“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with Lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time”, 9-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul said. He is correct. None of us can process what happened that fateful Sunday morning when we learned of the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the others aboard that helicopter. It was a moment that all of us, basketball fan or not, will remember for the rest of our lives.
I was sitting in a local doctor’s office with my sick daughter when I happened to glance up at a TV. I barely noticed a picture of Kobe Bryant’s face on the screen with some dates just below it. Crazily, I thought that maybe the analysts were talking about how long Kobe held that 3rd place position on the NBA’s all-time scoring list before LeBron James broke it. Then, I began to watch more. What I perceived wasn’t the case at all. The pregame analysts who would normally be discussing key points to the upcoming Michigan State vs Minnesota college basketball matchup had tears streaming down their faces. They were trying with all of their might to discuss what just happened. Then, I heard it loud and clear, “Kobe Bryant has died in a helicopter crash”. The entire facility I was sitting in fell silent. They raised up from their chairs and looked in the direction of the TV. For a brief moment, something bigger than their ailments captured them. Collectively, each person exclaimed,“WHAT???!!! KOBE???!!!” The world as we know it stopped spinning and our lives were put on pause.
In 1996, I became a devoted Lakers fan. This was largely due to one of my all-time favorite NBA players, Shaquille O’Neil being acquired by the franchise. Before that, I was just “Team Shaq”. I thought at that moment, the Diesel would catapult the once proud organization back into the championship picture. He would get them close, but there still remained a missing piece. I wondered to myself what that key ingredient would look like and when would it be there. That same season, I would get an emphatic answer when newly drafted rookie from Lower Merion High School, Kobe Bryant, burst onto the scene. Sure, I knew that my team drafted him, but he was an unproven newbie straight out of high school. At the time, I was very skeptical about athletes skipping college and being able to transition well into the NBA. I had my doubts. However, he soon caught my attention in the Slam Dunk contest of the 1997 NBA All-Star game. His dunks were a thing of beauty and rivaled, if not beat the high flying feats by Michael Jordan. Kobe won that contest, becoming the youngest player to ever win it at age 18. At that moment, I knew he possessed something special that was a “once in a generation” type thing. In Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, he was thrust into a lead role due to Byron Scott missing the game, Robert Horry being ejected, and Shaquille O’Neil fouling out. After that, he never looked back and it became the generation of Kobe.
Kobe Bryant would accumulate countless accolades, including winning 5 NBA Championships and 2 gold medals. I’m not going to go into detail about those stats. That’s what Google, ESPN, and Wikipedia are for. It’s how he did it that captivated me and the rest of the sports world. During his reign, there was no one who rivaled his work ethic. Former NBA player and ESPN analyst Jay Williams once told a story of a moment when that work ethic changed his career. Before a game between the Lakers and the Bulls, Williams decided to show up 5 hours before the game to get in practice. Little did he know, upon arriving, Kobe was already there preparing for the contest that night. He would prepare for just over an hour before deciding to leave the court. Kobe was still practicing and at a high level. “It’s not like his moves were nonchalant or lazy. He was doing game like moves. Thank you Kobe for a life lesson I will never forget. It’s a difference maker that I had to share,” said Jay Williams. Kobe went on to score 40 points in that game. There was another instance in 2012 where Kobe woke up the professional trainer designated to the USA basketball team in London at 4:15 a.m. He asked if he would help him with condition work. He agreed and said that he would meet Kobe later at the training facility. 20 minutes later, the trainer arrived to find Kobe drenched in sweat. Then, they proceeded to work on conditioning for 75 minutes and additional 45 minutes for weight training. At 7 a.m., the trainer went back to his hotel to get some rest before returning again at 11 a.m. Kobe went to the gym to practice shooting. When arriving back at his scheduled time for practice, he went over to commend Kobe for his hard work that morning and asked him when he finished up. Kobe replied, “Oh just now. I wanted 800 ‘makes’. So…yeah..just now.”
Kobe Bryant was a fierce competitor in every arena he ever stepped in. He was equally fierce in making those around him better. That was very evident in his playoff/championship run post-Shaq. He became the veteran and leader of that team. Just as the game had given so much to him, he was a great steward of that by pouring into everyone around him. He understood that to be great, that he had to put others first. “To be an effective leader, you have to be a really good listener. And not to what’s being said, but to what’s not being said. That’s the big transition to make. You’ve got to observe them (the team), because they all have things they want to accomplish as individuals, and as a leader you are like ‘OK’, what are those things. No one learned anything by hearing themselves speak. If you aren’t listening, you’re missing out,” Bryant said. He said at that point, he went from being scorer and floor general to becoming a leader. It was very evident on the court and is one of my favorite moments as a fan of Kobe Bryant.
He poured his heart and soul into absolutely everything he did. This led him to be great in several arenas. However, his greatest accomplishment was being a father to his daughters. By now, you probably have seen the tribute by ESPN’s Elle Duncan covering this very topic. She would go on to describe a fierce love that he had for his daughters and considered being a father to them as a blessing. Elle recalled this conversation she had with Kobe, “I asked him for advice on raising girls, seeing as though he quite famously had three at the time, and he said just be grateful that you’ve been given that gift because girls are amazing.” Powerful words spoken by Bryant. He would further cement his statement by closing with, “I would have 5 more girls if I could. I’m a ‘girl dad’”. There is no question that he was spending his retirement years investing in each of his daughters. Gigi, Natalia, Bianka, and Capri became the team he poured life into. They became his heavily sought after championship. Kobe spent countless hours in the court of his home to become the greatest dad that ever lived. Anyone that associated with Kobe or his family could whole heartedly vouch for that.
Leading up to his unfortunate passing, there has been a lengthy debate on who the true “greatest” of the NBA is: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James. After this event, I feel this discussion is no longer warranted. Topics like that are so meaningless. This tragedy puts everything in perspective. Kobe is the greatest of all time being Kobe Bryant. He was a champion as a player, mentor, father, and so on. His legacy left teaches us all to be fierce in every arena of life, not just on the court. From his journey, we can learn how to be icons as workers, competitors, fathers, and just about any facet of life. We all are questioning why he was taken from us so soon. What we need to understand is that God has placed us here for a specific season. That season is intentional and purposeful. Each person’s season varies in length. Once we’ve fulfilled what we are meant to do, He calls us home. It says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Kobe was placed on large platforms, some international, to do good in this world. He was a tremendous steward of that. He never stopped working at it. Yes, his life was but a fleeting moment. Maybe it was meant to be that way so that we can understand how we should be stewards of this life given to us. In retrospect, Kobe Bryant lived a purposeful life and provided so much good.
I am a 2003 graduate from the University of Alabama with a degree in Exercise Science. While at the Capstone, I served as a student assistant with the head strength and conditioning coach of the Crimson Tide football team. I have competed in both powerlifting and bodybuilding for several years. In addition, I have served athletes and people through the arena of personal training. Jesus is my Lord and Savior. I am a passionate fan of Alabama, but do not make other fan bases miserable because of it. College football has my heart first, but I cover all areas of sports. Follow me on Twitter: @justinriley7!