Kobe and Me

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Somewhere in the midst of the morning Sunday, we received a text from my son-in-law that Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash near LA. I checked several of the news sites on my tablet … and it was true. As a life long Laker fan, particularly during the Kobe years, I was shocked. I turned on NBA TV, which was not showing. scheduled games, instead featuring the passing of Kobe Bryant, and as it turned out, his 13 year old daughter, Gianna, who was travelling with him. As the tributes from other players and celebrities rolled in, I found myself crying. As a person who prides himself in not getting caught up in celebrity worship, that was a surprise. I’d seen athletes come and go but I’d never mourned one as if I knew him.

I have been a Lakers fan since my years at the University of Connecticut when my contrarian roommate and I began cheering for the Lakers because everyone else were Celtics fans. Moving to California in 1971 … and enrolling in graduate school at USC … brought my most fanatical fan years. They were good years to be fanatical. Magic and

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Kareem. The Pete Carrol years at USC. Kobe and Shaq. It was fun having my favorite teams win. Then USC was cited for NCAA violations. Shaq and Kobe couldn’t get along. My teams stopped winning. In every sport, players gave up on team loyalty in the quest for more money. Even top players were found to be using banned substance. Domestic violence and infidelity became regular visitors to sport center. Just like most things in our country, fans became outrageously partisan, bringing objectional behavior to sports rivalries. My love of sports waned. I still watched but without the fire. I still liked certain athletes but I didn’t love them like I once did.

Here’s the thing about Kobe Bryant. He let us see the man he was, whether it was pretty or not. And his single-minded dedication to winning … and being the best, even when it damaged his team … was sometimes disturbing. But it also fueled amazing athletic feats on a regular basis, sometimes in spite of injuries that sent other players to the bench. He let me see who he was on and off the court, without pandering or pretense. When he was accused of rape in Colorado, I wasn’t all that surprised … NBA players are known to sleep with many women while on the road. After all, everyone’s favorite player, Magic Johnson, once admitted to having sex with 300-500 women a year and Wilt Chamberlain claims to have slept with 20,000. But it did take the glow off one of my favorite athletes. Even through the controversy, his performance on the court continued. As his body began to fail him, his insistence on a large contract extension certainly prolonged the down years for the Lakers, turning some fans against him. But there was always that fire.

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Perhaps it is his retirement that restored the man in my pantheon of athletes. With 60 points in his last game, a microphone drop and a Mamba out, he left the game he loved. Instead of disappearing into obscurity like MJ or becoming a talking head like Charles Barkley or Shaq, he developed his interests in film production and what he called storytelling. His animated short, Dear Basketball, won him an Oscar. He became a driving force for the WNBA and women’s basketball. To all his appearances, he became a dedicated father

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and husband, and, since Kobe never did anything just for show, I believe it. So there it is. Kobe Bryant was a flawed, arrogant, sometimes maddeningly single-minded, intelligent and creative man who happened to be given remarkable athletic skills. For years, those skills defined him but as he aged … and retired … I got to watch his intelligence and creativity come forward. I got to see him soften without sacrificing his legendary drive. And now, I don’t get to see where that drive would have carried him next.

Goodbye, Kobe Bryant. I’m mourning because you let me feel like I knew you.

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