LOS ANGELES — Nobody ever accused Kobe Bryant, fierce competitor, of being a teddy bear on the court and yet here they are in all of their plushness, some adorned with the No. 8 across the chest and others with the No. 24.
Those are the gifts that grab you by the throat and make it dry and swell. They’re scattered in and around the candles and flowers in makeshift tributes left on asphalt by basketball fans still struggling to comprehend and even acknowledge what the hell just happened, just hours after getting sucker-punched in the soul.
And of course, there’s candy and ribbons and more stuffed animals for his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, along with spot-on caricatures of her with her father and, well, they form puddles under your eyes.
This phenomenon is ongoing, no doubt as you read this, right across the street from Staples Center, where foot traffic hasn’t slowed since Sunday afternoon when folks heard the news and made a caravan for downtown L.A. It’s also being replicated outside the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, on a smaller scale, with loads of complete strangers pointing and milling around and exchanging hugs or glances and just not sure what to do next.
The street artists are already fast at work around town, painting murals of Kobe on the sides of buildings and hearing absolutely no complaints. And so, it is happening here in L.A.: Bryant is being immortalized in the same tasteful flavor as other cultural icons of the past who met stunning deaths far too young, the Buddy Hollys and Roberto Clementes.
The NBA postponed Tuesday’s game between the Lakers and Clippers at Staples Center because it was just too soon, the pain too fresh and fleshy. Bryant and his daughter and seven other passengers aboard the retired star’s helicopter perished only Sunday in the foggy Calabasas hills, and the tragedy continues to be too much for all parties involved. And that especially includes the Lakers.
You see, the Lakers are family run and Kobe was family. He was once represented by Rob Pelinka, now the Lakers’ vice president. He was practically adopted as a 17-year-old back in 1996 by the Buss family, with Jeanie, now the principal owner, among his very biggest fans. They knew his four children, knew his wife Vanessa and willingly went for the thrill ride on all the highs and lows.
So the Lakers’ organization lobbied the league to find another day on the calendar, with the blessing of the Clippers. No one took a poll of the players but there’s a strong chance none were in the right frame of mind to play a basketball game anyway. Besides, it wouldn’t have been a typical experience complete with the Laker Girls, pump-you-up music or halftime act; not the time or place for that. More like a memorial or a safe zone for 18,000 to grieve and celebrate a life well lived.
The last time the league canceled a game because of a tragedy was the Boston Marathon bombing, and before that, the Kennedy murder.
In other NBA cities Sunday and Monday, players were clearly distracted before and after tipoff. Those games were played but nothing came easily. The spirit was siphoned from those atmospheres and the mood dampened by games that began with a moment of silence and almost played with the same amount of mute.
Bryant held such massive sway among current players because most are 30 and under and were largely inspired as kids by Kobe, much more than Michael Jordan, their father’s hero. Bryant resonated with a young generation because he played in the air and on the ground. He scored and he defended. He won more than he lost. His flair was copied, his desire was envied, his accomplishments were incomprehensible to all but a legendary few.
Mainly, Bryant endeared himself to the basketball world with his constant pursuit of greatness. In his 2018 book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, he wrote the following:
“During my rookie year, at first, some scouting reports said I wasn’t tough. The first time I went to the basket in games, I’d get hit and the defense would think they had me. I’d come back the very next play and pick up an offensive foul just to send them a message. I didn’t need that extra push to be great, though. From Day One, I wanted to dominate. My mindset was: I’m going to figure you out. Whether it was AI, Tracy, Vince — or, if I were coming up today, LeBron, Russ, Steph — my goal was to figure you out. And to do that, to figure those puzzles out, I was willing to do way more than anyone else. That was the fun part for me.”
So the standard he set was no surprise. After a rookie season in which he spent dipping a toe in the NBA waters, Bryant was a force for the rest of his career, save for when he tore his Achilles during his twilight. He created moments where others saw impossible odds. He was an All-Star 18 times, won an MVP, added a pair of Olympic golds and never cheated fans in L.A. or elsewhere. When you paid money to see Kobe, you got a bargain.
Kobe once said: “I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be the best at whatever they do. Like, that’s unfathomable to me. I’m just not wired that way. I’m coming for your throat and your head and whatever else I got to take to get what I came for.”
How many people in other professions prepared for their job better than Kobe for his? Bryant was an early riser who attacked fitness, ignored the pain that came with it, beat others to the gym and wouldn’t leave until he reached his projected goals for that day. He wasn’t shy about criticizing teammates he felt were cheating themselves and by extension, cheating him. Nobody was spared, not even fellow superstar Shaquille O’Neal.
Again: That’s what elevated him beyond other greats. All talent being equal, Kobe made sure he simply wanted it more. Fans saw it on a nightly basis and it left an impression that was tattooed to their memory banks, even today.
The death of Bryant, therefore, is a case study in hero worship and how a symbol of a generation can cause people who’ve never met him to suddenly break from their normal routine and spill their emotions. Understand, Bryant was worth many hundreds of millions of dollars and carried traffic-stopping fame and won five championships, all far beyond the scope of the average person. Still, those tears …
That’s why the entire region aches and why Lakers basketball won’t be the same for a while. Bryant’s death had a unifying effect in L.A., bonding fans of all ethnic groups, walks of life and political persuasions. Such is the power of sports and the clout afforded to stars. They become bigger than the game and, in death, more mythical than ever before. Bryant brought joy to many as he relentlessly pushed the limits of his basketball ability. He also inspired, and that’s why L.A. remains fractured by his death.
The Kobe worship knew no international boundaries — this much was made clear in the last few days — but the intensity is inescapable here in the city where he played for 20 years and won five championships. Bryant came to L.A. at 17, so the city saw him grow up and also grew up with him. He resonated in so many ways and through so many different neighborhoods, as a superstar, hard worker, winner, entertainer and father whose last act was taking his daughter to a travel basketball game.
One of his final public appearances was at a December game at Staples, Lakers vs. Mavericks. Gigi was a fan of many players, including Luka Doncic. Father and daughter sat courtside, with the future Hall of Famer teaching her about the game and its players, and the teenage girl absorbing it all.
When the Jumbotron caught Bryant, the cheers were deafening, as they always were when he made a rare appearance at his old home court. In a city of stars, Kobe Bryant was once again the center of attention.
Now he’s gone, and as it staggers forward, a deflated basketball town has only just begun to reckon with this unfathomable loss.
Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .
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