I don’t have many heroes who are younger than me, but Kobe Bryant was one of my biggest heroes.
On Sunday, January 26th at 11:44 AM PST, I was at a hotel gym in Colorado Springs doing a light work-out. I was getting dressed in the locker room when my friend, Raul Espinosa sent me a text with one word “Unbelievable”, and a screen shot of the TMZ headline “Kobe Bryant Dies in Helicopter Crash”. I froze for a few seconds then tried to find confirmation from other, more reputable news outlets. CNN and the networks had nothing, but the NY Post and a few other smaller outlets were posting the same story. Four minutes later, my son Aaron, who plays basketball at Colorado College, sent me a text with another news screenshot about Kobe and a typed message “This can’t be real. Please dad, it can’t be”. My heart sunk. I called Aaron and he could barely speak. He said he and all of his teammates were all sobbing. I asked him if he wanted to be with his friends or if he wanted me to drive over and pick him up. He said he needed to see me – so I called my wife Kathy, told her the news, and we got dressed and headed over to the Colorado College campus. Kathy and I were in town to see Aaron play against Centenary College and St. Thomas University. After sitting in our rental car together for about 30 minutes talking about Kobe and trying to calm ourselves down, Aaron said he wanted to shoot some baskets. He led me to his team’s locker room and put on his Black Mamba t-shirt and basketball shoes, we walked to the gym, and like we had done a thousand times before, I coached and rebounded for him while he shot 500 shots in about an hour. It was a nice piece of therapy that made us both feel better, at least for a while. After our workout, Aaron said he needed to get some school work done and we dropped him off at his dorm. I also checked in on my friend Earl Watson, who had battled against Kobe during his 13-year career in the NBA. Earl sent me five text responses; “Can’t stop crying” “As a friend” “Competitor” “Father” “F…” Later that evening, Kathy and I were in our hotel room watching all the comments and tribute videos on Twitter and I finally broke down and began to sob myself.
Why did Kobe mean so much to me?
I think whether you are a basketball fan or not, hearing about nine young people including three children dying in an accident is horrifying. The tragedy of those people having their lives cut short and the devastation of the broken families that they leave behind is almost impossible to comprehend. But the world stood still on that Sunday because one of the most famous athletes of our generation was also on that helicopter. A man who had more influence and touched more lives than any of us truly understood.
For me, Kobe Bryant was in some ways a linkage to the relationship I have with both my father and my son. I am blessed to have a great relationship with my 76-year-old father. We talk several times a week, and frankly, more than half of our conversations are about one subject…sports. My dad is one of the all-time great sports fans and ever since I was a small kid, we’ve always had sports to talk about. When I played basketball in high school and in college, I can’t remember a game where my dad wasn’t in the stands. After my playing days were over, we both still enjoyed the game as fans – calling each other during big games and dissecting every play. My wife is astonished that my dad and I can remember small details about games that happened years ago. When my son got old enough, I started taking him to sporting events and we developed the same affinity to sports that my dad and I shared. While the three of us enjoy several sports, basketball is by far the one that matters the most to us. As a former player and a father to a college star, we are also proud members of the Southern California basketball fraternity and like anyone who is part of that network, the Lakers and Kobe Bryant were tops to us. However, for me it was even more than that. I think one of the reasons Kobe’s passing affected me so much was the memories I have with my own family. I got to celebrate every one of Kobe’s basketball achievements, and there were many, with my father and/or my son. I remember when my dad called me and asked if I was watching the Laker game because Kobe was about to score 80 points in a game and we stayed on the phone until Kobe left the game with 81. I also remember being courtside with Aaron watching game six of the 2010 finals series between the Lakers and the Celtics, where Kobe won his fifth and final NBA championship. I am eternally grateful to Kobe Bryant because he gave me countless moments of high-fives, cheers and celebration with the two men that mean the most to me in the world.
The Mamba Mentality
As Kobe’s career matured and his position as one of the all-time greats was secured, the narrative about Kobe Bryant became more about his legendary work ethic and mental toughness than his skill on the court. Yes, Kobe was a gifted athlete, but he was the first to say that his greatness had more to do with how hard he was willing to work than anything else. This is where his legend transcended basketball. One of my favorite books is “Talent is Overrated” by Geoffrey Colvin. The book examines a number of high achievers and documents that God-given talent actually plays a very small role in the success of almost all high achievers. Kobe clearly subscribes to this point of view and named his approach to work and success as his “Mamba Mentality”. I believe the Mamba Mentality, which he describes in books and videos, made Kobe more relatable to basketball fans and the broader population. Because it can be applied to so many different things including business, art, and family, it also made him one of the most famous people on the planet.
Kobe After Basketball
Kobe retired from the NBA in 2016, with five NBA championships, two Olympic Gold Medals, and too many individual awards to count. However, after he retired his image actually grew. His short film Dear Basketball won an Academy Award, and his investment company, Bryant, Stibel and Co. was building a world-class reputation for savvy investing after investing in companies such as Legal Zoom and Epic Games, the maker of the smash hit “Fortnight”. Before his retirement, Kobe reached out to billionaire Chris Sacca about going into business together. Sacca, to Kobe’s surprise, initially rejected his overtures and bluntly told him he didn’t take him seriously. Sacca now tells the story on how he sent Kobe a number of books and videos on investing and expected never to hear from Kobe again. Kobe being Kobe, surprised Sacca by calling him at all hours asking him about specific chapters and his reaction to certain ideas – eventually earning the billionaire’s respect and admiration.
The one thing about our sports heroes is that they are rarely heroic off the field and court. In fact, they frequently disappoint us. In recent months, the images of Kobe that dominated the internet were not of his professional forays, but rather his relationship with his family – especially his daughter, Gianna. Kobe and his wife Vanessa had four daughters – all of them beautiful in their own ways, but it was Gianna who was always by his side. Kobe coached her AAU basketball team and the thirteen-year-old was determined to continue the Bryant legacy on the court. As Gianna matured, Kobe and Gianna became common fixtures courtside at basketball games where they could be seen evaluating the action and dissecting plays. An ESPN journalist wrote that Kobe was the only NBA star who never had an entourage. His wife and daughters were all the entourage he needed. One of the images I loved the most was of Kobe in an ankle boot and crutches immediately after he tore his Achilles tendon standing in the arena tunnel with six-year-old Gianna holding a yellow purse walking next to her dad. More than perhaps anything else, it was Kobe the family man that endeared him to millions around the world.
As we all know, his beloved Gianna was in the helicopter with Kobe and was one of the nine that perished that fateful day. Kobe Bryant was a special guy whose legacy will only grow in the coming years and decades. The Monday after the crash, the local Colorado Springs television news wanted to interview local college basketball players about what Kobe’s passing meant to them. Aaron was one of the players interviewed. It was an honor to him to get to eulogize his idol in such a special way. We love you, Bean!