I remember the moment, probably because it was so fresh and just happened: At 1:51 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 26, my phone received a notification but I let it slide in the moment. I was playing NBA 2K18 in the living room with my eldest son while my eldest daughter fed her baby brother a bottle. It was a fun family bonding moment. We were relaxing on an empty weekend, waiting for open skate at SLICE to start.
Gabe pressed pause on the controller, for what exact reason I do not recall — it could have been to get a drink or go to the bathroom or to maybe even itch his nose. It doesn’t matter.
But during that 10-second lull, I reached back to check my phone, thinking I had gotten a work email or text message. Instead, it was from The Guardian — a British-based news organization. Normally, notifications from the Guardian have to do with President Trump, or an earthquake across the world somewhere.
This notification was more shocking that any I remember in recent years: Former NBA star Kobe Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash.
I gasped. Both kids saw my face go white in shock and asked me in serious tone what it was. I paused. I stuttered. I paused. I blurted, “Kobe Bryant died.”
A quick question from 8-year-old Gabe of “Who’s that?” made me hesitate to inbound the ball. “He used to play in the NBA. One of the best ever.”
“Was he in this game?”
“No, bud. He retired before this game was released.”
I went on to finish beating Gabe 101-36. I’ll let my kids win at Sorry or Candyland — but not in video games, because that’s the competitor in me.
Kobe Bryant was a competitor. In fact, he was much more than just that. Kobe Bryant was the most competitive athlete I have ever seen.
Sure, Jordan wanted to win — he needed to win, actually. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter. The best athletes in the history of their sport are uber-competitive.
There was something even more profound about Kobe.
I wasn’t a big Kobe Bryant fan. I never fully forgave him from the 2003 rape allegation that was later dropped. I thought he benefited too much to having the best big man in modern basketball — Shaq — at his side while having the best coach in league history (Phil Jackson) calling the plays. I thought he shot too much, passed too little, and could have had a better career than what he did: 33,643 points, five titles, an MVP and dozens of other accolades, including 15 all-NBA teams and 18 all-star games in a 20-year career for one team that started fresh out of high school.
Kobe Bryant was a top-10 player of all-time in the history of hoops. I can acknowledge that without being a fan. His accolades alone deserve respect, but to me, I gave Kobe respect for being the best player in the final five minutes of any game. If you wanted to win, Kobe was your guy.
One shot, one minute, one possession; whatever it was, if it was in crunch time and a game-winning play was needed, putting the ball in Kobe’s hands was about as sure of a thing as there was outside of Mariano Rivera in the MLB postseason.
His tenacity, drive, competitiveness, heart and focus were unparalleled.
In his last game, Kobe scored 60 points. After retiring he’d become more vocal in support of women’s athletics. He was a heavy backer of the U.S. women’s soccer team, and recently went on record as to say that there are WNBA players who could play in the NBA right now. (My first thought was, “nah Kobe, it’s a good sound-bite, but no.” My second thought was, “Actually, I’m going to trust Kobe on this. He’s played in the NBA and is likely a much better judge of basketball talent than me.”)
He was trying to help change the sports world for the better. He retired right when his kids were growing into their own in the sports world. His eldest was 13 — the same age as my daughter — and he took her to games and camps and watched her play. She wanted to play in the WNBA and Kobe was 100% behind her.
Then came updates from the crash. First, one of the other passengers was his daughter, Gianna. Heartbreaking. But wait, there’s more: of the five others were two of Gianna’s AAU teammates and three parents (one a junior college baseball coach), and another victim was an assistant coach for Bryant’s basketball academy. The helicopter was en route to a basketball camp Kobe was hosting and was just miles away. The girls were going to be there, as were hundreds of other hoopsters and their families.
All that just one day after LeBron James passed him for No. 3 in all-time NBA scoring. When LeBron signed with LA, it was Kobe that begged fans to accept him, saying that the organization has a superstar again that wouldn’t diminish anything from Kobe’s legacy, instead it would add to the Lakers’ legacy. Kobe even tweeted support to LeBron after getting passed Saturday night. It was a moment of class. Another moment of continued “He gets it.”
After defeating Gabe’s All-Star West squad with a randomly drawn team, I had to run to the store for a few groceries. My stomach was still churning, and as I pulled into the parking lot, I choked back tears. This was a man I had never met nor cheered for and yet I was on the verge of bawling my eyes out in my car. Why? Because he was a once-in-a-lifetime talent?
What celebrity athlete’s death does this compare to? Roberto Clemente? Reggie White? Steve McNair?
Kobe was retired, though just a few years removed from playing. In fact, he could have probably still played today. Who else would have made me feel the same way, having been a legend in their sport, just retired and a sudden death shock me? Jeter, probably; Mo Rivera; Ichiro? Call me callous, but I think Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are too old for me to feel shocked and tearful if they suddenly passed away.
The basketball world lost a legend, and that’s not hard to see. Kobe meant so much to so many people — Lakers fans, basketball fans and sports fans in general. I have friends who said he was their favorite athlete across any sport, and to be honest, he had the credentials on the hardwood worthy of such an honor. To me, he was a winner. The guy who would grind opponents into mental submission before ripping out their heart with a clutch 3 or drive to the hole.
That sneer. That glare. “Black Mamba” Kobe Bryant had that “it” factor. And now he’s gone.
— Adam Krebs is a reporter for the Times. He’s putting money on the Lakers winning the NBA title, even though Giannis and the Bucks have the best record. Also, fear not, there are less than two weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Adam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.