The first game of Kobe Bryant’s career was less than noteworthy. He only played 6 minutes and took one shot. Not surprisingly, many of his fans were annoyed at his lack of playing time. During each home game when he only played 10 minutes or less you’d hear the K-o-b-e chant when he was on the bench but Lakers coach Del Harris was oblivious. He wanted to protect the 18 year old from himself.
The last game of Kobe Bryant’s career was metaphorical. For a player who delivered in the moment and who willed himself to oxygen depleting wins, it was more of the same. It wasn’t that he took 50 shots and 21 threes. Or, the 12 free throws. It was his 42 minutes. It was outscoring the Jazz down the stretch 15-0. There was a three pointer that gave the Lakers the lead with 31 seconds left which he followed up with two free throws. He went out in a way no one ever will, dropping 60 and erasing the Warriors 73rd win off the national radar. He had a way off overwhelming the news cycle with his achievements.
Between his first game and his last game were a lot of wins, some losses, selfish accusations. He had an innate talent for turning defeat into victory. Like in Portland on the last day of the season when he tied the game with a pump fake twist the whole damn body and chuck a three pointer against Ruben Patterson, the self-proclaimed Kobe stopper. Then in overtime, with one second left and falling backwards, he hoisted a three to win the game. Or in the Garden when his game winning shot was over his nemesis Ray Allen. Doc Rivers thought single coverage was enough. Dwyane Wade got his own taste. Kobe banked in a game winning three while Wade could only stare.
The mercurial willfulness of Kobe Bryant, his egocentricities, his aggression and his competitive desire triggered Los Angeles into a 20 year worship. In a mostly secular town, Kobe Bryant was a religious figure The death of Bryant has triggered broken heart syndrome.
The 17 year old who was traded to Los Angeles on draft night, who Lakers trainer Gary Vitti called “the kid”, who was extraordinarily arrogant and quietly intellectual, who was a different kind of professional athlete, one who spoke five languages and played the piano and demanded global intervention, who was accused of sexual assault and lost all his sponsors but died a billionaire in a redemption story unlike anything professional sports has ever seen, that kid was the beat of the drum in a city that can at times be as distant, spread out, narcissistic, shallow and lonely as its freeways that connect all.
Kobe was the glue and now he is the sorrow. Tears are everywhere.
Driving around town this morning, everyone was trying to get a paper to see the headline because in an odd way that makes it true. Like newspapers, Kobe was old school. But the L.A. Times headline wasn’t very creative, just fact. “Kobe Bryant Dies In A Crash.”
There was so much more to the story than those five words. His body died on a hillside. His soul though still lingers in all the places we frequent, in all the different communities that make up 3 million people in L.A. County. The beaches and the mountains and South Central and the South Bay and the Valley and Inland empire. All took a knife to the heart. All are bleeding. The city has lost something. And a precious someone.
Kobe was here when babies were born. He was here when those babies started kindergarten. And when they got their first spelling test A and had a pizza party to celebrate. When those babies graduated from elementary school Kobe won a title and had a parade. He married. And there was another parade. And another. He was here when kids were bullied in middle school and when first kisses were secret and when phones became the thing. Kobe was still a Laker. Same uni but different teammates. Still in the city. He sold jerseys and tennis shoes and walked with the homeless. He was a father who lost a baby. Teenagers were face timing and texting. Another title and a showdown against Boston. He is the only Laker who ended his Finals career with a Boston win. More babies for Kobe and us. After retirement Kobe was still here, not in the fake way of L.A. celebrities, showing up at events so they could be photographed. He was here like we all are here, living our best life with our family and kids.
There is something special and poignant and necessary about boys to men, about watching them thrive, even with adversity. It makes a family.
He’s family and that’s the pure tragic moment even Shakespeare could not prose poetic, how this city and the kid they took in as one of their own in 1996 breathed the same sweet air. This morning, in the car place off of Crenshaw where I went to get an estimate, one of the workers was blaming the pilot for Kobe’s death. He flew too low. Someone else was talking about how Kobe and his daughter knew they were dying. Grief talks in circles like that, round and round but getting nowhere. I learned this the hard way when I was on the other side of things and abruptly lost someone in my family to murder. There is never a why that will satisfy the brokenhearted. You just have to weep it out.
Random things happen, my friends. Tragic things happen. But this is L.A. the city of dreams and dreamers. The city of stars. You can be in line at Whole Foods and then do a double take because in the other cashier line is Julia Roberts. We don’t wear tragedy well. This is a sunny place. The temperature today is in the low 70’s. We live differently here.
So, it seems unfair that this burden is upon us before the year has just gotten started. But here it is. The comforting thing is that Kobe knew he was loved. That the city adored him. That when Dr. Buss chose Kobe over Shaq we remained loyal. Kobe was born elsewhere but he belonged to us. For 24 years. Now in death, he belongs to the ages.