For a long time, I was not much a fan of Kobe Bryant, who died yesterday at age 41 in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others en route to a youth basketball tournament. Early in his NBA career, he was a wannabe Michael Jordan. He conducted an unseemly feud with Shaquille O’Neal for alpha status that helped unravel a Lakers dynasty.
Most importantly, at the end of a felony sexual assault case against him, he confessed to non-consensual sex with his accuser. There is no getting around that.
Later in his career, however, especially outside the media, in more intimate settings, I began to appreciate him. The first time was at the Lakers’ shoot-around the afternoon of Game 3 in the 2007 playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.
I attended by invitation of Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson, a professional acquaintance back then, to interview Assistant Coach Tex Winter and raise Tex’s profile as a Hall of Fame candidate. Kobe arrived late to that shoot-around, perhaps due to receiving treatment for injury or illness.
But when he arrived, the energy in the gym changed. He watched the walk-through like a hawk. Players became much more intentional and attentive, even though Kobe was just watching. Because Kobe was watching.
That energy reminded me of attending a press conference for the presentation of one of Michael Jordan’s MVP awards. He entered from the back of the room, and the feeling in that space changed even before I saw him. By 2007, even if Kobe was not on Jordan’s level as a legend – with two more NBA titles yet to come – he was way past a wannabe.
Near the end of the team’s practice, Kobe hoisted a few jump shots. He couldn’t help himself, his love of the game ran so deep. Then Kobe swaggered out of the gym, and his teammates followed with a swagger unseen earlier. He dropped 45 on the Suns that night.
The next time I saw Kobe outside of the media was at the October 2018 Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program’s Project Play Summit. He’d retired from the NBA as an elder statesman, one of the all-time greats, known for his five championships and as many individual accolades as anyone who ever played, known for his work ethic and his fierce competitiveness.
Now, Kobe was onto using the platform of his fame to change the world for good. He’d started coaching Gianna’s team and was concerned enough with the state of youth sports to spend an afternoon with a few hundred like-minded folks.
The Summit included Kobe leading a panel discussion with four athletes ages 11-13, titled “What if Youth Designed Youth Sports?” and another session on “The Meaning of Play” with his childhood friend, Kevin Carroll, the author and former Philadelphia 76ers athletic trainer.
Kobe’s roles in these events were not ceremonial. They were hard, earnest, honest work with much more payoff for everyone else in the room than for Kobe himself. This work required Kobe to be humble and genuine, especially with the kids.
He was as prepared as he had ever been on-court and performed with the same aplomb. If you didn’t know better, you would never have thought he was any kind of celebrity, let alone one of the world’s most famous athletes, a global icon, Oscar winner, and multi-lingual budding Renaissance man.
Ferocious, competitive, mean-mugging Mamba — in this new venue — channeled all the same intensity that fueled his basketball career into an equal measure of kindness, gentleness, and playfulness. He had become a man in full and stayed that way until yesterday.