Kobe Bryant was transitioning into the “godfather of basketball” role before his tragic death on Sunday, January 26, 2020. The legendary, and soon to be Hall of Famer, tragically died in a helicopter crash in the hills of Southern California alongside his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, and seven others. The crew were on their way to Gianna’s basketball game. Kobe helped coached that team.
The legend entered the NBA straight out of Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania. His 20-year career is draped with a tapestry of accolades that include 18 All-Star appearances, 15 nominations to the All-NBA Team, 12 nominations to the All-Defensive Team, a 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player award, the retirement of both his Los Angeles Lakers numbers (8 and 24) in the Staples Center, and much more.
Kobe’s legacy lives on in the memories he created on the floor and in the mentorships he had with current and former players. Lebron James recently reminisced about a time when Kobe Bryant passed on wisdom about having to work hard to be the best and then gave Lebron his shoes. “I was a [size] 15,” James said, “and he was a 14 and I wore them anyways.” Now, people argue about which of the two are the best of all time, but it’s clear we couldn’t have one without the other.
It’s fun to debate who we think the greatest basketball player of all time is, but one thing we cannot do is leave Kobe Bryant’s name out of the conversation. He is the epitome of elite and will forever be regarded as one of the greatest. Kobe’s presence on and off the floor continues shaping the way basketball fans and players analyze the game. Bryant’s continual demand for excellence—exhibited in tireless and relentless practice and film regimens—bolstered his confidence and pushed many others like Lebron James and Allen Iverson to up their game. His mark is forever imprinted on the game of basketball.His poetic style of play could kill your aspirations on and off the court, or give life to new dreams and ideas. In effect, both outcomes were one and the same. No matter if you liked him, were inspired by him, or rooted against him, you respected him.
As fans, we think of and appreciate the impression Kobe left on the game, but we remember his humanity as well. The legacy Kobe Bryant “the basketball player” leaves behind with his wife and remaining daughters will not do much to fill their void for Kobe Bryant “the husband and father.” He was supposed to be there for more family Christmases, his daughters’ weddings, his wife’s and daughters’ birthdays, their basketball games, his Hall of Fame induction speech, and much more. In fact, the reason Bryant invested in a helicopter was to spend more time with his family instead of fighting traffic. “I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft, but still not compromise family time,” Bryant said. “And that’s when I looked into helicopters.” Adding to the heartbreak, his daughter Gianna hoped to carry the mantle of the Bryant legacy on herself. In an interview, Kobe said when reporters would ask him if he would someday have a boy to carry on the Bryant heritage, Gianna would be standing at his side saying, “A boy? I got this!” Sadly, the thought of this possibility will also be missed.
Kobe’s impact on the game—on our culture—transcends generations. For people my age, Kobe was basketball—the standard by which we measured every other great player that followed. Every basketball fan and/or player has their favorite or most memorable Kobe Bryant moments. For some it was his first NBA Finals in 2000, or his 3-peat in 2002. For others it was his ability to prove that he could win a Finals without long-time teammate Shaquille O’Neal, or when he dropped 81 points in Toronto. And for others it was his final game against the Utah Jazz when he said farewell to the home crowd at the Staples Center with an incredible 60-point performance.
For me, the most memorable moment was watching Bryant and O’Neal decimate the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals in a packed house filled with four family friends on a Sunday after church in 2001. As a native Texan, I was rooting for the Texas team along with all the other adults in the house. But my two best friends were the only people cheering on Kobe. They annoyed everyone in that house, including me. Right after the game, they put on their Lakers attire and we went outside to play a game of 21. They played inspired, with smiles on their faces and laughter in their bellies. I played mad, wanting revenge for their incessantly jubilant and joyous disposition. Out of several games we played that afternoon, I didn’t win one. And reflecting on it now, that was the moment I subsequently gave up dedicating myself to the game of basketball. My friends went on to play in high school and remained fans of the great Bryant.
