I’m dreading writing this. I’ve been thinking about it for hours now, and it was all I could think about while sitting in class today – that there are these words and feelings that are bottled up inside of me that are begging to spill out, and I am unsure of whether I’ll say things correctly, or convey things appropriately, but they need to be said.
I was awake last night when news of Kobe Bryant’s death was first broken by TMZ. A friend of mine, a former basketball teammate sent me the news: and I broke. I couldn’t believe it at all. Earlier that evening, LeBron James had overtaken Kobe to go third in the all-time scoring chart, and Kobe had tweeted out a congratulatory message. I saw that tweet, and then saw LeBron’s post-match tweet and interview about the kind of player that Kobe was, and what Kobe represented to him, and to the game of basketball, and I was pleased. Kobe got to play a few seasons with people who picked up the game professionally because he inspired them, and I imagined, for some time, what that must be like. To be able to communicate with people who made life decisions because of you: without you knowing, without you trying to create that impact on them. In these circumstances, to hear he had passed away on his way to a basketball game was devastating. Then more details emerged, the fact that he was with his daughter, and that he was with another family, and with a basketball coach. Nobody can tell us what all of these people thought, or said in their final few minutes: but Kobe was with people who loved a game he lived. Before I say anything more, my thoughts and prayers are with his family – who have lost two people, and with all the other grieving individuals, who must cope and make it through life without people they loved truly, madly, deeply.
I first heard of Kobe Bryant in 2008. I had never taken an interest in basketball before that, and never really cared for the sport, or for the people that played it. I read the Sports section in the newspaper daily, but glossed over anything that wasn’t football. This was till I was introduced to basketball: a gradual introduction that took place in the worst of ways. I sucked at sports – all truth be told. I had no talent, no stamina in any sporting arena, just a lot of passion for sporting activities. My introduction to basketball first took place culturally. I was surrounded by American students who followed basketball, baseball, and American football, and I heard about these franchise sports – being able to compare it only to the IPL at the time (which was still young), and spent countless hours on Wikipedia trying to figure out how they worked. How were league databases maintained, who were the leading franchises in the history of the NBA? What was a “lockout”? Each time my classmates mentioned a new, unrecognizable name, I remember lodging it deep in my memory, only to retrieve it when I went home and had an opportunity to Google it without shame. I used to remain silent, not contribute too much to the conversation surrounding the sport – because I’d be mocked with “not being from the area”, or being a “glory hunting supporter”. These are not phrases I care for too much today, but they stung at some point in my life. I did my research, meticulously, and I understood what the Lakers franchise represented, and how odd it was that they were still going strong in 2008. I decided before the 2009 Finals that I wanted the Lakers to win, having followed them for the season. That’s how I became a Lakers supporter.
I still sucked at the sport though. Oh my goodness, I was woeful. I’d get hit on the head by the ball, fail to catch it, commit some violation or the other every time I received it, and genuinely, from under the rim, fail to make the ball go into the net. Naturally, I was picked last when we played, and I often lost in games of “Around the World” that we played during lunch. I still loved playing. My mom got wind of the fact that there was a coach coming to teach basketball in our community. As with every other time my mother has heard about any coaching facility, I was signed up. I was told that I was at a “developing” age, and that basketball would help me grow taller if I played regularly. While I didn’t care too much for that, I think I was really pleased that I would get to learn the game – from a Coach, my Coach. That I would be taught, not mocked for my inability. One particularly rough day, I remember thinking I’d be able to play competitively with my friends. I enjoyed that though.
My Coach taught me several things: skill-based especially. However, if my passion for the Lakers and for Kobe Bryant was at the surface, with him, my support of the franchise, of this individual became something innate, something visceral. I’d become super-defensive if anyone critiqued him. I watched the NBA YouTube channel religiously and tried to pick up how he thought about the game. One day, after Kobe had hit a buzzer-beater, I remember asking my coach how on Earth he had done it at the wire. It wasn’t that there weren’t great buzzer-beaters in basketball already, it was just that I couldn’t understand how people were gutsy enough to take the shot – and what happened if they missed. My coach told me Kobe had hit that shot enough times to know how to hit it in his sleep, and know that it would go in. I knew I wanted to be able to practice to a level that basketball became muscle-memory that day. It drove me through Grade 7. Kobe dropped 61 points at Madison Square Garden that year – a scoring record that blew my brains out at the time – before I learned that Kobe had an 81 point game too.
When I moved schools in Grade 8, I was surrounded by a crowd I was way more comfortable with. Basketball was something I carried with me, and it was pretty nice to see that my friends, my classmates, whom I spent 5 years with were people who were open to playing pretty much any sport on any given day. When we played basketball, it was all super fun, and we all had our own pockets of understanding of the sport – our own little ways in which we played. It was around this time I bought my first pair of basketball shoes. I asked my dad if I could have them, because I had begun playing a little more seriously – I was going for coaching twice a week, and playing every day at school. When we went to the store, I saw a pair of basketball shoes with the Laker purple and Gold, and an NBA logo on them. We couldn’t afford a pair of Kobe’s, or any of those signature shoes – but to be able to wear a franchise I supported on my footwear for 3 years made me incredibly happy. I wore those to my first tournament win, my first-ever interschool basketball tournament, and to pretty much every interhouse tournament game I played till I outgrew them.
