Remembering Gianna and Kobe Bryant

13 minutes, 19 seconds

When I was a teenager I used to watch all the major sports religiously. Something quite foreign to me now because I only watch football and hockey. But there I was every night in my parent’s house intently watching a sporting event, usually while bouncing a ball off the wall. I made it a point to watch every Chicago Bulls game I could. Mostly to see Michael Jordan play. I loved it when the announcer would introduce Jordan and I loved the accompanying music even more. I had a Bulls hat with Jordan’s signature on it. I wore it almost every day to junior high. Eventually, it was replaced by my New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens hats in high school but it still saw a significant wearing during my youth. I don’t recall if I had any other Bulls or Jordan stuff. I loved the Air Jordan logo though. I had boxes and boxes of sports card but I only had one or two Jordan cards. Mostly because they were rare and expensive. The thing I liked about Jordan, besides his athletic prowess, was he seemed to have a humbled greatness about him. He always aspired to make his teammates better too.

I had a mini basketball hoop attached to the door leading to the garage. I used to pretend it was the closing seconds of a game and I had to make the winning shot. I’d do a few moves and then I’d shoot. Usually, from as far back of the room as I could go, some went in and some didn’t. Sometimes I’d go in for a dunk. Those always went in. Since it was almost 25 years ago, I don’t recall if I was pretending to be like Michael Jordan or just myself. It wouldn’t be surprising if I was pretending to be Jordan because everyone wanted to “Be Like Mike” back then. Either way, I was emulating what I saw on TV. I did this every weekend morning. I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. I had no idea about an hour away from where I lived, one of the greatest basketball players of all time was also growing up. Although I imagine his pretend basketball games were very different than mine, I do know he watched all the Bulls game too and he definitely wanted to “Be Like Mike”.

Eventually, I went through a teenage angst phase and sports were no longer cool to me. I got more into music and I stopped watching for a few years. I started watching again in college (my third stint, it’s a long story), sans baseball. That’s when the Los Angeles Lakers won their first championship with Kobe Bryant. I didn’t really care for the Lakers or Kobe. Although I hate comparisons, Kobe was the next iteration of Jordan. All the current NBA players grew up idolizing Kobe like I did Jordan. But Kobe struck me as brash, cocky, and a bit of a ball hog. He was everything Jordan wasn’t. He was the anti-Jordan. On the other hand, Shaquille O'Neal was fun to watch. I’ll never forget all the times he broke the backboard while dunking. I could have sworn he did it with the Lakers, he may have, but all the clips online are from his Orlando Magic days. In the NBA finals, the Lakers were always the favorites and I wanted to root for the underdogs. Ironic because the Bulls were anything but underdogs. I went to college in Philadelphia so their first finals in that era against the Sixers were a big deal. I wasn’t a Sixers fan but I liked Allen Iverson. After the Sixers won the first game I thought it might be close. It was not. The Sixers never won another game. The Lakers then steamrolled the New Jersey Nets the next couple of years and I barely watched those games. I like watching close suspenseful games. None of these finals were that. I hated watching Robert Horry always sinking game-winning shots along the way too, especially when they faced the Sacramento Kings. I was very happy when the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons. I wasn’t a fan of the superteam concept when Karl Malone and Gary Payton latched on to the Lakers to try to win a ring. And that was the beginning of the end. Shaq and Kobe separated shortly after that when Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat. Having more perspective on life now, I think I would have looked at that era much differently and appreciated its dominance more.

Kobe Bryant’s rape allegations case also happened at the end of all this. I was living in Los Angeles at that point. I remember arguing with my co-worker if it was rape or not. At the time I thought it might have been rape. I don’t want to receive death threats like Gayle King did recently but it’s an important event that must be mentioned. There were only two people who actually knew what happened that night. One of them is dead and the other isn’t talking. But Kobe’s statement on the event just makes it even hazier. He said later, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”[1] Women do change their minds a lot. But I do not see how you can not tell if someone does or does not want to make out or have sex with you. The fact that he admitted she viewed it differently means it probably was rape. I’m sure she did go up to his room to flirt but who knows what she wanted after that. I’m not condoning what he did or didn’t do. But he learned from it because he did not do it again, that I’m aware of, and that is what is important. People make mistakes but not everyone learns from them. At this point, my opinion of Kobe was as low as possible.

Kobe bounced back and so did the Lakers, making three straight appearances in the NBA Finals and winning two of them a few years later. Their first appearance they lost to the Boston Celtics. This was when I noticed I had prediction powers. I correctly predicted who would win every one of the six games and whether it would be a blowout or not. I didn’t even really watch any of the games. I just had gut feelings. I told my co-worker my prediction on the day of each game. I remember when the Lakers lost the series he told me, “I’m already having a bad day. I really don’t want to run into Alex today.” He was a huge Lakers and Kobe fan and I’d always needled him about them. We’d discuss football too. And then he’d make fun of hockey. I gave him an antenna once. I think he didn’t have cable but I don’t remember. But all he wanted to do was get reception to watch Kobe and the Lakers. I can only imagine how devastated he was after Kobe’s death.

My opinion of Kobe did not change after he won two more NBA titles. In fact, it probably became worse. He always rubbed it in how he won one more than Shaq. I felt that made him look even more like a petty jerk. Despite my feelings toward him, I watched his final NBA game. During the game, he was still his usual ball hogging self but I get it. That was the point of the game and the Lakers weren’t making the playoffs anyway. But my feelings toward him started to change after that game because I liked the speech he gave. Even though it was short, he seemed very humble and grateful and you had to love him for thanking his wife Vanessa for taking care of the family while he was gone.

