So this is how it feels when an entire planet loses a loved one. Kobe Bryant was 41 when the helicopter he was riding crashed in Calabasas, California. On the same flight was his daughter Gianna, who was 13. The most difficult part of writing is needing to have the words when no one else does.
Kobe was a legend. Five-time champion. MVP. Eighteen-time all-star. He changed the way we speak. How we can’t dispose of garbage without invoking his name. How the common basketball fan knows how the Black Mamba is a snake that “strikes with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession.” How players lobby for the 8 and the 24, alongside the timeless 23. He was a cultural force.
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Kobe’s legacy was built on this obsession. The kind that lets you score 81 points on Jalen Rose and the Toronto Raptors. The kind that lets you make two free throws after a career-ending Achilles tear. The kind that allows an African-American kid who was named after Japanese beef and grew up in Italy to win five rings and influence a generation.
There were low points too. In 2003, Kobe was accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee—an accusation he refuted. This began an ugly episode in his life, which included his legal team smearing his accuser, a telling transcript of his police interview after the incident, and his eventual public apology, where he said: “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” He ended up settling with the woman in 2005.
Kobe knew some things could never be taken back, but maybe he also knew nothing stopped him from writing more and better chapters in his life story. He began calling himself the Black Mamba—a way to channel negativity into on-court dominance. He generally stayed out of trouble. But if there is anything that most closely resembles redemption, it might be the life he had led after retirement.
Kobe could have waltzed into any NBA front office. A scout. A trainer. A coach. He eventually ended up returning to basketball in the way we should have expected. He coached his daughter’s basketball team. When people would ask him whether he wanted a son to continue his legacy, his daughter Gianna would interject: “I got this. Ain’t no boy for that. I got this.” And Kobe would say: “Yeah. You got this.” Mambacita, he would call her.
In a video posted by the SLAM Twitter account, Dad Kobe is playing one-on-one with a young Gianna. Kobe crowds GiGi as she has possession. It could be a foul. GiGi steps into her dad, shrugs his 6’6 frame off with her shoulder—a clear offensive foul—and swishes the ball from 15 feet. “Oh ho ho,” Kobe laughs. His smile is infectious. What it must feel like to realize that your daughter is growing up emulating the best of you.
Kobe and his wife, Vanessa, were active advocates. The Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation is partnered with a number of organizations that serve the homeless. In a 2012 event to promote his work, Bryant said homelessness has been reduced to “white noise,” and that it could probably “use the most push.”
“I don’t want to be too cheesy and quote ‘Spider-Man’ but with great power comes great responsibility,” he said.
There is no controlling which parts of our lives compose our legacies. And it is always a sad hardship—in the wake of a person’s passing—to put everything about him in the same room and see his life for what it was. Sometimes all we can do is pour all that we can into the world and hope that it amounts to something. That is precisely what Kobe Bryant did. He worked hard. He inspired millions. He made mistakes. He tried to give back. He was a good dad. How his legacy lingers in the world is up to the world. It is up to us.
A month from now, perhaps, Nike will start selling shoes and other merch to remember Kobe by. And they’re all going to be sold out. Never forget, we’ll say. Mamba Forever. Those words are guaranteed to echo throughout history, but what will they mean? Will they evoke 81 points against the Toronto Raptors? Five rings? Sure. These achievements, by themselves, are amazing enough. But can’t Mamba Mentality remind us of something far larger? How Kobe was a good dad. How he inspired us to be better every single day. How he helped the homeless and the needy. How he uplifted women athletes. How we could do these things the exact same way he did.
I hope we are comfortable with the responsibility of expanding his legacy. Because isn’t this something we all know? When Kobe passes you the ball, you better do something good with it.