In a 2016 interview, conducted just months after he hung up his sneakers for the final time, Kobe Bryant was asked about death.
“What’s your relationship with death?” The Ringer’s Micah Peters asked.
“A comfortable one,” Bryant responded. “It’s an understanding. You can’t have life without death. You can’t have light without dark, so it’s an acceptance of that.” However, as one might expect, Bryant related the remainder of his response back to basketball.
“When it came down to whether or not I should retire, it’s really an acceptance of that mortality that all athletes face,” he continued. “If you combat it, you’ll always have that inner struggle within yourself.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed the unimaginable; Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna, 13, died in a helicopter crash that morning in Calabasas, Calif., alongside seven others.
His death is as jarring as it is tragic. Bryant, one of the most devastating, jaw-droppingly talented and graceful players to ever pick up a basketball, was not supposed to die this young. He was supposed to mentor the next generation of superstars. He was supposed to continue pushing women’s basketball forward. He was supposed to be a figure that children could grow up watching on television, asking their parents, ‘Who is this guy? What was it like when he played?’
But life is full of suppositions.
On the court, Bryant was unmatched in dominance. Over the course of a 20-year career – all spent in Los Angeles with the Lakers – Bryant won five championships, had 18 all-star selections and won league MVP in 2008. Bryant had 11 all-NBA first-team selections, nine first-team all-defense selections and scored the fourth-most points in NBA history. He also won two gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games.
He entered the league in 1996, a pioneer in the push for high school basketball players to forego college and enter the NBA. He came into the league at a time of flux; Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were gone, and Michael Jordan’s twilight was slowly approaching. The league needed a new face, and Bryant fit it as if the mold was cast specifically for him.
He was a giant among men. He belonged to a special fraternity of individuals who transcended their occupation — of those whose legacies span countries, generations and time. He was the most influential sports figure in 21st-century American culture.
He was your favorite player’s favorite player. Tales of his commitment to perfection are unmatched, and his ‘Mamba mentality’ inspired millions of young boys and girls to go outside and pick up a basketball. But Bryant’s gospel transcends basketball. The determination, hard work and self-sacrifice he employed throughout his life are teachable in any field and in any discipline.
He left an indelible mark on the global landscape of the sport, and in this country, no other figure impacted American culture more than Bryant. His shoes, his signature fade away jump shot, his support of the women’s game and his contributions to cinema – for which he was awarded an Oscar in 2018 – will likely never be matched.
Perhaps the greatest indication of Bryant’s brilliance came on April 13, 2016, his final game. In front of a sold-out Staples Center, the millions watching expected a veteran’s coronation; he would trot out onto the court, knock down a few shots and receive a hero’s farewell. Instead, Bryant delivered one of the most iconic performances of his career. He poured in 60 points, including the game-winning jumper, on two legs that the thousands of hours of physical wear had finally caught up to.
Following the game, Kobe addressed the Staples Center crowd; true fans didn’t dare to leave the arena. He thanked them for years of support, joked about years the Lakers struggles and, before bidding farewell, put his hand over his heart, two fingers in the air and exclaimed, “Mamba out.”
But the Mamba, as Bryant was known, did not leave; his second chapter had just begun. And that’s what makes his untimely death so hard to process.
I never met Kobe Bryant, and I imagine that you never did, either. That doesn’t mean his death hurts any less.
It’s okay to mourn the death of those that we never knew. It’s okay to cry about the death of your favorite musician, actor or political figure; these actions make us human. These individuals, those who we choose to give a little piece of our faith, or our love, or hours of our time, possess something we desire. While they never knew it, these celebrities we choose to mourn are part of our lives.
Death is undefeated. It is unexpected and unforgiving, and serves as a reminder of our own mortality. On Sunday morning, Bryant’s wife Vanessa lost a husband, and three of his daughters lost a father and a sister. The world lost a disciple of sport and an inspiration to the masses.