He came, he saw, he conquered. But, he didn’t do it alone, and he didn’t leave alone. The man who changed how we saw sports around the world
I don’t know how it happened, but, Island’s became the de-facto place for my buddy and I to go have some drinks and food while we watched sports. One day we just happened to go there because it was close by and it seemed like they had a decent bar. The fact that they had Hazlenut Rogue on tap earned them plenty of points for them in my book (as did the cute girls that worked there) and that it was never really crowded was nice. Drinking from a frosted mug while cold, frosted beer would run down the sides of the mug is one the finer things in life (good lawd, I’m getting hot and bothered just thinking about this). I think the fact that neither of us had any Spectrum (no relation) or pay-to-watch sports channels had a lot to do with what we watched. Being able to watch any of our favorite teams (whether it be the Lakers, Dodgers or any other pay-to-watch channel) play and have some sweet, sweet beer was a pretty good excuse we would use to watch games and drink up. And on one particular time I had gone to Islands to specifically watch a Laker game. It was 2016 and the year had been a rough one. At the time it had almost been six years since the Lakers had won a championship and in that time since 2010 the team had suffered through numerous setbacks. The constant roster changes, management blunders and injuries had decimated the Lakers to the point where they were almost unrecognizable. As Laker fans we were used to winning. Sure there might have been some ups and downs but this, this was different. That long stretch of failed opportunities left a lot of us on edge. While it was bad, especially for those years leading up to 2016, us Laker fans always hoped that the next year they would come out of their funk and start winning again. But, it was an announcement by Kobe Bryant on November 29 (2015) that would signal the nail in the coffin to the Lakers season. It was a long time coming, but it was something that many of us were not prepared to hear, it was Kobe announcing his retirement. That game that I was at Island’s to watch wasn’t a playoff game, let alone any game of the finals. This was Kobe Bryant’s last game in the NBA.
Those years leading up to this disastrous season were hard to watch. The Lakers, for as long as I can remember were not just one of the best teams in the NBA, but one of the best teams ever, in any sport. They were a team that committed itself to the art of winning and with a history of championships and legendary players they had proved to the world that they were a force to be reckoned with. At that time though those days felt like they were long gone. I’m a Raider fan, so, the feeling of doom and gloom have come naturally for me at this point. But, while it’s normal there (unfortunately), I never would have thought that I would see the Lakers go through those years of hardship. But, while things were bad, I never would have thought that I would see Kobe retire. I know that sounds kind of weird now, but, as I grow up, I don’t imagine that things will have to (eventually) end. It’s almost like seeing your parents as you grow up. My parents to me are like superheroes. They are able to accomplish anything and everything, and in a lot of ways, do it without having to make a big fuss of it. But, as I get older I have started to notice them get older and slower. They aren’t as agile or as quick as I remember, and even the slightest thing makes them ache in pain. To be honest, I’m having the same damn issues. WTF!? Getting old really sucks, but, it’s the one thing that we all eventually go through. So, when Kobe announced his retirement, as shocking to me as it was, I didn’t stop to think that the man had been playing for twenty(!) years. Yes folks, he had played most of his life in the NBA and in that time his body had broken down numerous times and he was a shell of what he was at his peak. This isn’t to say he still wasn’t a magnificent player, but man, he definitely wasn’t peak Kobe.
Kobe announced that it was time to retire at the end of a long and storied career at the end of 2015. He definitely knew that it was time to go. He already had a family that time and they were starting to grow up. It was pretty obvious that he was a family man (seeing his family cheer him on courtside at nearly every game is a pretty big indication), and I think he felt it was a good time to go. It didn’t help that his (and he mentioned this later on) that his body just wasn’t up to the task any more. We all hoped that he would lead the team to another championship, but, sadly that would never happen with Kobe on the roster. And on that sad night on April 13, 2016 we would watch Kobe’s last game as a Laker, NBA player and as a living icon. I’ll be honest, as much as a fan of Kobe that I am, I never imagined that I would have seen what I saw that night. I mean, holy shit, it was incredible. The man was 37 at the time and one of the older players in the league. It should have been an easy night for the man, and I think, if it was anyone else that would have been the case. But, Kobe isn’t just some other player, he’s the freaking Black Mamba. The Mamba doesn’t know how to quit and In that game he would go on to give it everything he had, and in nearly four full quarters of basketball, he would go on to put on a clinic for the Utah Jazz. Oh there were other players on the Lakers that night, but Kobe would almost single-handedly win that game on his own. He would bust out nearly every move, juke, shot, block and drive in his arsenal, and when it was all said and done, would post up a massive 60 points! The most messed up part of this was that the Houston Rockets would win a game just before this one and they would be eliminated from the playoffs. Just imagine, there was a chance that we actually could have seen them go to the playoffs. Who knows what would have happened then.
