Kobe Bryant was the sort of legendary athlete that other legendary athletes spoke about with pure reverence.
Remembering the first time he was face-to-face with the five-time champ, LeBron James told the story of tracking him down at Philadelphia’s InterContinental hotel ahead of the 2002 NBA All-Star Game. Bryant would go on to win MVP honors in the game, but first he gifted the budding high school star with a pair of his Nike Kobe XI red, white and blue basketball sneakers. A size too small, the teen “rocked them” anyway, he shared with reporters.
And so years later, James continued, “it was a dream come true” to join Bryant on the Olympic team, standing shoulder to shoulder with his idol on the podium as he nabbed the first of his two gold medals.
“Just admiring him for so many years and seeing him from afar and then being able to be in practices with him and, you know, me watching and learning. There’s just too much. The story is just too much,” he said in a post-game interview Saturday night. “Now I’m here in a Lakers uniform in Philadelphia where he’s from, where one of the first times I ever met him, gave me his shoes; he won All-Star weekend. It’s surreal. It doesn’t make no sense.”
At the time, the power forward was simply reflecting on how it felt to pass Bryant on the NBA’s list of scoring leaders. But my word does his tribute seem eerily prescient now.
Because hardly 12 hours later, the retired NBA star was traveling with 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others to a basketball tournament when their Sikorsky S-76B helicopter plummeted out of the sky and into the hills of Calabasas, Calif. There were no survivors.
The news was unimaginable. Someone as seemingly invincible as Bryant, an athlete who nicknamed himself Black Mamba in reference to the agility and aggressiveness of the venomous African snake, wasn’t supposed to perish. Certainly not at 41 when he had so much more to accomplish, so much more life to live.
Mourning the shocking loss of a sports icon so synonymous with the world of basketball would have been a monumental task—even if the Grammys weren’t taking place later that day at the Staples Center where the prolific scorer and dedicated competitor played his heart out for 20 straight seasons.
Landmarks from LAX to New York City’s Madison Square Garden to L.A.’s City Hall were lit up in purple and gold. NBA teams, filled with the types of players who taped posters of Bryant to their walls, often imaging themselves as Kobe with each shot they threw up in their driveway, came up with tributes on the fly, tipping off games with 24-second shot clock and eight-second half court violations representing the numbers the athlete wore throughout his career. Fans, turning up in their #24 and #8 jerseys, held vigil outside the arena as celebrities, clad in their Grammys best, struggled to make sense of the tragedy.
“Earlier today, Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero. And we’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built,” host Alicia Keys began before launching into a rendition of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” with Boyz II Men. “We never imagined in a million years we’d have to start the show like this.”
Three years into his retirement, the scoring legend (a virtual shoo-in for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year, the first time he was eligible) was hard at work on a second act. While outsiders scoffed at the idea that such a noted competitor could enjoy life after professional sports, he was thriving, working to spread his love of basketball through his Mamba Sports Academy and Granity Studios production company, with projects such as Dear Basketball, a letter he wrote announcing his retirement turned into an animated short film that won him an Oscar in 2018.
“I mean what in the hell. I’m still tripping about it,” he marveled days later on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “I hadn’t won a championship in a really, really long time, so here we are.” Stunned as he was, though, he was already moving on to the next. “I think for us going forward, it’s how do I carry this night beyond this night,” he continued. “There’s a greater sense of responsibility of how do I create, how do I provide more opportunities for even more diverse new voices to be heard in this industry?”
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As if his first act wasn’t enough for a whole anthology.
The son of former NBA player Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, the sports prodigy was blasted into the spotlight even before he left the halls of Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion High School, leading his team to a 1996 state championship, it’s first in more than 50 years, and then taking Brandy, one of the decade’s biggest pop stars, to prom. Chosen 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets, he was the first guard to be picked in the first round of the NBA draft straight out of high school, a move that required equal parts skill and confidence, both of which he had in abundance.
Thanks to an immediate trade deal, he landed in L.A. with the Lakers, where he’d be joined by Shaquille O’Neal and remain for his entire career.
Chosen for the All-Star Game in 18 of his 20 seasons, he was named All-NBA 15 times, the NBA Finals MVP twice and the league’s most valuable player in 2008, two years after he scored an astonishing 81 points in a game against the Toronto Raptors. (That total remains only second to basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game.)
A decade into his professional career, he changed his number from 8 to 24, the one he’d worn in high school, to acknowledge his growth as both a player and a man. No matter, both were retired by the Lakers in 2017.
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“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning. He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”
In his final game against the Utah Jazz April 13, 2016, he dropped 60, left the court and didn’t look back.
