Kobe is My GOAT — Don’t @ Me

Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

Dear Kobe,

I was only seven years old when I first heard of you.

The date was June 26th, 1996, a Wednesday evening in Rutherford, New Jersey. You and an assortment of other prospects were gathered in your best suits, waiting for David Stern to read your names. You know how it went. “With the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets select Kobe Bryant, from Lower Merion High School…” The applause almost drowned out the second half of his statement, hugs were exchanged all around, and you made your way to the stage to shake his hand — a moment, a dream, that I’m sure you knew you’d undoubtedly achieve. And, we all know what happened next. Charlotte passed on your talents, or perhaps Jerry West swindled them out of what would have been the crowning achievement of their franchise. Either way it didn’t matter. Their traded asset went on to become the greatest Laker that ever lived.

I was just seven then and obsessed with Michael Jordan. I had the shoes, the Chicago Bulls leather jacket, M.J. videos and memorabilia were always at the top of my Christmas list, and I even got the Bulls logo designed on the back of my head. My barber, impressed with his work, offered to dye it red “to make it come alive.” I declined. Instead, I had my mom take me to the mall to get my ear pierced. “Just one ear, like M.J.,” I said to the nice lady before she made me cry (just a little bit).

Everyone wanted to be like Mike. Although, it wasn’t just the look, (granted, a Bulls logo and potentially dyed hair was more Dennis Rodman’s style) I wanted to play like him too. His greatness made a little kid from Brooklyn want to be just as great. Whether on my Fisher Price hoop that never rose past 5 feet or a crate connected to a telephone poll, when I shot the ball, I thought “Jordan!” I’m certain that I even said it out loud, more times than I can count. I watched him; I studied his movements, and thought “if I could just master this footwork, I can fade away over anyone.” And, you did the same. You too were obsessed with M.J., but what separated us, aside from your height, skill, and god-given ability, was your work ethic. You truly believed that you could become better than Michael Jordan and your approach was pragmatic, almost scientific.

Assess my weaknesses and make them my strengths.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Each season you blessed us with one better than the last, and each summer, you put in the work to make it all appear effortless. You wanted to be better than Jordan, and for many of us, you replaced him.

After Jordan retired, I lost some of my love for the game. My hero was gone, my team was dismantled, and my urge to hoop disappeared as fast as that bull in my hair. Then came Allen Iverson. A brash, tattooed, no bullshit outlaw. Honestly, he was misunderstood, but the bad boy reputation made him a media favorite and made his fans love him more. No matter what they said about his demeanor, attire, or history — A.I. was a beast. He went after everyone and was liable to go off for fifty points on any given night. He made me love the game again. Finally, there was someone that I could look up to. Don’t get me wrong, there were others who captured my attention, several of them in your draft class. But as great as they were, Steve Nash wasn’t A.I. and neither was Ray Allen. He was a force that pulled us in. And, like Jordan, he pulled his team to the 2001 NBA Finals, where he ran into you, Shaq, and one of the best teams ever assembled. Despite A.I.’s heroics, you beat them 4–1. You were already a star and just earned your second NBA Championship, but in that series, you earned my respect. You made me want to watch you and trust me, that was difficult. I was an east coast kid and while the Knicks broke my heart on several occasions and the Nets were an afterthought for most of my childhood (sorry Kerry Kittles), I was rooting for whoever was coming out of my conference. But, you changed that. Starting then, I was rooting for whoever came out of the east, but I was also rooting for Kobe Bryant.

Touted by Jerry West as a player who would eventually become the best in the league and Robin to Shaq’s Batman, you never disappointed. When it came to fictional superheroes, you sure as hell weren’t anyone’s Robin and your supernatural abilities could not be held by Batman’s unique, albeit human skill set. No, your lore was all your own and fittingly, you provided us with your own parallel; The Black Mamba, widely considered one of the most lethal creatures on the planet. The comparison was perfect because on the basketball court, that was you. Kobe Bryant gave it to anyone and everyone that was in his way. Rucker Park: buckets. Summer exhibition game: buckets. A meaningless, early season game: buckets with a 40-piece to hang on your head. We won’t even dissect the 81-point game, one in which the Lakers needed every one of those points to secure the win, and still the greatest single-game performance of the modern era.

And, as your legend grew, as it evolved from exciting neophyte to seasoned champion, my calls of “Jordan!” were replaced with “Kobe!” But, it wasn’t just me. My generation let go of MJ, flirted with the calls of “Iverson,” “Vince Carter,” and others, but we forever came back to “Kobe!” We knew that with the clock ticking down, and the game on the line, you were the most lethal on the court.

I love basketball. I played every single day that I could and when I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about it. My family and friends thought that I was crazy because I’d sacrifice almost anything to put a little round ball in a hoop.

Broken finger: kept playing.

Severely sprained ankle: walked it off.

Slipped while dribbling indoors and cut my leg so bad that the flesh was showing: stopped the bleeding and got back to working on my crossover.

I was obsessed. An elbow to the face that required surgery on my nose and stitches a few millimeters from my eye didn’t stop me either. I once even went up for a shot, landed awkwardly, thus breaking a bone in my foot and still the first thing that I said was “but did I make the shot?” I took “ball is life” literally and while I admit that I’m too old for that now, I don’t regret my love for the game for a second. Because I knew that you were out there, playing through all kinds of injuries and unimaginable pain. Sure, you made millions for it, but you struck me as a person that would do it all for free. You loved the game and I loved you for it.