You could tell watching him play that night that he was leaving everything he had on the court that night. He was almost visibly gassed after every layup and tired after every whistle blew. But, he never gave up. He never let the pain get to him. It wasn’t over until it was over and it was awesome. That is who Kobe was and strived to be every day. It’s crazy to think just how amazing that performance was. But, it’s even crazier to think that this was after years of injuries that could have all, or any one individually, been career-ending. He came back from all of that, and in the end would put on a show for us in that last game as a Laker. Last night (at the time of me writing this) ESPN replayed Kobe’s last game in the NBA. It was a game that wasn’t particularly great for the Lakers, but you could tell that Kobe wanted to end this journey on his own terms. Within the last few minutes of the game, Kobe would not only help the Lakers catch to the Jazz, but, to pass them up. They would go on to win that game and you could tell that the crowd was just eating it up. With every second that passed you could hear the audience shouting his name. “Kobe! Kobe!Kobe!”, they would shout. All the while he would have next to no expression on his face. Although, there were a few moments where we would catch him smiling at his cheering family on the sideline. Everyone who watched that game knew that history was being made and they wanted to see how far it would go. Kobe would go on to score 60 points in the final game of his career. I know this is the second time I mention it, but, holy shit man, that in and of itself is a record for the most points scored by anyone’s last game. His last act just had to be another record right? Yeah, you bet your ass!
This game was the cherry on top of a lustrous career. Kobe has some of the greatest records and point totals of all players, ever. He’s won five NBA championships and numerous titles, records and acclaims. He is one of the most decorated players ever and one of the most storied. One of the more astonishing things about this feat is that he came into the NBA right out of high school. Unlike most players that cut their teeth in college, Kobe was so good that he was drafted 13th by the Hornets. Yeah, that’s right, Kobe wasn’t originally chosen by the Lakers, but, that didn’t stop Laker Legend Jerry West from having his say in the matter. In a trade that would go down as one of the best of all time the Lakers would end up getting Kobe on to their roster. Not bad for a kid who was just 17! I don’t know about all of you, but at 17 I will still picking my nose and hoping that I could pass my SAT. To think that the 1996 NBA draft would be that game changing is a bit of an understatement. And, in case you were wondering the 1st overall pick for that year was Allen Iverson. Yeah, how nuts is that? The guy that would one day lead the Philadelphia 76’ers to a championship against the Lakers came in at the same draft class as Kobe. And we all know how that turned out. The Lakers would end up winning that series in 5 games and would add to their three-peat legend.
In the time since he played that last game he would be known as one of the greatest players ever (in the NBA) and to have two numbers retired (a first for the Lakers). He would also go on to create a sports academy for kids called the Mamba Academy and be a part of numerous charities and events. And wouldn’t you believe that Kobe also won an Academy Award. Yeah, it’s true. He would win one with Glen Keane (legendary animator for Disney) for the Animated Short called “Dear Basketball”. If you’ve never had the chance to see it, you definitely owe it to your self to watch it. The animation is beautiful, the score (by legendary composer John Williams) is superb and the story (written by Kobe) is truly touching. It’s no wonder he won the Academy Award that year. A good story is meant to move you, and those four minutes of animation are some of the most touching I’ve ever seen. This animation would mean even more in the coming years.
It had been said that Kobe wanted to walk away from basketball and the scene that it was. Not because he was over it, but, because he had given the game that he loved everything he had and then some. I know that to do that, sometimes, giving everything you have in the pursuit of excellence means that you may not enjoy what you do as much as you imagined you would. Sometimes all of the struggles and practice can lead a person to want to give up. We can see a player like Kobe and think, wow, this guy can score from any where and on every drive, but, never think to imagine about all the countless times that he had to practice to make that shot. We forget that, all of the players in the NBA, no matter how crummy they may seem, are some of the best players in the entire world. To be right up there with some of the best players of all time is one of the rarest of achievements.
