My fondest memory of Kobe Bryant didn’t even take place on American soil, nor did it even involve him playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. It was during the 2008 Olympics, with the Redeem Team facing the Spain national team in the gold medal match.
With a little more than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Team USA had a precarious 5-point lead against Spain. Dwyane Wade had the ball and forced himself into the paint, which collapsed the defense. Wade passed the ball out toward the left wing, where Kobe was stationed. He caught the ball, with Spain’s Rudy Fernandez rapidly closing in on him. A simple jab step made Fernandez hesitate, and that was all Kobe needed — a small window of weakness from his opponent, that same window he would take advantage of throughout his career to gain an advantage. He went up for the three, with Fernandez touching him on the way up. The ball swished inside the net, with the referee penalizing Fernandez for the foul.
Kobe placed his finger on his pursed lips and stared straight ahead, his eyes as cold as the ice that flowed within his veins. It was peak Black Mamba in the international stage, the world at large seeing what the rest of us NBA and basketball fans knew all along.
This man was a legend. This man was basketball personified.
Growing up a Warriors fan during the years where they gave plenty of reasons to not be a fan of them was tough. I fell in love with basketball because my dad was a basketball lifer. He played the game as a kid. He participated in every local league in his neighborhood, and every pick-up game there was to be played was graced by his passion for the game that had given him a reason to escape from the tough situation that befell his childhood. Basketball was his blissful pastime.
It was only natural that he passed his love of the game onto his only son. While I was never as good as he was at basketball, I matched his never-ending passion for it. I remember becoming a fan of his favorite basketball teams — Ginebra, the most storied franchise in the history of the Philippine Basketball Association, led by the most iconic Filipino basketball player in history, Robert Jaworski. When my dad immigrated to San Francisco, he was a witness to the Chicago Bulls dynasty, and as a result, he became the biggest Michael Jordan fan. When my mom and I eventually followed him to the US, he imparted his fandom of MJ onto me, starting with turning on the TV and watching Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals with me. He was a disciple of Larry Bird, who he furiously idolized; he would often try to make me pattern my own shooting form based on Larry Legend’s unorthodox but effective way of putting the ball through the hoop.
But most of all, being a resident of San Francisco naturally made him gravitate toward the Golden State Warriors. Despite being one of the league’s persistent punching bags at the time, the Warriors were the closest NBA team to where my dad resided, so he was left with no choice but to go to their games in Oakland to get his basketball fix. When I immigrated to the Bay Area as a kid, he also imparted his Warriors fandom onto me. He brought me to my first NBA game — which also happened to be Yao Ming’s first ever visit to Oracle Arena, during his rookie year.
To be honest, I really don’t remember the details of that game. I was a young kid, and the spectacle of it all — the arena lights, the music, and the fact that my father was sitting next to me — made the end result moot and inconsequential to a starstruck little boy. But I remember it being awesome. I remember it being a moment I would never completely forget, especially with my dad sitting next to me and sharing it with me. It was the night my fandom for the Warriors would really take off.
But at that point, it seemed liked the Warriors would never take off. They perennially sucked. They had a loyal and passionate fanbase, but the loyalty and passion were largely one-sided. I would often turn on the TV to either a lopsided score or a close game that would often end in a heartbreaking defeat. While I would always go back to the Warriors, my craving for basketball greatness made me want more. At the time, the Warriors were lacking in the greatness department, devoid of the talent that would take them to heights only possible in the dreams of Bay Area basketball fans, including myself.
I had to look somewhere else, if only for a short while. I admired Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance in the paint and his aloof and comedic personality. I was mesmerized by Tracy McGrady’s cool and calm approach, which belied his propensity to catch fire and become a scorer unmatched by almost everyone he shared a basketball court with. Steve Nash’s ability to be a conductor on the court and a floor general taught me the importance of being someone who makes your teammates better basketball players. LeBron James being preordained as the king of basketball and living up to such an expectation is something I’m fortunate to have witnessed as a basketball fan, even if he was often a nemesis and a thorn on the backside of my beloved Warriors. Kevin Durant’s ability to score like it was second nature, all while being a 7-foot athletic specimen who was the first of his kind in the NBA, made me appreciate the gradual evolution of the game — and it made me much happier when he eventually chose to take his talents to the Bay Area.
