by John Walters
Devastated. Impossibly sad.
Just two of the terms on constant refrain since mid-afternoon here in New York City yesterday. Kobe Bryant, 41, along with eight others including his 13 year-old daughter, Gianna (“GiGi”), is dead. All perished in a helicopter crash along a hillside in Calabasas, Calif., at roughly 9:52 a.m.
Singular. Focused. Gifted. Determined. Relentless. Aloof. Ambitious.
Those are some of the words that described the young man when he entered the league and for much of his career.
Warm. Generous. Content. Open. Interested. Gracious. Brilliant. Charismatic. At peace.
That’s the Kobe we saw on television in his final NBA season and in his post-NBA life, a life that was beginning to blossom into him becoming the type of black business magnate that Magic Johnson had become, only with a more global tinge due in part to his being multilingual.
That is the biggest tragedy here. You could just see from his interviews lately, from the moments that you saw him with his daughter, that that angry young man, that fierce warrior, had transformed himself into a joyful and engaged elder statesman. Kobe understood what he meant to basketball, what he meant to Los Angeles and he basked in it. He wanted to learn more, to do more, to give more. It was all ahead of him: 41 years old, hundreds of millions to his name, a wife and four young daughters. These next 40 or so years were supposed to be his beautiful reward. There’s no mitigating this—it’s just a massive loss.
I jotted down a few ideas yesterday afternoon. It’s not a cohesive, even coherent column, just a few random Kobe-related thoughts strung together:
—There’s an age dividing line, I’d say it runs somewhere between 45 and 50 years old, that will likely determine if you think of Michael Jordan first or Kobe Bryant first in terms of the greatest one-on-one ballers in NBA history (I say it that way because Wilt Chamberlain was simply on another planet in terms of dominance but since most fans cannot relate to a giant who rarely dribbled, they don’t think of Wilt that way). I think of Jordan first. When I think of Kobe, I think of the one player since Jordan who matched MJ’s talent, his determination and his give-it-to-me-when-the-game-is-on-the-line fearlessness. They were even roughly the same size, with Jordan just a bit thicker, especially in the later years. It would be wrong to call Kobe, who was passed on Saturday night by LeBron James on the all-time scoring list to “fall” down to 4th on it, as a slightly less version of Michael Jordan. He was simply a slightly later iteration of the perfect NBA small forward.
–When Kobe first appeared, profile stories of him would include the aside that “Kobe” came from a type of beef that was very expensive and originated with a herd in Japan. Almost nobody knew what kobe beef was then. Everyone knows what it is now.
–Singular. In case you do not recall, Kobe made the All-Star Game at age 19. It was held at Madison Square Garden. During one infamous play, he had the ball out on the wing and Karl Malone, on his West squad, did what Karl Malone did better than anyone in NBA history: he moved out to set a pick for him. Karl Malone, who at the time was in the midst of winning two league MVP awards in three seasons (Kobe would only win one during his career) and who to this day is one of only three humans who ranks higher on the NBA’s all-time points list than Kobe. And what did Kobe do? He shooed Malone away. He wanted to break down his defender one-on-one.
That play defined Kobe, for better and for worse, for the first half of his career. At the same time, his artistry and athleticism were from another galaxy. By that point Jordan was in his mid-thirties and it was clear that Kobe was the heir to a throne that MJ had inherited from Julius Erving 14 years earlier and had himself taken to previously unexplored orbits.
–There has been no greater NBA odd couple on one team than Shaq and Kobe. The ultimate Extrovert paired with the ultimate Introvert. Clown and Samurai. And that might have worked if one of them was much older than the other, as it had when Magic and Kareem shared the floor for the Lakers nearly two decades earlier. Magic, the Shaq of his times in terms of being gregarious, was always, ALWAYS, deferential to Kareem, who was a shell of his former self in the Eighties but remains to this day the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Shaq and Kobe could not play that way. They were too close in age, two alpha males staking out their territory, They won three titles with Phil Jackson at the helm, but it couldn’t last. And the Lakers parted with Shaq, not Kobe.
–Kobe would win two more NBA championships with a bunch of teammates who were good, not great. That he could lead the Lakers to titles having to get past the San Antonio Spurs in their prime is a testament to his singular greatness. On the court, he was an assassin. There was no mercy. The 81-point game versus the Raptors. The 61-point game at Madison Square Garden, still the venue record. When Kobe had it flowing, forget about it. Watch out and step back. Only Michael Jordan in his prime ever touched the heavens that way.
–He was not easy. Or often, back then, likable. He had problems with Shaq. Then with Karl Malone. Then with Dwight Howard. And he spent most of his career being compared to Michael. The focus was on whether or not he was superior to MJ (“Temecula!”) when it should have been on, How many players get compared to MJ (answer: one)? That comparison drove him, but it also scarred him to a degree during his playing days. Because too many fans saw him as derivative, as honing in on their god’s legacy. The truth is: he was right there with him, a veritable equal.