I remember being in Utah on my very first deployment being excited for my very first trip to Europe. It was the last night (of three) and we were at the local bar on base at Hill (Air Force Base). I was there with the flight crew throwing back a few brewskis and I was yakking it up with the flight commander. I was telling him how excited I was to be going to Europe. We were scheduled to fly out to Italy the next day and I was telling the commander that I was going to be the first person in my family to go to Europe and that I couldn’t contain my excitement. I’ll never forget what he told me next. He looked me dead in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ve been flying for a long time. I haven’t been excited to fly for a while. But, hearing you be excited about this is making me happy to go on this trip. We’re gonna get you to Europe and you’re going to have a good time.” I know I was probably slurring my words at the time and moving from side to side, but, man, hearing that made me think of that passion that is so easily lost. It’s easily to lose that passion if you don’t remember the reason that you got into it in the first place. I was glad that I was able to re-kindle that spark in that pilot and that we could go on and have a great trip.
Kobe, in a lot of ways was in a similar position to that pilot. He had been in the game for a long time and he probably wanted to step back (even if just slightly). But, it was obvious that the game wouldn’t let him get away that easily. If you’ve seen that move “Dear Basketball”, then you would know that the game was always on his mind. But, it would be one of his little ones that would re-kindle that love of basketball all over again. His oldest daughter Gianna would fall in love with the sport and would look up to her legendary father for guidance and direction. As she grew up and began to watch, study and play the game (in an organized league) she would lean on her dad to learn more about becoming a competitor. Every once in a while you would also see Kobe appear on the sidelines to any number of Laker (and other basketball) games with Gianna. He would watch the game through her eyes and would re-discover the passion all over again. When he was not coaching her team he was becoming more of a fixture in the basketball circuit. When the Lakers acquired LeBron James there was a sense of respect between the two players. LeBron is one of those guys that I hated, but, love now that he plays for our team. Call me a hypocrite, but, it’s always a different thing when the player, good, bad or even annoying to the other team plays for you. But, I enjoyed seeing Kobe and Gianna show some love for LeBron every time they showed up. Kobe was happy, and that was nearly every time we saw him.
So, when LeBron scored his 33, 644th(!) point to move in to third on the all-time points leaderboard (of the NBA) it wasn’t surprising that one of the first people to call him was Kobe. Kobe, for all of his faults wasn’t the same Kobe that we knew during his playing years. He wasn’t the brash, hard-knuckled player that would stop at nothing to achieve the win. He wasn’t the guy that wouldn’t hesitate to call out anyone, including his team mates about not putting in their share of the work. This was the next stage and Kobe was now the teacher. During that call Kobe would congratulate LeBron for besting him and encouraged him to continue his success in LA. After all those years of gloom and doom in LA, we were finally beginning to see LA be the way it should be. For the first time in a decade we had a winning team and the baton had been successfully been passed. But, that all changed very quickly.
I was excited when I woke up on Sunday (January 26th). The Fit Expo is one of my favorite shows of the year, and I was happily on my way to there. The show takes place at the Los Angeles Convention Center and is one of the bigger fitness shows of the year. It was about 11am when I headed out towards the event and, up until then everything seemed pretty normal. I was listening to the radio and switching between stations hoping to find something good to listen to. For some reason I stopped my searching and settled on The Wave (94.7 KTWV). The announcer began talking about something about him not believing what had just happened. He couldn’t believe that Kobe Bryant had just passed away. I was floored… I was driving and had to concentrate on the drive, but I can tell you that I was beyond shocked. My mouth was wide open and I’m pretty sure that people driving past me must have thought I was acting strange. It didn’t really register to me. I mean, the announcer was talking about, but it didn’t seem real. When I finally parked near the convention center (which just so happens to sit right next door to the Staples Center) I thought I would make my way there to find out.