That interaction between three friends is somewhat symbolic of Kobe Bryant’s effect on the game of basketball. He inspired many to work on their craft with excellence—be it basketball, painting, teaching, or accounting—and to control the controllables with intense focus and preparation. He’s the reason so many of my generation picked up a basketball and continue bouncing and/or coaching it to this day. He’s also the reason why some of us put down the basketball. He put into perspective for people like me the time, effort, joy, and focus required to play the game of basketball at a high level. For some of us, the cost was too much and we found our joy elsewhere. I found mine in football. For reasons like these, I believe his nickname, “The Black Mamba,” was fitting. It was indicative of his ability to strike his opponents and his haters with quickness, precision, and an extremely potent venom of success. His poetic style of play could kill your aspirations on and off the court, or give life to new dreams and ideas. In effect, both outcomes were one and the same. No matter if you liked him, were inspired by him, or rooted against him, you respected him.
It’s hard to adequately put into words what legends meant to a generation after they’ve passed, and Kobe Bryant is certainly no exception. Connecting words of hope to grief is no easy feat, but here at Christ and Pop Culture, it’s what we try hard to do. We do this by keeping in perspective Jesus and eternity in light of these momentary afflictions and painful losses—not to make light of death, but to place death on the only One who can truly bear such a burden.
Kobe’s passing made me think of two truths we hold dear to as Christians grappling with the loss of a loved one and an icon. First was Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to keep proclaiming the Gospel in the face of adversity: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4). We don’t know when our moments on Earth will end, but if we persist in God’s calling to love others and preach the Gospel until the end comes, we will have fought well and finished our race according to God’s timeline. Kobe did this in the form of basketball. At the end of his career, he told Good Morning America that he didn’t miss basketball. He gave everything he had to the sport most of his life and he understood that it couldn’t last forever. “It kind of becomes who you are,” Bryant said. “But there’s a difference between doing what you do versus understanding that is not who you are.” Bryant understood his purpose as a basketball player was disconnected from his value and worth as a man. He fought the good fight and finished very well.In light of these truths, we can truly pay tribute to one of the greatest who graced us with his God-given talents and heed his wisdom with conviction.
Trying to make sense of this timelines for Kobe (as well as for Gianna and the seven others onboard) is tragically mind-boggling. I thought about Job’s laments when he lost virtually every perceivable good thing in his life. “Why do the wicked continue to live, growing old and becoming powerful” (Job 21:7)? It just doesn’t seem fair. Herein lies another truth we cling to as Christians—especially in times of grief: Death is painfully cruel, but God is with us in it. I thought too about Pastor Tony Evans’s response to God in the sermon following his wife’s recent death. “You’re God, and I’m not,” Evans said, echoing Job’s sentiments: “Wisdom and strength belong to God; counsel and understanding are His” (Job 12:13). God does what He pleases, and it sometimes hurts. And we don’t know why some things happen. Kobe and Gianna’s passing hurts. But we resolve to direct our questions, anger, and pain toward God, the One who holds all our questions and losses in the palm of His hand and is able to one day make sense of it all.
In light of these truths, we can truly pay tribute to one of the greatest who graced us with his God-given talents and heed his wisdom with conviction. When asked what one of his camps was all about, Kobe said: “Have a good time. Enjoy life. Life is too short to get bogged down and be discouraged. You have to keep moving. You have to keep going. Put one foot in front of the other, smile, and just keep on rolling.” When you understand that this is the same man who dedicated six hours of his day to intense off-season workout regimens, publicly took accountability for his wrongdoings (like his sexual assault case in 2003), publicly fought for his family in the face of that devastating humiliation, was multilingual and used his gifts philanthropically worldwide, and was dedicated to being a loving father and husband, his words suddenly contain a higher value.
Bryant’s motivation is probably best summed up in a recent video that resurfaced and is now being widely circulated. ESPN host Stephen A. Smith asked Kobe what he learned going through his hardships and his failures. Bryant’s words were direct and simple: “God is great.” Taken aback, Smith asked, “Is it that simple?” With conviction Bryant stated, “It don’t get no simpler than that… You can ‘know’ it all you want, but once you gotta pick up that cross that you can’t carry, and He picks it up for you and carries you and the cross, then you know.”
Kobe, you are a giant of the game and our culture. Your imprint on our lives made life indelibly larger as a result. You will be missed. Thank you.