LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant is gone, and no, it does not feel real.
How can it? Only several weeks ago I saw him walk onto the Staples Center floor as a spectator, his daughter Gianna with him, the vibrancy and depth of the man on full and fascinating display. Yet they are both gone, and Kobe Bryant now becomes a memory of the many things that made him one of the most dynamic human beings to ever turn his many talents to the game of basketball.
A memory of trophies and championships before that, of feuds and dark days, of greatness and games played that turned Kobe from high school kid into one of the game’s most celebrated stars.
A memory of talent and willpower forged into one dominating force.
A memory, as important as any other, of Kobe the father, and how, as it does, fatherhood changed him, or enhanced him, or did whatever real and deep love for a daughter does when it touches a complicated man.
On Sunday, theseemed too horrible to be true even after we knew that it was: Kobe had died in a helicopter crash that also took the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others as they reportedly headed to a youth basketball game, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
I have a daughter, too, and I find myself haunted by what I saw that night at Staples in November: Kobe, the basketball player and Los Angeles Lakers great, made so much more by the love he had for his little girl. Kobe was still Kobe — he slapped Dwight Howard’s head from behind, laughing as Dwight whipped around before bursting into laughter himself. But it was a few moments later, as Kobe and Gianna arrived at their floor seats, and the crowd erupted in applause, that won’t leave me: Kobe waving thank you, the love and adulation pouring down on him, and then the star glancing down at his daughter with a look only a father can understand.
Full of love. And pride. And wanting to share who you are with someone you both need to protect and grow to know in all the ways that a father must in order to better understand and love their children. It was so real, and it was the deepest look I’ve had beyond the Black Mamba and into Bryant the dad.
Kobe Bryant was a changed man, as we all are, in the love he had for his children. It added to the complications and the nuances that made him — and make him, still — the most beloved sports figure in Los Angeles history. It adds to the heartache and horror of what has happened.
To say Kobe Bryant is just a single thing is to miss the 50 others that shaped him. He was all of them — the father, the husband, the star, all the complications and warts and greatness wrapped together. But fatherhood framed something about him that, while probably always there, cast his greatness and impact into a different, deeper light.
He was a star. A father. A husband. An all-time great. A competitor. Black Mamba. He was a hot taker and shot maker and the greatest Laker to ever don the purple and gold. And, somehow in this brutal world, now a memory of those things, and more.
Yes, his dominance as a basketball player is the overwhelming way most knew and saw him, and for good reason. Kobe Bryant racked up five championships, he scored the fourth-most points in NBA history, he was the great last iso player who alone could put a team on his back and shoot their way to championships. He was dogged, he was obsessive, he was a cutthroat and wonderful winner on a scale rarely seen in professional sports.
All of this was the foundation for the way in which Kobe became a part of Los Angeles. He was, like this town, complicated. Obsessed with success but more than that burning ambition. Full of beauty and darkness. Able to turn a competitor into an enemy, and then turn around and find friendship and connection when the game had ended. A walking example that to see only one thing — in Kobe, the basketball skill, in L.A., its glitz — is to miss it and misunderstand it completely.
The NBA will mourn him for many days to come. But Los Angeles will feel this, and be shaped by it, until those who live here also become mere memories of their time in the City of Angels.
Now 700-plus words into this column, there are still not enough words, or the right ones, to honor, remember and speak of Kobe Bryant, or his death.
But I do know this: His excellence as a player, and his love for the game, was exceeded by his greatness as a father and the way all of it made him a part of Los Angeles that even death cannot end.
And that, hopefully, is enough to find some grace and light in one of the darkest days the NBA and Los Angeles have seen.