As the shock passed and the horror ebbed, the sad, natural reaction Sunday was to mourn for Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who perished among the nine passengers aboard a helicopter that crashed that morning in Calabasas, Calif.
There was another layer to this gut-wrenching tragedy, though.
Our hearts break not just for the person and player Bryant was, but for the man, the role model and the creative force he already had become and likely would have remained, maybe reinventing himself over the next three or four decades.
Bryant, at 41 and just three years removed from his dazzling, 20-year NBA career, was nailing one of the most difficult tasks an elite athlete ever faces: crafting a second act worthy of his fame, his interests, his time and his drive.
For everything Bryant accomplished as a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer — he figured to be enshrined in Springfield, Mass., next September alongside certain 2020 classmates Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett — he was going to be fascinating to watch all over again for what he was building now.
Already, there was Granity Studios, the multimedia company from which the ESPN+ series “Detail” sprung, analyzing pro athletes’ performances. It’s the home, too, of a podcast Bryant originated, “The Punies,” to impart life lessons to children and their families through songs and sports.
There was his short animated film “Dear Basketball,” inspired by a poem Bryant wrote to announce his retirement from the NBA. It blew up in the entertainment industry, earning Annie and Sports Emmy awards, along with a 2018 Oscar.
“They’re at the top for me,” Bryant said in an interview with USA Today for a story that was posted mere days before his death.
“As a kid, you kind of have the goal of winning championships and all these sorts of [sports] things. Being in the industry I’m in now? It wasn’t something that was thought of, me winning an Oscar.”
Bryant’s company has shepherded the publishing of three children’s sports-fantasy books, with a fourth due this spring. Per USA Today, Bryant’s interest in storytelling was sparked and fanned by a creative writing course he took in high school, along with an innate curiosity about successful people he developed while growing up as the son of former NBA player Joe Bryant.
Though he did not read much during his childhood, Bryant became an avid fan of Harry Potter, Star Wars and Disney movies. He read biographies to learn what made accomplished people tick. He watched movies to study character development and story arc. While nursing three consecutive season-ending injuries before his final year, Bryant brainstormed project ideas. That led to Bryant overseeing “Muse,” a Showtime documentary that detailed his successes and failures during his career.
“You got to do what you love to do,” Bryant said. “I love telling stories. I love inspiring kids or providing them with tools that are going to help them.”
Bryant’s post-NBA life included sports-related ventures, notably the Mamba Sports Academy facilities in Thousand Oaks and Redondo Beach for current and aspiring athletes. He was in his second season coaching Gianna’s AAU basketball team, also known as “The Mambas” from Bryant’s “Black Mamba” nickname. They reportedly were headed to one of the games at the time of the crash Sunday.
Bryant from all appearances showed aptitude, passion and work ethic for all those pursuits, sweating details and logging long hours even as he stayed involved with wife Vanessa in their four daughters’ upbringing.
His sudden death, of course, would have been a blow to the NBA family and casual sports fans around the world even if he had opened a single car wash in Burbank as some unneeded, blue-vest diversion in retirement. Sliding into a broadcast studio or plopping down on the Lakers bench as an assistant coach would have been fine, too, well-earned and obvious outlets for his know-how and competitiveness.
But in choosing the challenges he did, in following his curiosity, Bryant embarked on a thoroughly personal path. Which, ironically, answered some of the primary criticism he heard while winning five NBA titles, two Finals MVPs and the NBA MVP in 2008.
All those years he was chasing and nearly matching Michael Jordan, ultimately positioning himself as the second-best shooting guard in history, Bryant became something of a doppelganger, a spirit double for the Chicago Bulls’ legend. From his game to his gait, in intensity and even in phrasing, the younger man (15 years Jordan’s junior) fashioned himself almost into a carbon copy. That made it harder for Bryant ever to eclipse Jordan, who had touched all the same bases — along with a few more.
This version of Kobe Bryant we had seen the past three years, though, the one we lost Sunday, was entirely original. So, we mourn for who he was, for what he did and a little extra for what he was going to do and become.
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