20 Years in the NBA, but Kobe Was Just Getting Started
January 27, 2020

He was without question one of the best to ever dribble, pass, or shoot a basketball. He played for 20 seasons for one team, the Los Angeles Lakers. When he retired in 2017, he was only 37. Now he's gone. Another Laker, LeBron James,just passed him into third place on the all-time scoring list. Saturday night, he tweeted congratulations. Now he's gone. His life as a professional player was over, but he's was starting to make something else of himself. He was just 41, but now he's gone. Forever.

You've undoubtedly heard the news by now. Kobe Bryant, his 13 year-old daughter Gianna, six other passengers, and the pilot were killed Sunday morning when their helicopter crashed near the city of Calabasas. They were on their way from Orange County to a youth basketball game, where Gianna was going to play. Bryant, we're told, often traveled by helicopter to avoid LA area traffic, and nothing seemed unusual about this day.

While the tributes started to pour in shortly after the news broke around noon, I immediately thought of two people. The second person I thought of was my mother. Mom couldn't stand Kobe. My mother liked sports, but didn't really follow football or basketball. She hated him because of his arrest in Colorado in 2003 on sexual assault charges. Bryant was acquitted, but claimed the act was consensual, meaning he cheated on his wife. Not that he shouldn't have known better or shown more maturity, but Bryant was 24 when that happened.

The first person that I thought of, though, was my young cousin Payton Small. He and his younger brother Trevor were and are big Kobe fans. Their dad, and all of my cousins, really, are big Laker fans. Payton might not use the word, but he idolized Kobe, and what kid his age who played basketball didn't? I thought of him right way, though, because of something he said to me when Bryant's career ended in 2016. I believe Payton was 23 at the time, and Bryant had played 20 years. When I asked him what he thought of Bryant's retirement, Payton said he never knew basketball or the Lakers without Kobe. He had literally watched Kobe play his entire life.

Those two examples demonstrate how polarizing a figure Bryant could be. The time of his rape allegations was also during his well-publicized feud with teammate Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq was the “big fella” (a nickname inherited after the retirement of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and Kobe was still looked at as kind of a brash punk. After awhile, it became clear that one of them had to go. Kobe stayed, which was not a unanimous, or sometimes widely popular, decision.

If you were willing to forgive and forget Bryant's transgressions as a younger player, Kobe became quite likable, and of course, continued to be remarkable. ESPN doesn't report it this way, but his 81-point game against Toronto in January of 2006 went under the radar for a lot of people. It was the second-highest point total in NBA history (to Wilt Chamberlain's 100) but it was a Sunday night contest after the NFC and AFC championship games. People, especially back east, went to bed thinking about the Super Bowl matchup, and woke up to the Kobe news Monday morning.

His final game, though, saw everyone take notice. In a night where the Golden State Warriors were going for an NBA record 73 wins 500 miles north, Kobe threw in 60 against the Utah Jazz and the Lakers, who were miserable that year, won 101-96. With nothing else to play for, teammates kept giving Kobe the ball, and he kept making shots. Bryant wrote a poem and read it as a farewell speech. It was made into an animated film and two years later, won an Oscar.

Bryant had a lot of projects in the works, but became a dad first. He married Vanessa when he was 23. His oldest daughter Natalia is 17. Gianna was 13, and he also has two little ones—three year-old Bianka, and Capri, who is only seven months old. He liked coaching Gianna, he promoted women's basketball, he's written children's stories, he's done projects for ESPN. Kobe was only 41, had plenty of money, adored his children, was at peace with his life, but still had the desire to be the best at whatever was to come next. Now he's gone. Forever.

Bringing it home: Why does there always seem to be a baseball connection? Also on that helicopter was Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, who was once a summer coach to Aaron Judge and others. Altobelli's wife Keri, and daughter Alyssa were also on that flight. Alyssa Altobelli and Gianna Bryant were teammates on that youth squad. I didn't know Altobelli, but I'm sure someone, or several people, in the Gold Sox community did.

The sad Grammys: There was a lot of material for a separate column about the Grammy Awards last night on CBS, which had a somber tone, and likely would have anyway without the news about Bryant's death. For some reason., there was a musical tribute to Prince, even though he has been dead for almost four years. Billie Eilish, whose songs are about depression and suicidal thoughts, won five awards. There were many tributes to Bryant in the building where he played, and host Alicia Keys was perfect in conveying the mood, telling people that healing happens through music. Camila Cabello singing The First Man Who Really Loved Me to her father brought out the waterworks in a hurry, and I don't have kids.

Too soon?: Tomorrow's Lakers-Clippers game has been postponed. It seemed kind of fitting that the Lakers first game after Kobe's death would be a 'battle of LA', and could have turned into a celebration of Kobe. There's plenty of time for that later. His remains still haven't even been recovered. The rest of the league plays on, though. There were several tributes yesterday, including teams intentionally taking 24-second shot clock violations (Kobe's number the second half of his career), and 8-second half-court violations (his first NBA number).

Today is the third anniversary of my uncle's death. Uncle Marty was a big Laker and Kobe fan, and is the grandfather of my cousin Payton mentioned above. I'm just one of many people that miss him terribly.

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