Kobe In Our Lives: It Was An Age Of Enlightenment

It was the most sincere question I ever asked Kobe Bryant. It was around mid-career for Kobe, back in 2005. He had just finished telling me that his troubles, however tough, were “miniscule” compared to the crosses others have had to bear.

He was wearing a Lower Merion High School jacket, remembering his roots. He was a star player and much-discussed celebrity who had yet to build his true legend.

“Do you have any understanding what an interesting life you’ve had?” I asked. “Do you have any sense of that?”

The very simple answer signified the spirit of this unique person.

“Not really,” Kobe said slowly. “It’s the only life I’ve ever had.”

The words are stark now that his life is suddenly over—painfully over for all those he touched. A tragic helicopter crash might make his life even more interesting to some, but Kobe at 41 was well on his way to plenty more accomplishments besides being one of the greatest basketball players of all time. There is sad poetry now in what Kobe told Phil Jackson upon getting married at 22: “I do everything early.”

I asked the question then because Kobe was fundamentally uncommon with that drive, curiosity and optimism. That much he had proved, but he had not quite figured out how to express it all.

His legacy would wind up being so much more than “interesting.”

Now everyone understands how consumed he was with making the most of his only life. That was the sentiment celebrated at the memorial service Monday morning at Staples Center.

Kobe wanted to be remembered, above all, as an overachiever.

Do you?

What I did with my professional life covering the Lakers was basically see if Kobe Bryant, whom I watched play in person at least 1,200 basketball games, could help us understand our world a little better through the way he demanded growth in himself and those around him. Those of you who saw the games from farther away still felt warmth from being connected to that spirit, which is a testament to his fire. As San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said about fans and Kobe: “Even if they didn’t know him at all, they feel like they did.”

Kobe did help us understand our world—better than any athlete of his generation. Looking back now, the life he led stands on its own as a game changer. He was somehow always changing, always finding more in the game and the world … yet somehow always still remained Kobe at the core, too.

Kobe Bryant attempting a free throw.

When Kobe found out his second child would be another girl, I gave him a bit of a look. It was in the visiting locker room at Oracle Arena in Oakland, and I wondered whether this guy so consumed by this game of basketball might be a tad disappointed not to have a boy this time—someone to follow fully in his footsteps toward the NBA.

“Hell, no,” he answered, and then he elaborated on how in love he was with having daughters and how a healthy baby was what really mattered anyway.

That baby would be named Gianna and grow into such a passionate basketball player that she found some fame in her own right by age 13. She would also scoff in Mamba-jaw fashion whenever she heard that idea that Kobe—with baby Capri last year making four daughters—should have a son to carry on the tradition.

That connection between Kobe, Gigi and basketball deeply resonated in Kobe’s final season. On Dec. 17, 2015, I tweeted: “Watching Kobe's 10-year-old daughter, Gianna, watch him have that big third quarter was the most fun ever.” When Kobe went to his final All-Star Game in Toronto the following February, Gigi stayed nestled under his arm throughout his media session. Kobe would become a champion in a new way, actively supporting and promoting women’s basketball in the following years.

Jackson and I once discussed that the real key to Kobe’s evolution as a teammate was becoming a father. Through his experiences with young daughters, Kobe saw that force and directness wasn’t the only or best way to get through to people. So, as was fundamentally Kobe’s way, he adapted to be more efficient and more excellent.

Despite all Kobe’s proclamations that he would never get into Phil’s business of coaching, Kobe ultimately couldn’t resist Gigi—or “Mambacita,” as Kobe called her—and even taught Jackson’s triangle offense to her team. Kobe and Gianna were en route to a tournament when their helicopter went down, killing all nine aboard.

Of all the public or private moments that stick in the memory of Judy Seto, Kobe’s career-long physical therapist, there’s a random moment at the Bryant home in the 2011 offseason after the Lakers failed to three-peat as NBA champions. Kobe the competitor had said bitterly at the time: “It was a wasted year of my life.”

Seto, who is now the Lakers’ director of sports performance, told me the story a few years ago about Kobe sitting there, nursing his bad knee and lamenting the lost season … yet letting 8-year-old Natalia and 5-year-old Gianna gleefully put a tiny toy cowboy hat on his head.

"It was him being just like any other parent," Seto recalled. "And it's so great to see how much he loves his family, how engaged he is, how he makes them a priority. I don't think people realize that about him.

"He can switch gears. The side of him that people always see is unapproachable or really, really fierce. There is a time and a place for that part. There's also a time and a place for him to be a parent and to be just as goofy as anybody else."

Some day after some road trip in some year during the second half of Kobe’s career, our paths crossed at the team’s training facility. Something fun had happened on the road in a social sense, and I’d missed out on it by staying in the hotel room. Kobe put his serious face on for the moment and told me I should get out more and mingle with everyone.

This, it occurred to me, was rather rich coming from the guy who was well known early in his career for not hanging out all that much. Ron Harper even offered a regularly hilarious summation: “Who know where he go? Who know what he do?”

But Kobe changed during his career. His deeper understanding of family bonding and team building led to fuller appreciation for how quality time isn’t just hours jab-stepping in the gym or studying video of every touch in every game.

That’s how he wound up with 17 open but untouched beer bottles at the hotel bar in Houston one Sunday evening—from hanging out and people insisting on buying him a drink for two hours … a hilarious anecdote from Lakers broadcaster John Ireland.

It wasn’t chicken or egg; the drive always came first. It just ultimately wasn’t what mattered most to him, truth be told: Getting people to understand the power of the drive became his broader priority.

Then it became a matter of not just reaching people, but how many and how deeply. Kobe could find the challenge in everything, and the game was how well he could convey the method behind the man—and help others overachieve.

“A workaholic” is what Vanessa Bryant once told me her husband was, which I found quite amusing for Kobe to be given such a commonplace tag yet also quite fitting. Whereas that work was once all about self-improvement and pursuit of excellence in his career, it evolved into a mission to share and explain how to improve and excel in life.

The Muse documentary to break down the process of becoming great. The celebrated Dear Basketball animated short started out as a first-person essay about retiring and became the ultimate demonstration of opening himself up to others. The ad campaigns. The children’s books. The next-level Detail hoops tutorials. The personal tutorials with top NBA scorers.

The Mamba Mentality: How I Play book in which he wrote: “Without hoops, I would not understand how to create or write, I would not understand human nature, nor would I know how to lead. The game, in essence, taught me the art of storytelling.”

He first showed us and inspired us to believe life is a challenge, because he was always about the next challenge he could conquer.

But life isn’t just a challenge. It’s a gift. Kobe’s time with us told us that story.

For every challenge he met, he gave us a memory to cherish. Then he realized that we didn’t just need to enjoy his career and ride along for those challenges, we needed to understand his life.

Kobe’s life wasn’t just challenging. Kobe’s life wasn’t just interesting.

Kobe’s life was a gift.