What started out as a nice leisurely drive to a Memphis Grizzlies game with my two youngest children last Sunday took a somber turn when I heard the news about the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and eight others in a helicopter crash.
Full disclosure, I was not a Kobe fan, but hearing his death touched me ways I was not prepared for.
The sad, tragic news touched me as a parent, a spouse and a sports fan.
I was not a fan of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers player. I didn’t like his aloofness with teammate, his I’m-the-best-thing-since-Michael-Jordan attitude on the court or the way at times during his 20-year career when he became a non-team player on a team sport.
When the breakup between him and Shaq happened, I sided with Shaq.
You think James Harden takes a lot of shots? There were Lakers games during the post Shaquille O’Neal era when Kobe took just about every shot available, regardless if it was a good one or not.
I rolled my eyes, like many Kobe-haters did, when he recreated himself in the aftermath of the sexual assault charges in Colorado.
He returned to the game with not only a new dismissive attitude, but also tattoos; a new number, 24 (many of us quickly realized that 24 was one better than 23, Jordan’s primary number); and a self-given nickname, the Black Mamba.
Come on man, you can’t do that! Nicknames are earned or given by others.
You don’t give one to yourself, but Kobe did, and didn’t care who had a problem with it.
To his credit he did go out and prove that his game was as deadly as a poisonous snake, winning two more championships and other professional accolades before retiring in 2016.
But in the three years that he had been retired from the game, I had come to like and appreciate Kobe the father and the former athlete who had managed to channel his competitive energies into positive family things and community-impacting endeavors.
About two years ago, I heard or saw an interview with Kobe, who has four daughters, in which he proudly proclaimed that he was a “Girl Dad” and was coaching his daughter’s AAU team.
Shortly after that interview, I saw video of him and his daughter Gianna on the sidelines at several professional and college women games around the country.
Not long ago, I saw a late-night interview with Kobe, where he explained his eureka moment as a father.
He said that one day, he had come home dead tired and not feeling well. One of the girls begged him to come outside and play.
At first he sank into a chair and closed his eyes, then it dawned on him that he had played games dead tired and with 100 degree temperatures, got up and went outside and played with her, saying to himself, “This is what father’s do.”
That man I liked and could relate to.
While I didn’t like Kobe, the player, the sports fan in me did appreciate his game. He was tough and ruthless on the court.
Here are a few of my favorite Kobe basketball memories.
Late in his career, the Lakers were blown out by a team lower than they were in the standing.
Kobe came into the locker room and told all the players wearing his signature shoes to take them off and throw them in the trash can, because they were too soft to be wearing them.
In the postgame press conference after he had scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, a reporter asked him if he felt like he had taken too many shots.
He glared at the reporter and said no, then went on to remind the reporter that they were losing the game and no one else on the team was making any shots.
Then there were the times when Kobe showed his mental and physical toughness.
He played parts of several seasons with damaged tendons in the index finger on his shooting hand.
After being fouled late in a game in 2013 and rupturing his Achilles tendon, Kobe picked himself up off the floor, shot and made the two free throws, before limping off the court.
But my favorite Kobe-showing-his-toughness moment was in a game against the Orlando Magic in 2010.
Orlando tough guy Matt Barnes and Kobe had been going at each other all night and, as Barnes attempted to inbound the ball, Kobe was standing directly in front of him playing defense.
Barnes faked as if he was going to throw the ball off Kobe’s face, and Kobe didn’t flinch.
I’m usually not one to read anything into anything that happens, but less than five minutes before we heard the news about Kobe’s death, my son Johnny and I had a pro basketball conversation that Kobe was a major part of it.
Things in the car got very eerie and awkward for a while, before getting somber, and that mood followed us all the way to Memphis.
It stayed with me all the way back home. And not being a big Kobe fan, that felt weird to me. But from what I’ve seen and heard the last few days, I’m not the only non-Kobe fan who felt that way.
Once again, I’m reminded that John Donne for the most part was right when he wrote the line, “Every man’s death diminishes me.”
With Kobe only being 41 years old, these words from A.E. Housman also came to mind, “Now you will not swell the rout of lads that wore their honours out, runners whom renown outran and the name died before the man.”
Hi, Momma Lois.
TONY KENDALL of Hazel is a writer, teacher, actor, playwright and sports fanatic. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.