Those five championships, the two Finals MVP trophies, that lone season MVP award, those 18 all-star appearances, the 33,643 points scored, the accolades, the endorsements and all the perks of superstardom—they were meant to be fleeting anyway.
Death made them permanent.
In the totality of human existence, Kobe Bryant was an unbridled, tenacious ball of passion burning brightly, however brief.
Death made his legend unending.
Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers star and acknowledged as one of the best to ever play the game, died in a helicopter crash on Sunday morning in Calabasas, California, a tragedy that left the NBA and the sporting world navigating through an emotional fog thicker than the one that may have struck down the basketball legend’s last flight.
He was 41.
There was a relentless outpouring of grief and support over his demise, with social media flooded with tributes and pained disbelief from the likes of former teammate Shaquille O’ Neal, Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mavericks star Luka Doncic, Atlanta standout Trae Young, former Chicago Bulls stalwart Scottie Pippen, former MVP Steve Nash and the legendary Michael Jordan—generally regarded as the greatest ever and whose career Kobe largely patterned his own after.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe—he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much,” Jordan said in a statement.
Athletes from other sports—like golfer Tiger Woods, football sensation Neymar and NFL quarterback Tom Brady—paid tribute to the Los Angeles star in their own ways.
Celebrities from various entertainment industries and politicians from President Donald Trump to the man he succeeded, Barack Obama, chimed in, proof of how Bryant’s popularity cut through cultural lines.
But also noteworthy is his impact on the lives of ordinary people who saw in his “Mamba Mentality” the kind of never-give-up philosophy and work ethic that extended beyond the basketball floor.
In the Philippines, where Bryant was a frequent and beloved visitor, everyday people copied his intense competitiveness and passion and pasted a version of those in their lives.
“Before getting to know how intense of a hard worker and competitor Kobe was, I never realized how I took things easy. When I was in college, I got to know more about him and his work ethic. During those years, there were a lot of times that almost made me quit but I had to find something or someone that I could relate to and it was Kobe and his insane competitiveness and mind-set that really resonated with me,” said 28-year-old Manuel del Pilar, an events organizer and writer.
Elyssa Christine Lopez, 25, embraced #MambaMentality when she decided to do a full marathon.
“I was training for a marathon, and his … philosophy stuck with me during my six-month training,” Lopez, a writer, said. “It was the most physically and emotionally taxing feat I had ever done ever, at that time. And every time I felt defeated or wanted to give up, I would find myself thinking—Kobe tore his Achilles [tendon] and he got back on the court. This should be nothing.”
“He made me strive for honors, for recognition, for admission to my dream school, and eventually be in this sports world right here today. I wouldn’t be here today doing what I do if it weren’t for him,” said PR practitioner Josh Buenaventura, 27.
He wowed Inquirer reporters and photographers who got the chance to cover his visits to Manila—and actually share the court with him—or his final game at Staples Center in Los Angeles, home of the Lakers.
“His response to the crowd was always genuine,” said Inquirer photographer Sherwin Vardeleon. Tristan Tamayo, a lensman from Inquirer.net, added: “When I feel down in my career, I always watch his interviews, how passionate he is and his work ethic. That motivates me to try and do the same to live up to his [Mamba Mentality].”
Reporter Cedelf Tupas, who joined several sportswriters in a training session with Kobe in 2016, remembers that day vividly: “A lot of us wanted to quit but because Kobe was there motivating us, reminding us that if we want to do exceptional things, we have to train exceptionally, we soldiered on. I was astounded by Kobe’s charisma, his ability to speak from the heart and determination to always inspire us to not just be excellent in basketball and profession but all other aspects in life.”
Inquirer.net sports editor Celest Flores-Colina, assigned to cover Bryant’s final game on April 13, 2016, in Los Angeles wrote: “Kobe received his final applause at the two-minute mark of the game in what had been an emotional night for the Lakers franchise, and that was even before he singlehandedly spearheaded a late Lakers rally in a show of old brilliance en route to the win.”
“From the moment I got off the bus blocks away from Staples Center, I immediately felt the love and respect the city of LA had for their longtime hero—everyone was wearing purple and gold with either no. 8 or 24 on the back,” she said.
Drafted in 1996, Bryant had the kind of career reserved for the elite. Playing for one team in two decades in the NBA, Bryant was a polarizing figure whose sheer will and tenacity sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. But those traits, along with basketball skills honed since he first balled up a pair of socks and tossed them to a trash can, turned him into what NBA commissioner Adam Silver called “one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game.”
Death may not have scrubbed off that one incident in Colorado, in 2003, when things changed with the way the world viewed Bryant. But with that permanent stain also comes the atonement that followed, his efforts to show how his family meant the most to him. While his initial public appearances with wife Vanessa after that sexual assault controversy seemed more of a PR spin, his bond with his children, especially fellow basketball lover Gianna, was beyond question.
Gianna likewise died in the same helicopter crash, along with seven others. That two had shared a passion for the game and Gianna was a constant sideline companion to Kobe at NBA arenas. Kobe also coached his daughter’s touring team.
Kobe tortured ball clubs and broke opponents’ hearts with his ability to soar past whatever defensive schemes were cooked up to ground him. He left them tortured and broken one last time when he fell from the sky. The San Antonio Spurs, whose teams he burned several times during those Lakers-Spurs duels and the Toronto Raptors, who he lit up with a career-high 81 points, took 24-second violations each to start their game on Sunday.
Similar gestures followed. Teams willingly yielded 8-second backcourt errors and milked shot clocks dry to honor Bryant, who wore Nos. 8 and 24 during his career. The Mavericks announced that no one would ever wear No. 24 anymore in the team. Basketball in the NBA hardly mattered.
In Orlando, Florida, the Los Angeles Clippers won a game nobody wanted to play, beating the Clippers, 112-97. Kyrie Irving left after warming up when he heard the news. He did not play as New York beat his Brooklyn Nets, 110-97.
“Sometimes the stage is the best place to get away from reality,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
In the NBA, in the Philippines and all over the world, the lives Kobe Bryant touched and impacted grappled with the reality of his passing.
Scottish poet Thomas Campbell once wrote, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
In life, Bryant’s opponents always had the sense that he wasn’t a mere mortal. Death proved that and made him immortal. —With reports from AP and AFP INQ