Starting in 2018, Kobe began to appear somewhat regularly on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show. This is where my opinion of him changed greatly. His humbleness and gratefulness from his farewell speech continued. He was very sharp and he always had a desire to learn and grow as a person. He dabbled in many things after retirement and he even won an Oscar for the animated short Dear Basketball. You could also see how great of a father he was and how much he loved his daughters. It didn’t even bother him that he didn’t have a son. Normally you would think he would want a boy to carry on the Bryant basketball legacy but he figured why couldn’t a girl do it. And Gianna relished at the opportunity to do so. There was a moment when he shared someone asking him that very question of don’t you want a boy and his daughter replied, “I got this.” He believed her. He spent a lot of his time coaching his daughter and her basketball teammates. Even going so far as to teach them the triangle offense.

And this is where Kobe truly shined. Even in retirement, he continued to be the exact opposite of Jordan. For as good as Jordan was at making his teammates better when he played with them, he seemed to make everything about himself after he retired. He’s mostly kept to himself, not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a lot more he could be doing with his stature. The things he has done haven’t been very successful. One could argue his tenure in the Wizards front office wasn’t very fruitful. And he’s done absolutely nothing for the team he owns, the Charlotte Hornets. Since becoming majority owner in 2010, the Hornets have only made two playoff appearances. Both first-round exits. It doesn’t even look like he has any kind of strategy to turn them around either. Nor does it seem like he really cares.

Kobe, on the other hand, wanted to do as much as he could to teach and empower the next generation of athletes. Teaching his daughter simply wasn’t enough. He created the Mamba Sports Academy in 2019 when he rebranded the Sports Academy. He wanted athletes to have a very comprehensive space to train mentally and physically. The Sports Academy already had a vigorous athletic training facility but Kobe added the Mamba Mentality to the program. The Mamba Mentality is something Kobe coined. It’s the constant quest to find answers and be better.

I watched most of the first Inside the NBA show after Kobe’s death. I’ve never seen a more somber looking room of people. Shaq’s piece[2] on Kobe made me cry, as did Jerry West’s[3]. I didn’t know Shaq recently lost his sister. Having to go through that and then having to relive it all over again with someone you viewed as your little brother is heartbreaking. There was a time during his piece when he mentioned, “We are never going to be able to joke at his hall of fame induction ceremony. We are not going to be able to say ha I got five you got four…” and it reminded me of when my mom died. When she was in the hospice on her death bed from cancer I remember telling the nurse, “She’s never going to see her kids get married. She’s never going to get to see her grandkids.” To this day neither of those has happened to me or my sister but they might. I don’t remember the nurse’s exact reply. But I think it was along the lines of, “I know, it isn’t fair.” Despite their differences, Shaq and Kobe were very close. Kobe even texted his son Shareef hours before he died. Shareef has since made the text his phone background and stares at it every day. I can’t say I blame him. Shaq was always a stand-up guy and when someone recently tried to console him at a Best Buy over his recent losses, he bought them a notebook as a thank you.

We don’t really talk enough about the other victims who were on the plane and that’s because we don’t really know them so the pain isn’t the same. But the pain is very real for the families of those victims. Matt Mauser, who lost his wife Christina in the crash said on the Today Show, “I got three small kids, and I’m trying to figure out how to navigate life with three kids and no mom.” I can only imagine what he must be going through. The other victims were also loved and they will be missed.

My biggest problem with what happened is why is the Mamba Academy in Newbury Park? Kobe used to take a helicopter from his home in Orange County to Lakers games frequently throughout his career. And that made sense. Los Angeles traffic is notoriously terrible and he couldn’t sit in a car that long with all his injuries. But having your teenage daughter flying to Newbury Park for a basketball game is another thing. Especially when you’re bringing her teammates and coaches. They did do the same exact flight the day before without incident, I’m not sure who was on that flight. But the point is the more helicopters trips you take, the more likely something is bound to go wrong. You could argue car accidents are more likely but even if they are, you’re more likely to come away only injured. There’s a possibility he opened it in Los Angeles because he wanted to reach more people and he couldn’t find anything he liked in Orange County. But with his money and connections, I’m sure he could have made it work in Orange County if he really wanted too.

I wonder if any of it would have made a difference though. It seemed like it was fated. The timing of it was weird. It was right after Lebron James passed him on the NBA all-time scoring list and right before Magic Johnson was to appear on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show. It was also right before the NBA All-Star game. The strangest thing about it was when Tracy McGrady went on The Jump right after Kobe died, he mentioned how Kobe Bryant would always tell him when they were teenagers that he wanted to be better than Michael Jordan, die young and become an idol. That couldn’t have been a coincidence and it makes you wonder.

Gianna Bryant was a budding basketball star who loved the game. She was planning to attend the University of Connecticut. You can watch these clips[4] to see just how good she was. I firmly believe Kobe’s proudest accomplishment would be watching Gianna make the WNBA, become a star and then win the WNBA championship. Sadly, that will never happen. Maybe it will in an alternate universe but it won’t here. Kobe would have been one of the greatest ambassadors for the women’s game and women’s rights too. Something that would have been unfathomable to imagine after the rape allegations all those years ago. But having kids changes people. Especially if they are all girls and you dote on them. We’ll never know what could have been for Kobe, Gianna and everyone else who died on that plane. And that is the biggest tragedy of them all.

Kobe leaves an indelible legacy on society. But it’s just as multifaceted as people are. You can choose to remember the bad: Cocky, brash, ball hog, helped force Shaq out of LA and alleged rapist. Or you can remember the good: One of the greatest basketball players ever, a five-time champion, Oscar winner and a loving father and teacher who touched an entire city and world. Or you can remember all of it. Because that is who we really are. People who aren’t perfect but grow and learn from our mistakes to become something greater.