In loving memory of my eternal hero, Kobe Bean Bryant, a complicated man who meant many different things to many people. I’d like to share how he impacted my life.
I was 21 when I received a call from the Lakers — the Los Angeles Lakers — letting me know I had been chosen as an intern in their digital department for the upcoming season. I remember running around my tiny studio apartment at USC immediately after, screaming in jubilation just like I had when I used to stage “parades” around my suburban Orange County neighborhood following the Lakers’ early 2000s championship victories. The stars had aligned in my favor. I was going to meet my hero. I was going to be a Laker, just like him.
When someone asks me to name the quality I most admire in a human being — parent, friend or partner — I tell them without hesitation: loyalty. This singular trait provides the foundation for security in times both good and bad. For the past 24 years, security is exactly what Kobe Bryant provided in my life. He was consistent. He was entertaining. He was imperfect. He was human. He was family.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Kobe Bryant played a prominent role in almost all of my major life events spanning the past two-plus decades. Certainly, the most joyous ones anyway. Under his inspiration, I morphed from a hyper-skinny 10-year-old — whose natural love for basketball was initially rooted in a desire to better fit in with the boys in my grade — to a respected Lakers die-hard. Only long-time Southern California natives will truly understand the intertwining nature of our collective paths.
Kobe was only 17 when he first joined the team. He was our childhood, our adolescence, and then our adulthood. We grew and changed together; Kobe’s evolution from boy to man just happened under brighter lights.
We shared enough memories inside of STAPLES Center to last a lifetime: my ultimate dream — watching the Lakers win the 2010 NBA Championship against the hated Celtics in a Game 7 that required my sister to move Heaven and Earth to get us in the door last-minute; Kobe’s lone MVP award in 2008 (the season I worked for the team); that awe-inspiring night in 2005 when Kobe single-handedly outscored the Mavericks 62-61 through three quarters; too many random Tuesday night games to count when the only thing I looked forward to while working all day was the prospect of seeing my hero do something magical that evening.
Of course, Kobe was so much more than just my sports idol; he served as a compass of sorts during each of the stops on our shared journeys. Kobe was my entry point for joining a community of Lakers supporters, whose unwavering support for our team transcends all rationale. Meanwhile, Kobe’s unmatched competitive fire is so thoroughly ingrained in my psyche that it’s a small wonder that I’m still invited to friends’ game nights. His legendary work ethic — the Mamba Mentality — is a master class in determination, perseverance and attention to detail that I apply to my professional goals every day.
I wish I remembered the first time we interacted in person during my season working for the team; I must have blacked out from sheer exhilaration. But over the course of that 82-game season and unexpected NBA Finals run, I had the privilege of chronicling his every step for the Lakers’ official website. I was alone in a trainer’s room with Kobe and Pau Gasol shortly after the team had traded for the former Grizzlies center. With my recorder on, I asked Pau to describe the biggest difference so far between Memphis and L.A. Before he could get his first words out, Kobe interjected in classic fashion: “We don’t suck.” Kobe always knew what to do — and what to say — depending on his audience. Without this guide, I momentarily feel a bit lost in this big world.
I’m as confused as anyone by the randomness of life that took my hero, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others from this Earth far too soon Sunday. But I feel anything but alone. I’m surrounded by a community of millions of fellow grieving fans across the globe. I have dear friends who understand without explanation why this seemingly aloof, flawed celebrity figure had such a profound impact on my life.
Dozens of these people have reached out to me over the past 36 hours to let me know that I was the first person they thought of when they heard the shocking news. Some were friends from childhood who still remember me as the same “Lakers Jeff” who adorned his car with purple and gold flags every playoff run; others were more recent friends with whom I’ve lost touch over the years. They all cared enough as humans to reach back out and make a connection, and for that, I am so thankful. Moments of community like this are the very best part of sports. No athlete in L.A. in the past 24 years provided us with more shared memories than the Black Mamba.
I spent Sunday with the blinds closed, glued to my couch, staring desperately at my TV and phone screens somehow hoping for positive news that I knew wasn’t going to come. On Monday night, I watched a replay of Kobe’s legendary final game on April 13, 2016. Even though I was lucky enough to be in the building — and have practically memorized the YouTube highlights down to the second in the four years since — I still rooted for every made shot as if I were experiencing that surreal night for the first time. My heart especially hurt every time the camera panned to Kobe’s family, including his late daughter, Gigi, who was clearly awestruck by her Dad’s final on-court accomplishment.
The game “ended” and reality has set back in. I’m now 34-year-old yet still just beginning my life, while Kobe’s is tragically over. His immortal words that night to his adoring fans live on forever, though: “We’ve been through our ups, and we’ve been through our downs. I think the most important part is that we all stayed together throughout.”
RIP, Kobe Bean. Let’s all continue to heal together in your honor.