Moving schools introduced me to another basketball fan – the same person who sent me the news of Kobe’s passing. I poked a lot of fun at him for several reasons, but him and I got along on the Court, and off the Court really well. Basketball helped us bond. He called himself Jordan, something we all laughed at. I laughed too. In my head though, if he was Jordan, I knew I wanted to be Kobe. I yelled “Kobe”, as did several of us, when we threw random things into the dustbin from afar. We kept talking about the “Mamba Mentality” in school, especially on the basketball court. We were a terrible school team, honestly: just a few talented individuals off of whom the rest of us piggy-backed our entire school careers, but we had SO much fun playing the game – loafing around the court calling each other Kobe whenever someone made a good shot. Everyone was Kobe. Except my friend, who was Jordan.
As I grew older, I started to read up more about Kobe Bryant – to understand why some people didn’t take to him the way I did. I learned about the complaint of sexual assault and adultery, the charges that were brought, and the apology that came about. I remember being uncertain of whether that was post-facto responsible behaviour or whether I anticipated more, and trying to figure out where I stood on the incident at large. I thought then, as I do now, that this man I had placed on a pedestal was still, human after all. That he had caused trauma, and that he would have to take responsibility for it in some way.
I learned about his bust-ups with Shaq, and prayed that they’d be friends again (something I was supremely pleased about). Reading about that bust-up taught me about what an “ego” was, and how competitive individuals thrived on building that. I wasn’t sure who I placed more blame on for the subsequent poor years the Lakers had, but I definitely knew Kobe was responsible for a lot of it, which made me sad.
When the Lakers began performing poorly after 2012, a lot of the news was centered around how Kobe needed to go. He was the perfect scapegoat in a lot of ways, ageing, becoming plagued with injuries, and preventing the rise of what the media labeled as precocious talent in a similar playing position. I could not care less. I wanted Kobe to play for longer, to have one more good season with the Lakers. To make it to the playoffs, to the Finals. Dwight Howard and him fought – which was upsetting because it affected the team. I remember seeing Howard & him make up at a game this year, and then seeing today that Howard wanted Kobe to help him out at the All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest – a public acknowledgment that the beef was all done with, that they had grown past that as individuals, as adults.
Howard is robbed of the opportunity to do that.
When Kobe announced his retirement through “Dear Basketball”, I cried. I cry quite often – or atleast have tears streaming down my face, or get choked up when I read things that affect me deeply, and you could see that it pained him to go. I couldn’t believe this man wrote poetry to say goodbye. Kobe allowed me to discover The Players’ Tribune: and so many stories since. His last game, those 60 points versus the Jazz? Peak Kobe. Beautiful.
I tried to follow Kobe post-retirement the way I had followed his career. We didn’t see him at Lakers games too much – he wanted to spend time with his family, with his daughters. His poem was animated into a beautiful short which won an Oscar, but whose greatest achievement will remain that it made me cry. The Oscar means that the Academy will feature Kobe in the In Memoriam section in a fortnight, and I’m not sure how people will respond. Last evening, at the Grammy’s, which took place at Staple Center, Alicia Keys said that they “were standing, heartbroken, in a home Kobe Bryant built”. She could not have said it better.
Kobe Bryant introduced me to Kobe beef, because I was a vegetarian who did not know that there were different grades or qualities that beef could have. Kobe spoke Italian and I was shocked that he had an upbringing where he was a foreigner: I wondered how he endured racism. Earlier this month, when racism in Serie A (the football league) was at a high, I remember reading an article where he called for education to combat the issue – and I agreed with him.
When LeBron moved to the Lakers, Kobe welcomed him. Kobe, post-retirement, just spent time coaching his daughters team – he was with her at a Lakers game, coaching her in a clip that went viral. He was supposed to go on to own a team, or become a General Manager, or coach a team in the NBA, or the WNBA. He was so fiercely proud of everything his daughters did, and it stood out every time he spoke about them in public.
I don’t play basketball as frequently anymore – not at all, in fact. I play when I go home, back to my home court, and when I’m asked to join in for the intramural competitions that happen at University.
This morning, I woke up really early. I had a disturbed sleep. I checked my phone first, and saw that everything had been confirmed, that last night wasn’t a dream – that Kobe was actually dead. I saw the outpouring of grief, the fact that players weren’t sure how to play, but knew that Kobe wanted them to play. My roommate was asleep, but I wore my shoes and I walked down to the basketball Court on my campus.
I stood in front of the Court, in the dark, just looking at the markings – replaying this one sequence I have of Kobe that’s absolutely stuck in my head from a game versus Toronto where he received the ball at the 3-point line, drove in, faked, and hit the perfect layup – right from the corner of the little square above the net. That epitome of what I was taught a layup needs to be. It’s one of the only things I can still do half-decently in basketball, and Kobe was, and always will be the yardstick I hold myself to.
I came back to my room today after classes, and before writing this, threw out some scrap paper, right from one end to my room to where the dustbin lay on the other end, instinctively yelling out “Kobe” like we did as kids. I felt like I channeled his spirit, but I missed the shot. That was when it hit me that he was gone.
Too soon, God. Too soon.