When I tore my achilles, I was back on the court the next day. I was out of town at a work retreat, when we decided to play a quick game to fifteen. I caught the ball on the left wing, jab stepped and took one dribble to my right. I thought I’d been shot. I’ve never been shot before but it felt like something hit my lower leg with so much force that everything inside of it shattered. And, I heard it. It’s been nine years and I still can’t get that “pop” out of my head.

After assessing that no one was shooting and a fastball hadn’t found it’s way to my leg, I immediately knew what happened. That injury was actually my worst fear. All of the others were fine, but I knew what an achilles tear could do to my game.

Still, I was on the court the next day.

My leg was bandaged and I couldn’t get surgery until I got home in two days, so I used my crutches to get down to the court, balanced on one leg and took some flat-footed threes. But Kobe, here’s the thing: I couldn’t walk on my leg when it happened. At least, not without support. But you…you’re different.

April 12th, 2013, you made a move that you must have made a million times before and as soon as you went down, I knew what it was. But, I didn’t want to admit it. You grabbed at the bottom of your ankle, just like I did, only to feel that there was nothing there. The crowd went silent, while the announcers wondered what exactly was ailing you. I didn’t want it to be true and prayed that you’d get up.

Come one Kobe, get up. You got this Kob-

I know I wasn’t the only one.

And you did get up. You even sank not one, but both of your free throws. And, then you walked off the court. My only thought:

This man is walking off the court. Holy shit.

For me, a person that’s been through that, you did the unbelievable. But, that’s Kobe Bean Bryant: unbelievable. During your final game, Shaq challenged you to get fifty points. You got sixty and won the game. No one could believe what they just saw. And, when you retired and people asked what you’d do next, you told them that you were going to become a storyteller.

They didn’t believe you then, either.

Then you won an Oscar. It became clear that we should believe, not only in your words, but in your actions. When you set your sights on a goal, you made it happen, and for that, you were my hero. You inspired me to do better, to be better, each and every day.

After the 2016 ESPY Awards, I wrote down one of your quotes.

“We’re not on this stage just because of talent or ability. We’re up here because of 4 a.m. We’re up here because of two-a-days or five-a-days. We’re up here because we had a dream and let nothing stand in our way. If anything tried to bring us down, we used it to make us stronger. We were never satisfied, never finished. We will never be retired.”

I read that every day for a year. So, you can understand why this is hard for me.

The date was January 26th, 2020 a Sunday, one that will be felt for years to come. Two weeks prior, I celebrated my 31st birthday, a testament to good fortune, the undeniable will of a Black mother, and whatever Gods are pulling in my favor. I took my family to Grenada, my mother’s home, which she hadn’t visited in just as many years as I’d been alive, and we were having an incredible time. The waves of the Atlantic crashed and abated, as our boat made its way to land. My fiancée helped me cross another item off of my bucket list: viewing the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, the first of it’s kind and a work of art that filled my Grendadian-American heart with joy and a sense of pride that could make me burst. I made the mistake of checking my messages.

“Yo, Kobe really died.”

I read it a few times before it registered.

What? That’s bullshit. I scrolled through Instagram only to be greeted my message after message of the same thing.

Breaking News: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant died in a helicopter crash, moments ago.

And, the news did break me. You don’t understand. I didn’t cry when my grandmother died. I couldn’t bring myself to. The shock set in and then the tasks began. There was no time for tears, no time for processing. It’s been ten years and I still can’t bring myself to shed a single tear, but when you passed, it was like I lost a part of me, or at least, my childhood. The tears were inevitable.

I wanted it to be a hoax — a dumb joke that some asshole got to go viral, but it wasn’t. It was a new reality that we all had to deal with. I felt for your wife, daughters, family, and friends. I was especially heartbroken over the loss of Gigi, who I just knew I’d see grace the court at UConn before reaching the WNBA. I was heartbroken for the families and other members of that flight, who should also be here. And, I was heartbroken for an entire generation that you inspired.

Kobe you are gone, but not forgotten; you are mourned and simultaneously celebrated. The list of NBA players who you mentored and loved you both up close and from afar, are too many to name. When people speak about the great Kobe Bean Bryant they’ll say that you were a five time champion, and league MVP. They’ll mention the 81-point game and the game winners. And, they’ll say that you did everything you could to become the greatest of all time.

When I think of you, I’ll remember that you were a loving and incredible father, husband, advocate, and storyteller. I’ll remember you as a teacher, innovator, and source of encouragement for all those that came after you. Most of all, I’ll think back to your thoughts on greatness.

“I think the definition of greatness is to inspire the people next to you. I think that’s what greatness is, or should be. It’s not something that lives and dies with one person. It’s how can you inspire a person to then in turn inspire another person that then inspires another person. That’s how you create something that I think lasts forever. I think that’s our challenge as people, is to figure out how our story can impact others and motivate them in a way to create their own greatness.”

You wore number 8. You were a kid who wanted to accomplish all of his goals at once but needed to figure out how. You were a superstar with untapped potential; a killer on the basketball court. You grew into number 24, the Black Mamba; a man who made everyone around him better.

The house that I grew up in — the one with the Fisher Price hoop and crate connected to the telephone pole — is number 824. I walk past that door every day and I think of you. I think of the lessons that you’ve taught me, your passion, and your willingness to put in the work. And, when I think of you I want to do the same. So, if greatness is inspiring others, just know that you really are the greatest of all time, and for that, you’ll live forever.

#thankyou

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