Kobe Bean Bryant died on Jan. 26 at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash along with eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. They were en route to a youth basketball tournament.
Kobe was a generational basketball talent with a hoops résumé all his own: 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, an MVP, a five-time world champion, an 18-time All-Star and a cutthroat clutch performer. Playing for the league’s most legendary franchise, Kobe was named by none other than “Mr. Laker,” Magic Johnson, as the greatest to ever play for the team. Beyond that, his workout regimens were the stuff of legend. No one worked harder, no one was more intense, no one was more dialed-in than Kobe Bryant. This was why people called him “The Black Mamba.” A friend of mine who played on the Lakers with Bryant loves telling the story of seeing the team captain on the court for hours before a game, without a basketball in his hands, just practicing his footwork, playing against shadows.
The shock that accompanies his death cannot be overstated. People in the basketball world and beyond took to social media to share their grief. It was a collective tidal wave of sadness that along with the news itself was enough to knock the wind out of you.
As Johnson tweeted, “My friend – a legend, husband, father, son, brother, Oscar winner and greatest Laker of all time – is gone. It’s hard to accept. Kobe was a leader of our game, a mentor to both male and female players.”
In San Antonio, there was talk of canceling the Spurs vs. Raptors game hours after the crash. Instead, during the first two possessions, the teams let the two 24-second shot clocks run out (for Bryant’s number 24) as the fans chanted “Kobe!”
One reason that it seemed so unreal is that Bryant was such a continual cultural presence even after his retirement three-and-a-half years ago. He was just in the news earlier last weekend as LeBron James passed him for third on the all-time scoring list. James has written Bryant’s two playing numbers, 8 and 24, as well as the words “Mamba 4 Life,” on his sneakers
Bryant won an Oscar in 2018 for an animated film short about his love for basketball. He also had plans to be an entertainment mogul in the years to come. He wasn’t going to hang out on the set of NBA shows. He was going to have a second act and be more than an athlete.
That’s what seemed to lie beneath the tears of NBA players: Bryant was more than just an icon. He also had the potential to blaze new trails that they would be able to walk.
His death has already renewed discussion of his complex legacy, particularly regarding when he was accused of rape in Colorado in 2003. After he was charged with sexual assault, the case never went to trial because his accuser said she would not testify. She did file a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court in 2005.
For now, there will be mourning. People will cry and remember.
DAVE ZIRIN is the sports editor of The Nation and blogs at theedgeofsports.com.