Because much awaited him off the hardwood. There was his desire to tell stories, both through books, film and his children’s podcast, The Punies. “You got to do what you love to do,” he explained to USA Today just days ago in what would turn out to be his final interview. “I love telling stories. I love inspiring kids or providing them with tools that are going to help them.”
There was also his dedication to championing other players, whether that means calling out the skills of WNBA stars Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Elena Della Donne (“I think there are a couple of players who could play in the NBA right now honestly,” he told CNN) or the kids he mentored as coach of Gianna’s AAU team, appropriately named The Mambas.
But most important was the family he had built with Vanessa Bryant, the woman he’d met on the set of a music video in 1999 when he was 20 and she just 17. A relationship encapsulating the whole of their adult lives, theirs was not without some very memorable lows.
In 2003, a 19-year-old Colorado hotel employee accused Bryant of rape. The subsequent assault charges were dropped when the woman decided not to testify, but she and Bryant settled a separate civil lawsuit out of court and he released an apology “for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered.” While he said in his statement, “I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”
His actions threatened to fell both his career and his marriage, with Vanessa filing for divorce in 2011 citing irreconcilable differences. But not quite a year later the longtime couple took to social media announcing their plans for a reconciliation. “I am happy to say that Vanessa and I are moving on with our lives together as a family,” he wrote on Facebook. “When the show ends and the music stops, the journey is made beautiful by having that someone to share it with.”
In the years since, as the athlete made the most of his second act, they’d been enjoying something of a renaissance themselves. Third daughter Bianka joined now-17-year-old Natalia and Gianna in December 2016 and their youngest girl, Capri, arrived just this past June. A thrilled father of four, Bryant insisted he never stopped working to improve his marriage.
“We’ve seen couples that have been, like, 85 years old and you look and you’re like, ‘Oh man, such an old, sweet couple,’ and I’d go talk to them because I wanna know,” Bryant explained while speaking with former NBA pros Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on their All the Smoke podcast earlier this month. “One time a guy goes, ‘Yeah, it’s great, but she just kicked me out of the best last night, I was sleeping on the couch last two nights.’ That’s the beauty of it: having the persistence and determination to work through things—very, very tough things—and we’ve been able to do that.”
Because for all of the trophies he held and adulations he received, family was the one thing he was determined to get right.
“Here was this guy who was beyond gifted as an athlete, who was obsessed with being a champion, who was known as an absolute assassin with a ball in his hands,” Derek Jeter wrote in a tribute posted on The Players’ Tribune. “And in the moments I got to spend with him? He didn’t really talk about any of that. He cared much more about being a husband to Vanessa and a dad to his girls. He loved his family—he was his family. That’s what was important.”
Heartbreakingly, it was his relationship with Gianna that was particularly close. A middle schooler with WNBA dreams, she was the one eager to follow in his footsteps. “It’s a trip to see her move and some of the expressions she makes,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a trip how genetics work.” Every bit as confident as Dad, she was quick to shut down anyone foolish enough to suggest Bryant needed a son to carry on his legacy.
“The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans come up to me, and she’ll be standing next to me,” he shared on Jimmy Kimmel Live appearance. “They’ll be like ‘Man, you gotta have a boy, you and V gotta have a boy, have somebody carry on your tradition, the legacy and she’s like, ‘Oh, I got this! You don’t need a boy for that. I got this’ I’m like, that’s right. Yes you do.”
She was the one who brought him back courtside after he spent years skipping games in favor of watching Natalia’s volleyball matches or being home for Bianka’s bedtime routine. “Before Gigi got into basketball I hardly watched it, but now that she’s into basketball, we watch every night,” he revealed on All the Smoke. “When I took her to the Laker game, that’s the first Laker game I’ve been to I think since my jersey retirement. We had so much fun because it was the first time I was seeing the game through her eyes.”
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Ultimately, for him, that was the love of the game, the pure adoration that he brought with him into retirement.
“I started playing when I was two. So after playing for 20 years in the league, what I have now is, everything that I’ve learned from the game, I carry with me to this day. So the game’s never truly left me,” he said on Good Morning America, explaining why he doesn’t miss his playing days. “Physically, yes, but emotionally and the things that I write, all stem from the game. So it’s still a part of me.”
It’s just not all of him. “The other thing is that for athletes that come next, understand that there is a finality to it, right? And that’s okay,” he advised. “It’s very hard to let go of something that you’ve done for half your life and it’s kind of become who you are. But there’s a difference between doing what you do versus understanding that that is not who you are.”
In the end, he had just gotten started proving how much more he had to offer.