But not one of them was Kobe. They can never be Kobe. They can never be the player that caught my attention, who became my favorite non-Golden State Warrior. Kobe’s dogged determination toward achieving basketball greatness was what drew me to him. He loved to win, and simply hated to lose. He couldn’t understand his peers who didn’t see the game the way he saw it. If anyone didn’t have winning as the number one reason they were in the NBA, he despised them — or at least, he despised their approach. He left it all on the floor every single time. For every ounce of adulation he received for his exploits, heaps of criticism would come his way as well. Some of those criticisms were valid, while some were borne out of jealousy, resentment, and pure hatred.
But he didn’t care. He just played his ass out every time. He took what the naysayers said and used it as fuel. For every F-you he would receive, he would return those F-yous in kind, with interest. Nevermind the inefficient shots, the less-than-ideal shooting splits — what mattered was the result, and more often than not, with Kobe on the floor, it was a win. More often than not, Kobe’s team won because of him, not in spite of him.
That was what drew me to him, then a teenage boy in search of that winning mentality in life. The mindset to just go out there and give the best of yourself in whatever you do, whether it be basketball or some other sport. It didn’t even have to be within the confines of competitive sports — it could be applied in studies, in work, and with how one decided to approach all aspects of his or her life. Kobe urged everyone, including myself, to latch onto something you really want to do and to make it your purpose and fuel. It was said that Kobe was put on this Earth to play basketball, and it showed. In turn, Kobe showed me that I was put on this Earth to love basketball, to write about it, and to forever make it a part of my life.
My favorite memory of Kobe — him hitting that crucial 4-point play against Spain in 2008 — was the epitome of Mamba Mentality. It was, in my opinion, his finest moment on a basketball court, more so than any of his five championships with the Lakers, more than his 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, and more than his 60-point performance to end his career on a high note. Nothing will ever compare to him taking the mantle of best basketball player in the world against literally the rest of the basketball world. He not only hushed everyone on the court around him during that moment — he hushed all of his naysayers and critics, his haters and doubters. No one could take that away from him. Not when he had so forcingly took it for himself.
When news reached me of Kobe’s sudden death, I was shocked. Utterly and devastatingly shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I was hoping that it was all a lie, a morsel of fake news that was intended as a joke in poor taste. I scoured every inch of the internet, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, to confirm if it was true.
It was. I cried. The tears flew out like a river. I stared out into space for what seemed like hours. I didn’t speak. I didn’t stand up. I barely moved a muscle.
Kobe, at the age of 41, a few years removed from his retirement, had been taken away from us.
The man I looked to for inspiration, the man who I wished at times was a Warrior, was gone.
The man who tore his Achilles in a game against the Warriors, who walked under his own willpower to complete his free throws before finally bowing out, had the rest of his life stolen from under him.
The man who defended Steph Curry during a preseason game so vigorously, yet was forced to acknowledge Curry’s shot-making ability off the dribble, could no longer do the same for other players who looked up to him.
The man who became a big part of my basketball fandom wasn’t here anymore to contribute to the game that he loved, and in turn, loved him back.
It hit everyone hard — but it devastated me in a certain way. Because with Kobe gone, that made two people who made me love the game of basketball gone.
My dad was taken away from my mom, my sister, and me a while ago. It was too soon, too sudden. My inspiration in life, who was the spark that lit my passion for basketball and my fandom for the Warriors, had been taken away earlier than any of us would’ve expected.
That is why I was hit extremely hard by Kobe’s death. I empathize with his three remaining daughters, who have now lost their father. Words cannot begin to describe what they’re feeling right now — I know I certainly couldn’t describe how I felt when I heard the news of my father’s passing, and I still can’t.
I can’t even begin to describe how Vanessa, Kobe’s wife, must be dealing with all of this. To experience the father of your children, as well as one of your own daughters, leaving this world prematurely … there isn’t even a modicum of fairness in that. None at all. And to raise a newly-born daughter who will never get to know her father and her big sister … the tragedy of that new reality is indescribable.
I experienced what it felt like to lose a father, a role model, and a fellow basketball lifer, someone who made it possible for me to watch and experience someone like Kobe Bryant.
Now, Kobe’s gone, too.
I’ve written and said everything I can say about all of this, and there are only two words left for me to say.