Of them all — of Michael and Larry and Magic and Shaq, of Karl and Stockton and Sir Charles and Isiah and A.I. and LeBron — the name that resonates more with this generation of NBA talent is Kobe.
Kobe Bryant was the touchstone and the icon for so many stars of the game today, kids who grew up idolizing him and mimicking him and wanting to be like him.
You can argue until you’re blue in the face about which guy was better than which other guy, but the undeniable fact is that Bryant’s impact on the current generation of NBA stars was unfathomable.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and three others died in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, an unspeakable tragedy that resonated around the world.
“Words cannot express his impact on our players, the NBA and the game of basketball,” the National Basketball Players Association said in a statement. “This is a monumental loss for the entire basketball community and our hearts are quite simply broken.”
The way that Bryant impacted the game was almost indescribable.
His competitiveness was legendary. He blew out an Achilles tendon one game and stayed in to shoot free throws before he hobbled off. He played through a torn finger ligament as if it was nothing. He scored 60 points in his final game, just to show he had something left to give. He berated teammates who didn’t work up to his standards. He demanded excellence of himself and others continuously. He was unwaveringly self-confident.
And the players — the greats and the not-so-greats and the budding greats — all noticed.
James spoke glowingly of Bryant as someone he looked up to when he passed him to become the No. 3 scorer in NBA history on Saturday night. The Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan became an NBA star because he grew up idolizing the Los Angeles Lakers great. Raptor Norm Powell honed his craft in a two-day camp that Bryant organized this past summer.
Raptors director of sports science Alex McKechnie also worked for more than a decade with Bryant and the Lakers. There is not a level of the game today, or a player in the NBA, untouched by Bryant and his career.
“I played against Kobe a lot when I was in high school during the summers, even in college, just being that guy in L.A. coming up,” DeRozan said in an interview early in his career. “He always gave me advice here and there, and even the smallest things stuck with me. I watched every single thing that Kobe did, every game, every move. He made me a student of the game.”
From Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, summing up Bryant’s impact on this generation of players:
“Man I don’t even know where to start,” Embiid tweeted. “I started playing ball because of KOBE after watching the 2010 finals. I had never watched ball before that and that finals was the turning point of my life. I WANTED TO BE LIKE KOBE. I’m so FREAKING SAD right now!!!!”
That was Bryant’s reach, and will be his legacy.
He is of this era. He is the reason why many of the best in the game today started playing.
“He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary: five NBA championships, an NBA MVP award, 18 NBA all-star selections and two Olympic gold medals,” commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”
Every team in the NBA has something about Bryant to remember him by and celebrate him for, but it will be hard to match Toronto’s connection.
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Bryant’s 81-point game against the Raptors 14 years ago last week in Los Angeles — the second-most prolific scoring game in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 — was a performance of such virtuosity that it is unlikely to be matched for the rest of time.
His final all-star appearance, in Toronto in 2016, was as emotional an all-star moment as there has been since Magic Johnson returned to play in the 1992 game.
Of all the icons who have played in Toronto over the past 25 years, from Michael Jordan in his Chicago heyday to Stephen Curry and the 73-win Golden State Warriors, none have been as welcomed or loved for as long and as much as Bryant was.
The Air Canada Centre, as it was known when he was a player, was packed with fans wearing Bryant jerseys whenever the Lakers made their lone visit each season. The cheers for him were louder and more sustained than for any opposing player over the years, even Jordan.
The depth of the tragic loss is unimaginable. He was far too young at 41 years old, a doting father to four young daughters, one of whom perished in the crash. To try to put it into perspective is impossible.
Bryant, however beloved he was by so many, was also in many aspects a polarizing figure.
He was tainted early in his career by a charge of sexual assault from a hotel incident in Denver — the charges were dropped when the accuser didn’t testify and an out-of-court settlement was reached. On the court, his ball dominance was off-putting to some.
Those were flaws and part of his life and now his memory, but he had redeemed himself in the eyes of so many in the middle of a life cut far too short.
He was a tireless backer of the WNBA and women’s basketball, a regular at Los Angeles Sparks games and supported his daughters and their athletic pursuits.
“My heart is broken for Kobe and his family,” two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash said on his social media feed. “I’ll never forget the battles but what I really admired was the father he was to his girls. Rest In Peace old friend with your angel Gianna.”