It is Superbowl week, and maybe for the first time in its storied history, the American news cycle is dominated not by the QB ratings of the respective starting quarterbacks, but by the death of one of the most dominant personalities in contemporary American sport and pop-culture, Kobe Bryant.
The legend of the Los Angeles Lakers perished along with his teenage daughter and seven others in a tragic helicopter crash early Sunday, his death becoming the catalyst for a generational outpouring of emotion across the world, as fans, friends, and one-time foes expressed first disbelief, then pure admiration and thanks to an icon of a game that is played the world over.
A game he transcended, while remaining unwaveringly in love with.
It was this love that inspired Bryant’s love poem to the game Dear Basketball, which appeared in The Players Tribune upon announcing his retirement in 2015:
Whatever your thoughts on the medium, the message was a simple one, as there is not one sports-mad kid who hasn’t shot imaginary baskets or scored imaginary goals all to the make-believe din of euphoric crowds.
The fact it was this image that endured for Bryant tells of a man obsessed with winning and self-improvement, whatever the cost.
No testimonial of his short life will fail to mention his titles; five in all in a 25-year career. His two Olympic medals.
His 81-point game against the Raptors in 2006. His two finals MVPs. He scored 60 in his last ever game.
Hours before his death, LeBron James edged past him into third onto the all-time scorer list.
In the locker room after, an emotional James paid tribute to Bryant in what now seems like an eerie eulogy to a player who owned a decade, and in doing so inspired many, if not all, of today’s NBA stars.
LeBron reflects on his favorite Kobe memories and the impact the Mamba has had on his life 🤝 pic.twitter.com/UDBYdttSli— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 26, 2020
For if the 90s belonged to Jordan, and this past decade to LeBron, the 2000s were Kobe’s.
He had the shoe, he had the iconic shirt numbers (8 & 24, both long retired to the rafters of the Staples Center), and he had the rivalries, the most telling of which was with the behemoth Shaquille O’Neill, his team-mate, and constant adversary.
After three consecutive championships together, their fractious relationship threatened to split a dynasty, forcing Lakers’ owner Dr Jerry Buss to choose between his sacred sons; Buss famously chose Kobe, sending Shaq to Miami.
In later years, their relationship softened, but speaking to ESPN after his retirement, Bryant reaffirmed his self-belief.
I would have made the same call. If you’re going to bet, you got to bet on the horse that you know is obsessive about what they do, day in, day out and is going to be hell-bent on trying to win a championship.
In this, and all other utterances, he was hell sure he was a class apart.
Kobe Bryant was not just an outlier on the court.
The son of a former NBA player, he spent his formative years in Italy where his father wound down his career.
He spoke fluent Italian and Spanish.
A high school protégé, he jumped straight into life as a professional player, foregoing the typical route of college first, league later, and did so as the first-ever point guard drafted out of school.
On the day of the draft he was 17. His talent unquestioned, like many before and since, his successes were never guaranteed.
In so many ways, Bryant arrived with the internet. He was the original YouTube player.
First came the highlight reel, next the meme, and finally the GIF. He became them all.
Just as Bryant had Olympic-sized talent, he also possessed an Olympic-sized ego.
If Tim Duncan was the perfect team-mate, Bryant was often an impossible one.
As his playing career tailed, Bryant had a production crew film his near every move for three consecutive seasons.
Obvious claims of narcissism against him were batted away with condescension.
“I enjoy passing things on,” he told reporters.
He saw himself as a storyteller. He was doing this for us.
One story he and his loved ones may never want retold is that of the night of July 1, 2003, when Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee.
The forensic details of this episode are in public, for all to read.
The accuser, after months of public shaming by media and Bryant’s legal team, eventually refused to testify, and the case was dropped.
Bryant did not deny the encounter. Nor did he deny most of the sordid details of the case.
He did — at the accuser’s insistence — apologise for it. This grim instalment in the Kobe story had only one clear victim: the young woman.
In contrast, Bryant’s career excelled, both on the court and off it.
Commercially, his relationship with Nike grew to near Jordan levels.
On the court, he cemented his reputation as the greatest Laker since Magic Johnson, perhaps the greatest Laker of them all.
The events of that summer’s night have long been an uncomfortable tick under the skin of the majority who rightfully eulogise him, but erroneously fail to acknowledge the incident as an example of his flagrant failings as a human being.
For a sports media obsessed with labels, Bryant’s death is the NBA’s saddest day.
No less tragic is the loss of his co-passengers, reportedly among them three members of the same family, and perhaps most cruelly Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
A short video of father and daughter attending a recent game had long gone viral as an illustration of a superstar parent doing the most ordinary of things; a dad and his kid hanging out, sharing a passion.
To that little girl now gone, and the three others that survive him, Kobe Bryant — for all his titles won, records broken, and flaws exposed, was but one thing; their father.
Kobe in numbers
The number of Most Valuable Player awards Bryant won. The accolade is given to the best-performing player in the regular season — Bryant won it in 2007-08.
Also his number of Oscar wins. Bryant won the award for best short animated film in 2016 for Dear Basketball, a five-minute film based on a love letter to the sport he wrote in 2015.
The number of NBA Finals MVP awards won by Bryant, in 2008-09 and the following year.
It is also the number of Olympic gold medals he won, helping the United States top the podium in 2008 and 2012.
Also the number of shirts the Lakers retired in his honour — 8 and 24.
All-Star MVP Awards won — in 2001-02, 2006-07, 2008-09, and 2010-11.
He is tied with Bob Pettit for the most in NBA history.
Bryant won five NBA championships.
Just four players in NBA history — Bryant, Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Gary Payton — have been selected for the NBA All-defensive first team nine times.
He made the All-NBA First Team selection 11 times, second-equal with Karl Malone.
LeBron James is the only player to have made it in 12 times.
That is how many starts Bryant has made in the NBA’s annual All-Star Game — the second most in history, one behind James, who was selected to make his 16th just two days ago.
The New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden pay tribute to Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. pic.twitter.com/KmNlTlDQXT— NBA (@NBA) January 27, 2020
And 16 is the number of times Bryant has played on Christmas day — again, the most in NBA history.
As well as making 15 starts, Bryant was picked for the All-Star Game 18 times in a row.
That is the longest streak in NBA history and only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with 19, made the All-Star Game more times.
Bryant spent 20 seasons with the Lakers. Only Dirk Nowitzki, who had 21 seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, has had a longer one-club career in the NBA.
The number of games in which he scored 50 points — only Wilt Chamberlain (118) and Michael Jordan (31) have scored 50-plus points more times.
The number of points scored against the Utah Jazz in his final game.
It was the seventh time he had scored 60-plus points and the first time he achieved the feat since 2009.
When the Lakers beat the Toronto Raptors 122-104 on January 22, 2006, Bryant scored 81 of his side’s points.
Only Wilt Chamberlain, with a 100-point game in 1962, has scored more.
Bryant’s 5,640 points scored in the NBA playoffs is the fourth-highest total in NBA history behind James (6,911), Jordan (5,987), and Abdul-Jabbar (5,762).