Kobe can’t die. That was the first reaction of Masai Ujiri, the president of the Toronto Raptors, and he can’t have been alone. It wasn’t that Kobe Bryant wasn’t a flesh-and-blood human, full of complexity and depth and brilliance and darkness, maybe more than most. Of course he was. In his last all-star appearance in Toronto, Kobe told writers to wait for him. “Because at this age,” he said, “I can’t hold my pee anymore.”
Kobe Bryant became an icon too, and that makes his death at 41 years old harder to grapple with, to unpack, even to comprehend. Kobe Bryant, dead? He was on a helicopter with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. Kobe would take helicopters all the time to avoid the traffic in Los Angeles. The helicopter crashed out of the sky in a fog; nobody survived. Nine people, each one a tragedy.
But how can Kobe Bryant die?
First, though: How does someone become larger than life? Kobe did it by sheer accumulated will. He was manic in his work ethic. He believed, above all, in himself.
“I thought in working with Steve Nash that I’d seen one of the hardest workers in the game as far as the number of repetition of shots,” said Jay Triano, the Canadian coach who saw Kobe up close with the Team USA program. “And then when I saw Kobe in the summertime …”
Kobe won those first three titles with Shaquille O’Neal even as their relationship soured: Kobe thought Shaq didn’t work hard enough and called him fat, and Shaq thought Kobe was too selfish and blamed him for the breakup of his marriage, after Kobe’s sexual assault case in Eagle, Colo. By the time they were in their last NBA Finals together in 2004, they weren’t speaking. Teammates and coaches griped about how the ball wasn’t moving, and didn’t name the culprit. They didn’t have to.
“That’s what every superstar gets, perception of invincibility,” then-Lakers and former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson said at the time, smiling. “When you’re a coach, you have to allow them to understand that that perception is part of their persona, and they are still a player that has to do the things that are correct in basketball to win at this level. Because if you don’t, the little things slip. You know, the things that make a player great, doing all of the tasks: boxing out, moving the basketball, playing inside a team offence, playing defence the correct way. You know, moving the ball if you’re double-teamed … that’s the difficulty of coaching superstars.
“They have to understand that there’s still a fine line that they have to walk. I would hate to name names. I can give initials, though.”
Kobe was flying back and forth between the playoffs and Colorado for the trial. Then-Laker Brian Shaw said at one point the team called a meeting to make peace between the superstars, and Shaw brought teammates Karl Malone and Horace Grant and Gary Payton in part because they could hold Shaq back, because he had told teammates “I’m going to kill him.”
He didn’t. They lost to the Pistons, and Shaq was traded to Miami. Kobe Bryant won a power struggle with Shaquille O’Neal. Imagine having that level of self-belief.
Kobe patterned his baseline jumper on Oscar Robertson’s, and his turnaround jumper on Hakeem Olajuwon’s, and his change of direction after Earl the Pearl Monroe. But most of all he tried to be like Mike, and in a way he came closest. Not in numbers, not in accomplishment, not quite. But in style, in ruthlessness, in a purity of competitive spirit, Bryant took a run at Michael Jordan. LeBron James once said, “I mean, in high school I wore a nappy-ass Afro because of Kobe Bryant. Because he wore it. I wanted to be just like him, man.”
But LeBron couldn’t be Kobe, even as he tried to summit Jordan, too. LeBron once said, “I don’t think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody.” In his early life Kobe also studied Jordan’s interviews, or tried to stick out his tongue like Mike. Kobe didn’t get there as a player, of course, because who can climb that high into the sky? Almost nobody.
But who even gives themselves a task like that to fail? In a statement Jordan said he loved Kobe, and said he considered Kobe a little brother. Sometimes, if you do enough, the gods give compliments.
How could Kobe Bryant die? When he was a kid, Kobe was comfortable: son of basketball pro Joe Bryant, raised in Italy, living a cultured life. But he was born with a hellacious will, and it defined him. After Eagle — and the civil settlement makes for uncomfortable reading — Kobe tried to bury it game after game, day after day, under effort, achievement, sheer bloody determination.
He scored 81. He won an MVP. He was the alpha for Team USA at the end of the gold-medal game in 2008 against Spain, with LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul on the floor. Kobe won two more NBA titles with Pau Gasol, pushing him hard. Among the current Raptors, apparently Marc Gasol took it hardest.
And Kobe kept trying, always. When the Lakers won Kobe’s fifth title in 2010 he passed to Metta World Peace, the former Ron Artest, for the winning shot and Metta exclaimed, “Kobe passed me the ball! He never passes me the ball!” Five years later, in Kobe’s last game in Toronto, Metta explained what made him truly great.
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“Oh, he’s going to die shooting,” said World Peace. “It’s actually pretty damn impressive, when you think about it. He’s finishing how he started. So that means he’s trying his hardest. You understand? People don’t understand that. He’s really trying to be great, still. But it’s just not how it used to be. That’s impressive, man. He’s trying his hardest out there. It’s tough to take shots, miss shots, and then take them again. Some people don’t have no balls. To miss, and then want it again. You know?”
By 2016, Kobe was in Toronto for all-star weekend and he seemed to have softened. Shaw said, “I think it’s finally sunk in that he can’t play at that level anymore.” And Kobe said he was just enjoying it: “That competitiveness of me trying to prove something, that’s gone, man. That’s gone.”
And then came the last game. Kobe started shooting, and he kept shooting. His legs looked dead. He kept shooting. The crowd came alive. Shaq was in the front row, among the other luminaries and beautiful people. Kobe got to 40, then 50, then 60. He took 50 shots. Nobody had taken 50 shots in a game since Rick Barry in 1967. After everything, everyone just wanted Kobe to be his purest self one last time.
“The thing that had me cracking up all night long, I go through 20 years of everybody screaming for me to pass the ball,” Kobe said in an on-court interview afterwards, “and the last night they’re like, don’t pass it.” Shaq told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “I challenged him to get 50, and the (expletive) got 60.”
He won. Kobe also said that night, “There’s so much beauty in the pain of this thing.” It was one of the most profound things he ever said.
After Colorado, Kobe decided: I’m just going to be myself and they can like me or not, love me or not. It was the hinge for the rest of his life. In that last visit to Toronto, I asked him about Michael Jordan, who had just talked to ESPN the Magazine’s Wright Thompson about life after basketball for an apex competitor. Jordan said, “I can’t help myself. It’s an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can’t. If I could, then I could breathe.” I asked Kobe what came next for him.
“That’s the big issue, and it’s really very hard,” said Kobe. “I started thinking about that at the age of 21. Because if you don’t think about it, if you don’t try out different things and try to figure it out, it’ll end and you’re always going to be chasing, you’re always going to be chasing. You have to do both, and it is important. That’s a very good question. That’s the big one. I’ll be fine.”
He settled on a lot of things: mentoring younger players, his creative outlets and being a dad to his four daughters. He conquered L.A., but he seemed at peace. LeBron passed his career scoring total the other night, and Kobe handled it with grace. Maybe Kobe was going to surpass Jordan in how he lived real life.
But his life was cut short, because he fell from the sky. Kobe had recently told Jimmy Kimmel that Gianna was the daughter who would tell people she would carry on his legacy as a player. He leaves his wife Vanessa and three other daughters behind, one born last summer. That is pure heartbreak.
And for those who didn’t know him, he is frozen in time forever, an icon for an entire generation of players, of athletes, of fans, less complicated in death than he could be in life. Kobe Bryant is dead, but he’ll live forever. Because that’s what icons do.