I was a few streets down the Staples Center so I thought I would walk over there and see if there was any truth to the news. I hadn’t even crossed the street when I started to see people walking around wearing Laker jerseys. This isn’t anything new in LA, but, when you see people walking towards the Staples Center (on a day that isn’t a game day) in jerseys, and they are really shaking a leg to get there it makes one wonder. On my walk there I found a camera man standing outside of a sushi restaurant. There were a bunch of people all dressed up (in the morning, WTF!?) waiting to get into that restaurant. Maybe it was a restaurant grand opening or something. Whatever it was, it didn’t really matter. Seeing as how that camera man was a part of the press (I could tell by the badge he had) I thought I would ask him if the news I had heard was true. All I did was ask, “Hey man, is it true?” Without saying anything else he just looked at me, bit his lower lip and then said, “Yeah man. It’s true.” Holy smokes man, I couldn’t believe it. I felt a sinking feeling in my chest and then began to double time it to the Staples Center. With every street I passed I noticed more and more people flocking to the stadium. Once I got there I noticed that the streets were closed and that all access to the stadium was pretty much non-existent. I had forgotten that the Grammy’s were going on that night and that there was going to be a lot of activity there throughout the day. I walked over to LA Live (where it looked like everyone was going to) and then came across a memorial set-up for Kobe. It was at that moment that I knew it was true. I felt sick as I stood there and noticed that everyone there looked like I felt. There was a sense of shock and bewilderment in the air. How could this have happened, and maybe even more important, why did this happen?
I stood there at the memorial in shock. Still trying to process the whole thing. It was just so sudden. Just the other night I remember hearing that Kobe had called LeBron to congratulate him on his scoring achievement. Hell, that moment was even more special when LeBron told a story after that game about Kobe and what he meant to him. He told reporters a story about how had met Kobe when he was young and how he would gave him a pair of shoes. The shoes were smaller than his, but, because he respected Kobe so much he would go on to wear them at a game. It was a touching story then, but here we were less than a day after and it was bittersweet. I thought at the time how LeBron would react to the news. He and Kobe share a long history together, and ever since he had joined the Lakers it was nothing but respect and admiration that had been shared between the two. How would that be now? I don’t know. But, I definitely wondered.
There were a lot of people at the memorial that morning. Easily around a hundred or more, and every second that went by more and more people were showing up. I ended up leaving the memorial for a few hours to attend the Fit Expo but I would eventually come back in the late evening. This time around I would go see the memorial with my buddy Kevin and his girlfriend Jackie. We hadn’t even crossed the street (from the convention center) and it was obvious that there were a lot more people that had shown up since the morning. As we walked closer and closer to LA Live we would see more and more people and hear them yelling out Kobe’s name. We could tell that this wasn’t the small memorial that we thought it was. Oh no, this was something much, much bigger. When we finally got to LA Live we would wade through the ocean of people that were all there to pay their respects. Every where we looked there were people chanting, yelling, waving flags and even some crying. It was exciting to be there, yet sad to know know why. It was surreal and I think it is only with a person like Kobe that something like this would be possible. What, I wondered, was going to be the reaction on the news.
The moment I got home I turned on the news and learned more about what had happened. Kobe and his oldest daughter Gianna(Gigi) were on a helicopter with seven other people and they were on their way to his Mamba Academy. The Mamba Academy, if you didn’t know, is a place where men and women of all ages can train to be better athletes in a variety of sports. The Academy is located in Thousand Oaks. Kobe lived in Newport Beach, and while Thousand Oaks isn’t that far on a map, those of you that live in Southern Cali know that a drive like that can take hours. Apparently Kobe and his family used to make that drive so that they could make games that Gianna played in. But, Kobe wanted to spend more time with his family and decided that they should start taking a helicopter to cut down on the commute. While the details of the crash aren’t known yet, it’s safe to assume that this was a tragedy worse than what we all thought it was.On the day that he died he was not on the helicopter by himself, he was with his daughter and several other families.
Oh man. when I heard that I couldn’t believe it. If you had watched any NBA games this season there was a good chance that you would see Kobe sitting with his daughter at a game. You could tell the love that Kobe had for her was real, and it didn’t matter what was going on around him he was proud to have her sitting there with him. Those two together were one of the cutest father-daughter pairs I had ever seen. I have a friend that has a daughter right now and he loves her very much. The look that his daughter and he have is almost exactly like the one that Kobe and his daughter had.
I don’t have any kids myself so I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have the love of my child. But, then again, it doesn’t matter when you love someone. When you feel for someone there are emotions that link you and them together and it’s the most powerful force in the universe. I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t know Kobe. I never met him, nor did I ever even see him in person. But, when I heard he passed away, and knew that he passed with his daughter I couldn’t help but tear up. Losing someone is one of the hardest things that any of us will ever feel. The pain and suffering that Kobe’s family (as well as the others who perished) is something that I don’t envy and couldn’t even imagine. When I heard of Kobe and his daughter I thought instantly of my grandma and of my family. Losing any one of them would be a terrible day for me. I thought I was the only one that felt that way until I noticed that there were others that felt the same.
