To young basketball fans who came of age in Southern California in the mid-1990s, Kobe Bryant was not a basketball player, but a young god. Our prince. We watched him grow up with the Los Angeles Lakers, as sure of his potential as we were of our own. When he won, we won.
Now he’s gone, and with him, our childhoods.
Dead at 41 in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., along with eight others, including his precious 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
He died on the way to a girls basketball tournament at his namesake Mamba Academy, in my hometown of Thousand Oaks, Calif., roughly an hour’s drive from the Great Western Forum, Bryant’s first professional home. The tragedy has taken on added meaning for those I know best. After the news broke, I almost immediately received texts as well as anguished phone calls. Our hero, gone, and so close to our home.
Part of his future was in Thousand Oaks, where the next generation of Kobe acolytes were to be infused with the Mamba Mentality. He also was involved in creative endeavors, technology businesses and a venture capital partnership.
An hour after Bryant’s death, I commiserated with my longtime friend Justin Taylor, Nike’s former director of digital marketing. He worked closely with Bryant toward the end of his professional basketball career and saw the beginnings of a burgeoning empire.
"I remember asking him, ‘It's your last year, what do you want to accomplish?’ The Lakers were not winning the title that year, it's his last year, what were his goals,” Taylor said. “He was not a guy to rest on his laurels. He looked at me and said, “Every single morning, I wake up and I work to get better at every single thing in my life. Whether it be making eggs or basketball. And I’ll do that every single day, for the rest of my life.' ”
The idea that his life is over is almost unfathomable.
The idea that so, too, is his daughter’s? Unspeakable.
A burgeoning business empire was just one part of Bryant’s life, and to see him interact with his four daughters, clearly the lesser.
His future was supposed to include corsages pinned to dresses and walks down the aisle. To imagine that his daughter was by his side on Sunday is simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming. If you pray, pray that she was not scared. If you pray, pray that he was not either.
Bryant's legacy is complicated, forever stained by a 2003 sexual assault in Colorado, which included dropped charges but a settled civil lawsuit and his public apology. For some, a lifetime of good deeds will never atone for the mistakes of the night in Colorado, and that opinion is justifiable, and perhaps laudable.
Bryant was known for his ruthlessness with teammates in practice and with opponents in games. He was sometimes brutal on the media, as cutting with a dry response to a question as he was calculating with the ball in his hands and the shot clock winding down.
For those like me, it’s difficult to separate the man, warts and all, from his myth.
I judge him on the moments I’ve seen him at his best.
I remember him in the locker room after NBA Finals Game 7 in 2010, having just vanquished the hated Boston Celtics. He had a dogged look of determination in his eyes as he held the Larry O’Brien Trophy in one hand and a champagne bottle in the other.
Two years later, I covered the Panini sports card company's Golden Ticket promotion for ESPN. A collector, Nick Gauder from Ohio –- LeBron James country –- had pulled from a pack of basketball cards a voucher to meet Bryant at Staples Center.
I watched Gauder’s eyes turn into saucers as Bryant approached. Then Bryant embraced Gauder’s mother with tremendous warmth. “Kobe hugged me twice!” his mother told me after their meeting. “Did you hear that?! No ... wait ... three times!”
Afterward, I asked Gauder about the offers he’d received for the Golden Ticket. One was for about $20,000. How could he pass that up? He's a barber from Ohio.
“Who gets this chance?” he said.
The chance to meet a hero. The chance to meet a god. A prince-turned-king.
For a kid from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who grew up idolizing Kobe, I understood.
Jon Gold covered the Lakers for the Los Angeles Daily News and other media from 2008-13.