COLUMN: The impossible passing of Kobe Bryant

It’s been about a day since we learned that Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among nine casualties in a helicopter crash, Sunday morning. The news was impossible then, and it’s impossible now, yet somehow it’s still true.

We both grew up as Lakers fans in Southern California, which means we both grew up as Kobe Bryant fans. On July 15, 1996, he donned purple and gold for the first time, in Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid. Mike was there as a 12-year-old basketball fan with absolutely no aspirations of becoming a sportswriter.

Here, 24 years later, so much time has passed, that 1996 seems a different lifetime. Kobe made his first two shots as a Laker in the Pyramid and got a standing ovation as he left the court. He went on to play for two decades with the Lakers, in 1,296 games, scoring 32,748 points, winning five NBA championships and earning two Finals MVPs.

Kobe never forgot where his Lakers debut took place. He talked about it after his retirement, and after his fifth and final NBA title, when he reminisced about he and Derek Fisher’s first time suiting up in the Pyramid. He even said “Long Beach State” instead of “Cal State Long Beach,” which we always thought should be the tiebreaker in the longstanding argument between those options.

What makes his loss so profound, of course, isn’t his basketball career, it’s the life he led and the perseverance he showed that inspired so many. While still in high school, Compton legend DeMar DeRozan, now of the San Antonio Spurs, told us and every other reporter who’d listen that his goal was to be one-tenth as great as Kobe. On Sunday, DeMar—now a 30-year-old four-time NBA All-Star—suggested to his Spurs teammates that they take a 24-second shot clock violation in Kobe’s honor.

A basketball written on by fans sits on the ground next to candles as part of a small vigil outside vintage sports clothing store Play Nice LBC in memory of Kobe Bryant, who died on Jan. 26, 2020. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

Generations of SoCal hoopers have grown up telling us how much they admire Kobe. The current king in town, Long Beach Poly junior Peyton Watson, tweeted on Sunday that Kobe was his favorite player of all time.

Kobe’s legacy of inspiration wasn’t just limited to basketball players, either. When we were in London in 2012 covering the Olympics, we enjoyed seeing the stream of Long Beach athletes posting pictures from the Opening Ceremony, where the entire Team USA delegation marched together to open the Summer Games.

Almost all of them had found a second to take a picture with Kobe: Tony Azevedo, arguably the best water polo player in history, Jessica Hardy, one of the best American swimmers of all time and Tayyiba Haneef-Park, who’s in every volleyball Hall of Fame that exists. All of them wanted to grab a picture with Kobe and to say a quick thanks, and all said that he asked them about their careers and teams, and said he’d be rooting for them in London. He even found time away from USA Basketball practice to take in some volleyball matches.

We crossed paths with him in London, too. We got a chance to cover a USA Basketball practice, and even though the team was filled with stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, there was no question that the star of the show was Kobe.

After practice he sat down and answered questions from the world’s sports media, seamlessly transitioning from answers given in English to those given speaking Italian and French. When a reporter asked a question, in English, with a heavy Spanish accent, Kobe asked which language the reporter would like his reply in? The relieved reporter said Spanish, and Kobe gave him a 30-second sound byte in Spanish.

After he had answered questions from every person who wanted to ask one, he posed for pictures with everyone who wanted one as well. It was obvious that he was answering the questions because he knew that for basketball writers from China and Brazil, it would be their lifelong dream to have that brief moment with him.

Few athletes of Kobe’s stature were that giving. We remember when he retired in 2016, there was a campaign from the Special Olympics Southern California—headquartered in Long Beach—to get Kobe to come to their annual awards ceremony. He wasn’t able to make it, but he recorded a two-minute message to those athletes that SOSC President Bill Shumard told us was incredibly moving and powerful for them.

Our two most recent Kobe memories were very different. His final game, in 2016, might be the most fun we’ve had watching a basketball game. We were in high school when Kobe and Shaq were winning titles, and there was nothing better. But Kobe’s retirement game, where he dropped 60 points in a come-from-behind win was pure bliss, as shot after shot dropped in while we all jumped around and celebrated.

The last memory we have is a sweet one that became bittersweet, Sunday morning. Kobe was a dedicated dad and had developed a special bond with his daughter Gianna around their shared love of basketball. Kobe happily retired from a sport he dedicated his life to in order to become a youth basketball coach for his daughter. In December, he brought Gigi and some of her teammates to Long Beach to see the Oregon women’s basketball team play Long Beach State.

It’s heartbreaking to think that this special relationship between the two of them is lost forever, and it’s impossible to come to terms with it. It’s also comforting to think of the conversations they must have had during that game, with him pointing out the side of the court where he scored his first points as a professional basketball player 23 years ago, 10 years before she was born.

Time always moves on and stories always end. The only certainty any of us have in life is death. And yet despite those certainties, despite 24 hours of time and 1,000 words of writing, we still can’t believe, perhaps because we don’t want to.

We’ll never stop grieving Kobe Bryant and we’ll never stop feeling his absence; not in Long Beach, not in Los Angeles, not anywhere in the world there’s a hoop and a ball. That was true yesterday and it’s true today. Yet, somehow, it still seems impossible.

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.
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