If this were any other celebrity I don’t know how I would feel. I have been surprised by some shocking deaths over the years (Selena, Michael Jackson and David Bowie being some of the ones that I can think of) but nothing like this. This was way different. When I was younger and up until the point that Kobe retired I really loved watching him play. There was a fire there that was unstoppable once it got going. He played like a man that was possessed by the devil, but, on a mission from above. He was unlike any player that I had seen and for the entire time he played that was the person that I knew. But, something changed when Kobe retired. When he stopped playing and began to take on several different ventures his whole demeanor changed. He wasn’t the overly cocky small forward (or shooting guard) that he always was. Oh no, it was almost as if he has a new man. This was never more obvious for me as it was when you saw him and Gigi at those games. I remember seeing a video of Kobe at a Dallas Mavericks game where he walked up to Luca Dončić to chat with him. The first thing he did after he walked up to him was to introduce his daughter. He was so proud of her that he wanted Luca to know who she was. If you had asked me 20, 15, hell, even 10 years ago that Kobe would make such a dramatic turn in his life I wouldn’t have thought it. But, the truth was, that deep down, he was human. And that is a lesson that we as fans, friends and even family learned the hard way.
In the days since Kobe’s passing the reaction around the world has been enormous. Kobe may have been known for being here in LA, but, what a lot of us fail to grasp is just how international Kobe was. He grew up in Italy and learned to speak Italian, Spanish and a whole host of other languages. He was a big fan of soccer and knew many of the biggest players on the planet personally. He was international before we even knew him, and his rise to fame would take that through the stratosphere. We wouldn’t fully know just how influential Kobe was until his passing. In the last few days we have heard from everyone from former team mates like Shaq, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, LeBron James, Lionel Messi, Christano Ronaldo, Neymar, Ice Cube and countless others. It wasn’t so much that he was an amazing basketball player (of which he was), but the fact that his charity work was so extensive. He touched so many peoples lives and in so many different ways that it’s hard to believe that someone could have such an impact.
Maybe that’s what separates Kobe from so many others. He was more than just an athlete, he was someone that drove himself to be the best that he could be. And along the way he showed all of us that it was okay for us to want to be better people. That it was okay to strive to be the best at what you do and to help others while doing it. That one should be grateful to others no matter how big or small, rich or poor they were. You know, when I was at the memorial there was a man and his daughter being interviewed. I don’t remember what station it was that was interviewing them but I couldn’t help but listen in. He was speaking in Spanish and his daugher (who looked around ten years old) was translating for him. The reporter had asked him what his connection was to Kobe. His response was a story about him being at the Staples Center for an event. He had seen Kobe walk past him and he called over to him in broken English asking him if he could get a picture with him. He said that Kobe came over to him and in perfect Spanish said, “Sure, let’s definitely take a picture together”. He shared the photo with the reporter and told us how happy that made him. He didn’t have to do it, but, that he made a point to do it. I’ve heard a lot more stories like that and I feel like we will continue to hear more like that in the future.
I could go on and on about who Kobe was, but, I think it’s better to think about who he still is. If a guy like that can care so much about others, even after he has accomplished more than many of us could in many lifetimes, then maybe there’s hope for us yet. All I know is that I regret never being able to meet the guy. I wish that our paths would have crossed. While that won’t be possible any more I am grateful that I have learned a few lessons from him over the years. Maybe though, the biggest lesson that he was to teach us was to remember and cherish the ones closest to us. That we shouldn’t leave this planet without leaving a legacy to be proud of.
Thank you Kobe. Thanks for the memories. I hope that you and Gigi rest in peace and keep on inspiring simple folks like myself and to the countless future generations that will never forget you. Take care buddy…..
If you weren’t already convinced that Kobe is one of the GOAT’s, then check out some of these stats. They are pretty incredible.
Words By Daniel Navarrete
Photos By their Kevin F and Jackie, as well as their respective owners. Additional photo edits by Daniel Navarrete
This article was prepared or accomplished by Daniel Navarrete in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spektrum Magazine, or its affiliates.