LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bean Bryant died Sunday, Jan. 26 outside of Los Angeles in a tragic helicopter crash. The wreck killed eight other passengers — including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant — leaving several families and nearly the entire nation in mourning.
Bryant was truly a larger-than-life figure, both on and off the court. His “mamba mentality” inspired generations of athletes to not just be great in sports, but in life. He will be remembered not just as one of the greatest athletes to ever pick up a basketball, but a role model and superhero to millions he inspired.
This story was originally published in The Herald on Jan. 29, 2020.
In 1996, Bryant was selected 13th overall in the NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets. His stint with the organization didn’t last long. In fact, it didn’t survive the evening. On the same night, he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the rest is history.
In just his second season, he was named an NBA All-Star as he quickly ascended to the top of the league. It wouldn’t take long from there for him to reach the pinnacle.
From 2000 to 2003, Bryant and his Lakers — with monumental help from Shaquille O’Neal, of course — won three-consecutive NBA titles, solidifying their place as one of the most dominant teams in NBA history.
Bryant would go on to win two more championships in 2009 and 2010, earning Finals MVP both times. However, in his pursuit of a sixth title — a number that would have tied his idol, Michael Jordan — a freak injury nearly derailed his career.
“Mamba, you were taken away from us way too soon. Your next chapter of life was just beginning. But now, it’s time for us to continue your legacy. You said yourself that everything negative — pressure, challenges — was all an opportunity for me to rise.” – Shaquille O’Neal
On April 12, 2013, Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon. Historically, the injury has been all but a death sentence for athletes’ careers. Somehow, Bryant was able to shoot two free throws and walk off the court under his own power immediately after the injury.
Though he would return to the NBA, he was never truly the same. However, he did save just enough magic for a grand finale.
Prior to his final season, Bryant announced what would be known as his “farewell tour” so fans across the country could see him in action one last time. His final game would be a home contest against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016.
On that historic night, Bryant produced perhaps the greatest send-off in professional sports history. Not only did he lead his Lakers to a come-from-behind victory behind a go-ahead two-pointer with just 31 seconds remaining, he also scored 17 of the final 19 points for the Lakers — all in a row — to hit the 60-point mark. It would go down as the most points scored in a single game in the NBA that season.
On the final stage of his NBA career, he shocked the world one last time.
Bryant would finish his career as a five-time champion, a two-time Finals MVP, an NBA MVP, an 18-time All-Star, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in his 20 seasons in Los Angeles.
Once his playing days came to an official close, he began making his impact off the court. He was a global ambassador to the game of basketball, an Oscar Award winner, and one of the loudest advocates for the WNBA. However, above all, he was a husband to Vanessa Bryant and a father to four daughters.
Early in his career, Bryant was a figure drowned in controversy. In 2003, he was accused of rape and subsequently arrested in Eagle, Colorado. Bryant admitted to an adulterous relationship but denied any sexual misconduct. The case was dropped in September 2004 and was ultimately settled outside of court.
Outside of the allegations, Bryant also became a controversial figure on the court in the wake of his alleged feud with O’Neal that ultimately led to O’Neal leaving the Lakers for the Miami Heat at the beginning of the 2004 season. Bryant was later called “un-coachable” by his coach, Phil Jackson.
Bryant’s image reached an all-time low.
In the end, though, he was able to overcome his negative perception to become a role model for a new generation of athletes. He used his influence and platform to inspire a younger generation to give their all in everything they do. His will to keep fighting for years to reach the top of the NBA again was a sight to see, as perhaps the fiercest competitor in professional sports left it all on the floor every night.
The reception to the news of Bryant’s death was beautifully poetic, as such a polarizing figure was able to bring so many individuals together in a moment. In the sports world, there were no fandoms or lines in the sand, but one community united in mourning.
Bryant’s untimely death serves as a somber reminder of everyone’s mortal nature. No one knows when tragedy will strike, only that it is certain. Every individual has a very finite time in this world, and it is important to take advantage of every second.
Even for those with no interest in Bryant’s life or death, perhaps it will serve as an example of why it is so important to hug and kiss those you love, as you may never get the opportunity again.