Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 26, 2020

To A Legend Dying Young

These moments are inevitable, though they come far more often than we would wish. In truth that wish would be “never at all,” even as we know that is impossible. The nexus between sports and life, the extent to which events in the former mirror and illustrate lessons of the latter, ensures that there are times when the sports story of the day is both shocking and sad. So it was on Sunday, when as afternoon on the east coast gave way to night fans saw rumor become fact, and initial reporting gave way to subsequent detail that was even worse than imagined. Kobe Bryant, NBA legend and forever a hero to fans of the L.A. Lakers, was killed Sunday morning in a helicopter crash northwest of Los Angeles. Just 41-years-old, Bryant was one of nine victims of the crash, which had no survivors. While authorities were appropriately not releasing information on the other victims until families had been notified, as this was written the deaths of Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and John Altobelli, the baseball coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa had also been confirmed.

The most compelling evidence of Bryant’s stature was the outpouring of sympathy from across the sports world, extending far beyond the confines of NBA arenas. Fans attending the NFL’s Pro Bowl game in Orlando interrupted a moment of silence with chants of “Ko-be! Ko-be!” Italian soccer club AC Milan issued a statement calling Bryant, who spent seven years in Italy as a child while his father played for several European basketball teams, “one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.” On social media the International Olympic Committee said that the two-time gold medalist “will always stay in our hearts.”

The current generation of NBA players took matters into their own hands at Sunday’s games, which went on as scheduled over the objections of some members of the media. During his Lakers career Bryant wore the numbers 24 and 8. Several teams around the league took 24 second shot clock violations as a simple tribute. Players on the Orlando Magic went one step further in that team’s game against the L.A. Clippers, following the 24 second violation for not taking a shot with an 8 second backcourt time penalty. At Madison Square Garden, the lights were purple and gold, the Lakers colors. Commissioner Adam Silver called Bryant “one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game.”

Of that there is no doubt. Drafted out of high school with the 13th overall pick in 1996, by his second season Bryant was the youngest All-Star starter in league history. Two years after that L.A. won the first of five titles while Bryant was in uniform. He holds fifteen separate team career records and retired as the third highest scorer in NBA history. Just last weekend, LeBron James pushed Bryant down to fourth place on that list, which earned James a congratulatory tweet from his predecessor as the top star of the Lakers franchise. Responding to his new place in the record books, James said “I’m happy just to be in any conversation with Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time greatest basketball players to ever play.”

There was a time, a couple of generations ago, when that would be the sum of what fans knew about a star like Bryant, and the tributes that are pouring in and will continue to do so in the days ahead would reflect the limits of our knowledge. But secrets are hard to hold in the age of information overload, and so we must acknowledge that our heroes are no longer two-dimensional cutouts on a pedestal, but real people living complex, or to put it charitably, complicated lives. Bryant feuded, at times bitterly, with fellow star Shaquille O’Neal early in his career and often turned his ire on head coach Phil Jackson after O’Neal departed. Off the court he faced allegations of sexual assault in 2003. While criminal charges were dropped and a civil suit settled privately, the case forever altered his image even after Bryant issued a lengthy apology.

Yet even with “cancel culture” running rampant, there are circumstances under which America remains the land of second chances. There are certainly those who still condemn Bryant, but his apology, his philanthropic work, and of course his extraordinary ability and fierce determination on the court led most fans not to forget the 2003 incident, but to include it as one part of their total evaluation of him. Certainly most of the Lakers faithful stood by him, even as time passed and his athletic skills inevitably began to wane.

Like many of his brethren, in the end Bryant stayed too long, making the final year or two of his playing career at times painful to watch. But in April 2016, in his final NBA game the worn-down player gave fans one last glimpse of the powers he had once summoned at will. Midway through the first quarter against the Utah Jazz, Bryant had missed his first five shots and committed a turnover. But then he hit a pullup jumper to tie the score at 6-6, and suddenly the years melted away. The Lakers continued to feed the ball to their faded star all night long; in the end he would take fifty shots from the field. But now more of them were going in.

The Lakers trailed by two after one period and by fifteen at the break. But led by Bryant the home squad mounted a second half rally. For much of the final quarter everyone in the house was on their feet, cheering what was quickly becoming an epic final star turn. With just over three minutes to play and Utah leading by ten, Bryant seized the moment. A reverse layup, two free throws, a driving layup, a jumper, a three, and then with 31.6 ticks remaining, another pullup jumper that gave the Lakers the lead. With the final five field goal attempts of his career finding the net, Bryant added two more free throws at the 14.8 second mark to bring his scoring total for the night to sixty points.

Then he was gone from the NBA stage, but looking forward to a long and successful business career. That dream ended on a hillside outside of L.A. on Sunday, a day when the cruelest of life’s lessons paid an unwelcome visit to the world of sports.

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