The news of Kobe Bryant's death along with his 13-year old daughter Gianna and seven other passengers aboard a helicopter crash shook the world on Sunday. Social media was filled with memories of Kobe and Gianna as people let out their grief in such a terrible tragedy. This news has shaken me to my core.
I didn't grow up like your typical child. All of my classmates would show up to school wearing a t-shirt of their favorite superhero but I was never really into all of that. Their heroes were Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk and Batman. Not mine though. My heroes were sports figures.
Growing up with a love for sports gifted me the opportunity to follow closely those who were so successful in their crafts. As an Ole Miss fan, I remember Eli Manning taking the field for the first time in the red and blue and I remember how happy I was that the guy who was my favorite player also played on my favorite team. The same could be said about Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols with their times spent with the St. Louis Cardinals. I loved racing home from church on Sundays to watch Tiger Woods wrap up another major win or see Tony Romo play for the Cowboys. All of those guys were important to me. I watched them closely. I studied how they played and what made them so successful. All of those athletes were my heroes but none of them were more important to me than Kobe Bryant.
My love sports came from my late father who shared the same passion for the sports world. As a young boy wanting the approval of my dad, I easily picked up the fandom for Ole Miss, the Dallas Cowboys and the St. Louis Cardinals just as he rooted vigorously for those teams. But there was one team I just couldn't get on board with—the Boston Celtics. My dad loved the Celtics and would tell me stories about Larry Bird, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale as the Celtics were a dominant force in the 80s. But there was a reason I couldn't come to terms with cheering for the Celtics. As a kid it seemed like every televised NBA game featured a team wearing purple and gold. At that time, the Los Angeles Lakers featured two of the game's best players in Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant and O'Neal became the most dominant duo to ever play together, winning three-straight NBA titles.
I was sold. No matter how hard my dad pushed, I was a Lakers fan. Kobe became the topic of many arguments of the years between my dad and I. He was the lone "hero" that I felt I could call my own.
Kobe's game inspired me. There was not a single day that went by that when I got off the school bus that I didn't run to the front porch, throw down my backpack, pick up the basketball and run over to my basketball goal to shoot in my front yard for hours. With every shot I imagined as if I were Kobe, turning around over my left shoulder with a fadeaway jumper as counted down the seconds three...two...one. I remember emulating his iconic celebrations as I sprinted across the yard as if I had just won the title for the Lakers.
Kobe's impact on my life is far beyond basketball. Sports has always been an escape for me, for whatever situations arose in my life. In some of my darkest times as a teenager, I can remember flipping on the TV to watch Kobe play and see his will to win become so visible and watch as he endured injuries but would still manage to overcome it with a determination that was unmatched. I recall Kobe tearing his achilles in a game against the Warriors as the Lakers were down by two. Kobe was fouled on the play that injured him and as the medical staff helped him off the floor, not able to lift his leg, Bryant shrugged off those around him to walk over to the free throw line to sink a pair of free throws, tying the game, a game the Lakers went on to win.
Kobe's grit, determination and work ethic were unlike anything the sports world has ever seen. It was the "Mamba Mentality." That mentality has spilled over to the younger generation of NBA superstars and to other athletes in other sports as well. That mentality is something that I, along with large following of Kobe fans live by. You could see that mindset in Gianna. "Mambacita," he liked to call her. At 13, she seemed destined for greatness because of the same qualities that her dad had. But now we will never get to see that out.
It's unfair that Kobe won't be there to witness as he is inducted into the basketball hall of fame. It's not fair that the man who was solely responsible for dominating an era of basketball will never see his statue outside of Staples Center. He put in the work to achieve the greatness that he was but it feels like he won't be awarded for it.
It's unfair to his wife Vanessa and to their three other daughters Natalia, Bianca and Capri. Kobe's retirement from the NBA opened the door for him to do what he wanted to do—and that was be a dad to his kids. His love for his daughters was evident and you could see the feeling was mutual on the night of his final game as his daughters stared in awe of their dad who ended his career with a 60-point performance against the Jazz. The cameras focused on his girls that night, who were gleaming with pride.
I remember being overcome with emotion watching my favorite athlete of all-time finish his career, knowing I'd never get to watch him again. In all honesty, I cried when the game was over.
So there I sat on Sunday, learning of Kobe's death with the rest of the world—crying. Crying because of what he meant to me growing up. Crying because a beautiful life was taken too soon. Crying because Gianna and other families aboard were taken from this world with so much promise.
Kids never expect Superman to die. He always pulled through in the end. I never expected it to end this way with my hero. Turns out, he was more like me than I thought. Kobe was mortal too.
So thank you for all the memories Kobe. A five-time NBA champion; two-time Finals MVP; one-time MVP; 18-time NBA All-Star; 11-time All-NBA First team selection and three-time Olympic gold medalists. You accomplished it all. You showed me what it means to be driven by a goal and you carried me through some tough times without you even knowing.