It never feels real. The pain of losing a loved one resonates to the core. But the immeasurable disbelief in group texts of “Did you hear?” and breaking-news alerts of a deceased celebrity strike a particular level of disbelief and uncertainty. Saying goodbye to Kobe Bryant at just 41 years old will never make sense.
On Sunday afternoon the world learned Los Angeles Laker legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna “Gigi,” also perished on board, along with eight other passengers traveling to a basketball game for Gianna’s team. There were no survivors.
The story trended almost immediately after reaching social media. Condolences from athletes, celebrities, and virtually anyone who’s at least watched one game of professional basketball, poured in from all corners of the world.
Michael Jordan mourns the death of Kobe Bryant pic.twitter.com/XXeicRqnuC
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 26, 2020
There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of loosing my neice Gigi & my brother @kobebryant I love u and u will be missed. My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. IM SICK RIGHT NOW pic.twitter.com/pigHywq3c1
— SHAQ (@SHAQ) January 26, 2020
Neymar's tribute to Kobe Bryant after he scored. RIP pic.twitter.com/L678OrobY8
— Dezildez (@Dezildezzz) January 26, 2020
Remarkable moment to start the Raptors-Spurs game. pic.twitter.com/thmt9ZU1Ra
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 26, 2020
Not only was Bryant an international star athlete, but also that rare person who managed to transcend the talents of his sport. Bryant worked with author Wesley King on young adult books called “The Wizenard Series.” The first book was published last spring.
In 2018, Bryant won an Oscar with director Glen Keane for Best Animated Short Film with his story “Dear Basketball.” He wrote in it, “Dear basketball, from the moment I started rolling my dad’s tube socks and shooting imaginary game winning shots in The Great Western Forum. I knew one thing was real, I fell in love with you. A love so deep, I gave you my all. From my mind and body to my spirit and soul. You are my inspiration.”
Bryant himself was the inspiration to a generation of basketball fans. From Philadelphia, where he was raised, to Los Angeles, where he was traded shortly after the 1996 NBA draft (13th overall), Bryant’s tough and relentlessly competitive style of play quickly cemented him into legendary status.
He won five NBA titles, two finals most valuable player awards, and was a one-time league MVP. One of his most impressive offensive performances came in Toronto against the Raptors. Bryant dropped 81 points on January 2, 2006, the second most scored points in a single game in NBA history.
Just Saturday night, Bryant watched LeBron James pass his own record for the all-time scoring list. After the Lakers loss to the 76ers, James had reached 33,655 points in his career, etching himself as third on NBA’s all-time scoring list. Bryant fell to fourth but still congratulated James on Twitter, seemingly passing the torch with open arms.
I grew up a fan of Bryant. He was my favorite basketball player to watch, fearless in his determination and disregard of other people’s opinions. After all, Bryant was not perfect. In 2003, he was arrested in connection to an investigation of sexual assault. A 19-year-old hotel employee claimed Bryant had sexually assaulted her, and the case was later settled out of court. Bryant would later publicly admit to infidelity.
Maturing into adulthood, my child-like fandom wrestled with the weight of those allegations. Bryant seemed to battle his demons over the incident as well. He created his famous “black mamba” mentality. Where once he was greeted with unanimous cheers, now Bryant heard the scrutinizing sounds of boos on the road. He seemed to channel the lessons he learned, albeit the hard way, into becoming a better man, husband, and father to a family he truly adored.
In 2012, I met Bryant in a charity soccer game held by Mia Hamm and her husband Nomar Garciaparra in Washington D.C. The surreal part of it all set in when I caught myself on several occasions challenging the NBA MVP for a 50/50 ball. Here he was. Kobe Bryant in the flesh. No salacious headline or picture-perfect advertisement, just Bryant like any one of us—except a lot taller.
He proved almost equally adept at handling a soccer ball as he was at dribbling a basketball. He was an avid fan of soccer from his years of childhood spent living in Italy where his father, also a former professional basketball player, once lived and played. Point blank: Bryant was fantastic at not one, but two sports. His athleticism had no bounds.
More impressive than this discovery was Bryant’s jovial disposition. He stayed after the match to take photos and sign autographs of every single fan in attendance. Some of the U.S. Women’s National Team players at the event didn’t even show as much magnanimity. Bryant thrived in an environment where he could converse and teach others, a humility he seemed to exude with the same brilliance towards his children in retirement.
Bryant is survived by three daughters and his wife, Vanessa. Gianna, the daughter who passed alongside him, seemed to have been his basketball heir apparent. The man blessed with beautiful girls but not one boy to permanently carry his last name didn’t appear to mind. He bragged about Gianna’s connection to him numerous times, including on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
“The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans come up to me and she’ll be standing next to me, and they’ll be like, ‘Man, you and V have to have a boy. Someone has to carry on the tradition, the legacy,’” Bryant said. “She’s like ‘Oy, I got this.’ Yes, you do, you got this.”
They left his world together, Bryant and Gianna. All of us feel a little sadder, a little more broken in knowing that they left us far too soon along with everyone else on that helicopter. Love him, hate him, feel confliction in rooting for him, all those emotions are okay.
Bryant was a once in a lifetime player. We all lost a little bit of our sports fandom Sunday with him.
This article has been edited since publishing.