No one worked harder than Kobe behind the scenes, and no one had less empathy for teammates (or opponents) who did not match that standard. You rarely saw him smile. Happy was not a word you thought of when you saw Kobe play. Fierce was. The nickname “Mamba” fit. He was fast, sleek, lethal. He struck quickly. He was cold. Reptilian.
–And then a funny thing happened. Kobe stuck around, his teams were no longer great, he experienced a few injuries, and he looked around and saw that even he was going to have to admit defeat to Father Time. He smiled more. He smiled back. He accepted the love, not just from fans but from the younger players who had grown up idolizing him. He became gracious. When the famous “Temecula” incident took place (two NBA fans arguing online over whether Kobe was the GOAT with one challenging the other to meet in Temecula, about 50 miles north of San Diego, and then one of them actually driving there to make the showdown), Kobe smiled about it. He loved that fans were that passionate about him. And he was self-aware enough to see the humor in it.
In short, as someone said on TV last night, “He got it.” He had gone from assassin to ambassador over the course of his legendary career.
–The 60-point career finale. I watched all of it on TV. What people forget is that he started slow and that the Lakers, who would not make the playoffs, trailed Utah most of the contest. Kobe did not make a bucket in the game’s first six minutes, missing his first five shots. Then, with LA trailing by 10 points with 2:36 left, Kobe embarked on a career-defining rampage, scoring 13 unanswered points on his own to both reach 60 and give LA the victory.
It was right out of a movie. With that 60-point night, Kobe’s career scoring average stands at 24.99 ppg. If you want to round it up this morning, feel free.
–I met Kobe when he was 18. I was doing a story on NBA sideline reporter Jim Gray and met him in Salt Lake City before Game 1 of the 1998 Western Conference finals (Utah would blow out LA, 112-77). We were walking onto an empty court in an empty Delta Center 3-plus hours before the game and one player was on the court shooting: Kobe.
Gray took me over to introduce me to Kobe when he finished his shoot around. He was poised, quiet, respectful, professional. Serious. Nothing stands out more than that. Later that day after the game Gray introduced me, at his hotel, to Bill Walton. Now, 1998 Bill Walton was a somewhat surly character. Not like the guy you see/hear on ESPN today. It struck me yesterday that here are two of the greatest legends in LA hoops history and how much they had transformed themselves, in terms of finding that joie de vivre and sharing it with the world, in the past 20-plus years. That was both of their triumphs’.
–I remember covering the 2008 NBA Finals in Los Angeles and watching Kobe walk through the tunnel. By this point in his career he had shaved his head and added muscle without really adding any girth. I remember thinking of him as almost alien. If not from another planet, then, at least from another species. A superior species. He was also incredibly composed on the podium, highly intelligent. Almost like a king.
–The news will do what it must do, which is to investigate the crash and the causes behind it. That’s fine. It seems to me that it will in many ways mirror the JFK, Jr., crash: flying in poor weather with extremely poor visibility and making a few poor choices at the most inopportune time. And that is what it is.
What I’ll think about is how from the time that Larry Bird and Magic entered the NBA until today, the sport went from No. 3 in popularity in the USA (finals games were aired on tape delay) to No. 2 but in some ways No. 1 in terms of the athletes themselves being the most popular. Kobe was one of a handful of dudes, along with the aforementioned two, plus MJ and LeBron, who took the NBA to this plateau. He was as fierce and gifted a competitor as any sport has ever seen, right up alongside peak MJ and Tiger and Serena. He was a one-word entity, known and revered all over the globe.
These decades were supposed to be his beautiful reward. On a Sunday morning in a fog-shrouded canyon northwest of Los Angeles, he was robbed of them. Unspeakably sad.
Five Films: 2002
This year is more about my failing to see plenty of possibly top five-worthy films (below) than the year not being very good. Perhaps a little of both.
- The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers: Easily the best film in the trilogy, which is of course why the third and final film, and not this, would later win Best Picture. Smeagol/Gollum is one of the top ten film characters of this century and Andy Serkis deserved a Best Supporting Actor nom (denied here). 2. Chicago: Best picture winner based on the Broadway musical. Sometimes good-looking people singing catchy tunes is enough. 3. The Ring: A proper horror flick with a clutch-your-seatrest final scene. 4. The Bourne Identity: A James Bond-gone-rogue (or has he?) film starring Matt Damon. Satisfying to say the least. 5. Catch Me If You Can: Leo and T. Hanks play cat-and-mouse in the early Sixties.
Have never seen but would be willing to: 24-Hour Party People, City Of God, Talk To Her, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Pianist, 28 Days Later, Minority Report, Whale Rider, About Schmidt, Dogtown and Z-Boys.