions to play for the Bulls.
Lake Michigan in January instead of Los Angeles? It was obvious. Here was the guy who not only believed he could be better than Jordan. But he was going to do it, win more titles, right in the same place. Then they'd see. Really, who thought like that? But that's why no one else was like Kobe. Maybe without as many statistical achievements, though he did throw up there the closest scoring game to Wilt and maybe the best last ever last game with 60 points in 2016 after working his way back from achilles surgery.
That 2004 Mt. Rushmore Lakers team with Kobe, Shaq, Karl Malone and Gary Payton after an 18-3 start broke down and collapsed in the Finals loss to the Pistons. Kobe's feud with Shaq grew worse and Kobe talked about leaving the Lakers as a free agent. He danced some with the Clippers, who were so certain they had a jersey ready. Kobe wanted Chicago. A Bulls contingent with managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf met with Bryant in California. The Bulls didn't have the salary cap room and the Lakers weren't trading him. The Bulls assured Bryant they would, but for one season he'd have to take the deal. Bryant took the Lakers' security and six years.
Kobe leaves the UC floor for the last time
The assault case was dismissed in September 2004 when the plaintiff declined to testify. Bryant apologized but did not admit guilt and said there was no settlement. Eventually there would be a civil agreement and a Bryant rapprochement with his family.
Jackson left, Rudy Tomjanovich came and left, the Lakers descended, Jackson returned, Kobe scored 62 points in threes quarters, 81 against Toronto, averaging more than 43 points in a month to shatter Jordan's scoring bests and challenge even Wilt. But his frustration grew with the Lakers no longer title contenders. Bryant began to lash out verbally and even physically, drawing suspensions before he demanded to be traded to the Bulls in the summer of 2007.
The Lakers were not going along, but Jackson persuaded Buss that the Lakers owed Kobe to at least let him try. Bryant's agents and the Bulls concocted various trade scenarios for a few weeks that eventually just wore down Bryant. A few months later, the Lakers pulled off the stunning trade for Pau Gasol and the Lakers were headed to three more consecutive Finals, and two championships.
The Lakers would never get back or very close again. But as those things happen, as Bryant's exploits diminished his popularity and esteem escalated. He became a Jedi for the young players, a tutor and guide of the ways of the Mamba. He stayed around the NBA with tutorials about the game, built businesses, created features, reveled in the game's history and tended to a family of four daughters. He and his daughter were on the way to a travel basketball game when they died.
I ran into Bryant at a restaurant on Rush Street last year. He was meeting with several business partners. We weren't close on any regular basis, but he was buoyant. "No," he said, "how are you!"
Not so good today. Not so good at all.