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Monday, January 27, 2020

Personal Reflections on the Life and Death of Kobe Bryant

Like many people, I am still in shock after hearing that Kobe Bryant died--along with eight others, including his 13 year old daughter Gianna--in a helicopter crash in California. Bryant retired from the NBA in 2016 as an old basketball player after a 20 year career--and he dropped the curtain on his final act as a player as only he could, scoring 60 points against the Utah franchise that once watched him fire up three airballs down the stretch in a playoff game--so it is easy to forget that Bryant was still a young man in real life.

Kobe Bryant died at 41. He should have had several decades of life in front of him and, after making one of the smoothest and most successful transitions ever from the basketball court to the wider world, every indication suggested that Bryant would be just as confident, driven and accomplished in his future endeavors as he had been as a basketball player.

As I gathered my thoughts to write this tribute, part of me did not want to post it at all, nursing a child-like hope that if I don't write about Bryant's death maybe it will not turn out to be real.

Thoughts, images and feelings overwhelmed me as the horrible news was confirmed as real, and as my mind slowly accepted the grim truth.

I thought of Mike Anders, my friend who died--along with his two passengers--seven years ago on his 58th birthday when his private plane that he was piloting crashed into a home in Florida.

I thought of Lenny Bruce, who died at 40, and what Dick Schaap--who later died at 67 after a botched hip replacement surgery--wrote of Bruce, whose comedy routines had been called obscene: "Dead. At forty. That's obscene." Schaap, the only person ever to serve as a voter for both the Heisman Trophy and the Tony Awards, inspired a short story that I wrote about Wilt Chamberlain and Bobby Fischer.

I thought of quoting Schaap's line about Lenny Bruce after Prince died four years ago at 57.

I thought of how Schaap, who admired athletes--and people--who displayed depth, versatility, and intelligence, would have made an insightful commentary piece after Bryant became the first NBA MVP to win an Oscar.

I thought about Bryant being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame posthumously just a few months from now. We will never hear Kobe Bryant's Hall of Fame induction speech. That is far from the biggest loss in this tragedy, but it is a loss, and it is certainly a shame that Bryant will not get to share that moment with his family. Would Bryant's speech have relived past grievances like Michael Jordan did? Would Bryant have been emotional? I think that Bryant would have talked more about his family, and his upcoming endeavors, than about the past, though I also think that he would have thanked his coaches--in particular, Phil Jackson and Tex Winter--and I think that he would have acknowledged Shaquille O'Neal, possibly with a combination of humor and seriousness.

All of those thoughts brought me full circle to the profound depths of this multi-pronged tragedy. This tragedy is fundamentally not a basketball story, even though this helicopter crash claimed the life of one of the members of pro basketball's Pantheon. Bryant's 13 year old daughter perished, so her sisters are now mourning both their father and their sibling. One aspect of this tragedy that I have not heard mentioned yet is that Joe Bryant and his wife Pam are burying their son and their granddaughter. A parent should never have to bury a child and a grandchild.

It is understandable but unfortunate that when a famous person dies alongside non-celebrities that the reporting of the situation mentions "others"--we learn that Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and "seven others" died, but those seven human beings are not "others" to their families, friends, colleagues, and co-workers: each of those people is unique and precious, and on a human level all of these lost lives are equally important.

The stories of all of the victims should be told and cherished.

From a personal standpoint, though, the only victim who I knew was Kobe Bryant, and this article is a personal reflection on my interactions with and writings about Kobe Bryant.

I have written many articles about Kobe Bryant, because during a significant amount of the time that I actively covered the league he was the NBA's best player. Long-time readers know that my favorite player of all-time is Julius Erving, my childhood hero; I will never enjoy watching a basketball player as much as I enjoyed watching Julius Erving. Erving retired when I was 15, just before Scottie Pippen's rookie season. Pippen reminded me of Erving in many ways, and he was my favorite NBA player throughout his career, and--along with Pete Maravich--is behind only Erving on my personal all-time favorite list.

Erving is old enough to be my father, while Pippen is about six years older than I am. Bryant entered the NBA straight out of high school when I was already a college graduate in my mid-twenties. My default tendency with young players is to assume that they are overly-hyped by the media and will not be great; the reality is that most NBA players will not be great. I was skeptical of Bryant at first, but one moment that suggested to me that he had a chance to be great is a moment that many others viewed as a failure and a sign of hubris: the infamous playoff game versus Utah when Bryant shot three airballs. What I noticed were not the missed shots but rather (1) Bryant was very clearly the only Laker who wanted to take those pressure shots and (2) Bryant did not seem the slightest bit fazed by the misses. He truly expected to make every shot that he took. This was not hubris, but confidence earned by hours of work on the practice court.

When Pippen and Bryant faced each other in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, I rooted for Pippen. Over time, my respect and admiration for Bryant grew, and I also noticed that--in his own way--Bryant was underrated and unappreciated, much as Pippen and even Erving to some extent were also not fully valued. Still, for me the process of following players and teams well into my adulthood was a different rooting experience than the one I felt for Erving and for Pippen when I was a child or teenager choosing a favorite player.

When I first interviewed Erving, that was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. When I first interviewed Pippen, it was an opportunity to speak with one of my favorite players about several different subjects. When I first interviewed Bryant, it was a chance to talk with the NBA's best player in his prime.

During one of those Bryant interviews, I spoke with him about those Utah airballs. The exchange began when another media member asked Bryant about an argument that his teammates Lamar Odom and Sasha Vujacic had during the Lakers' loss to the Pacers:
Bryant replied, "There's nothing you can do about it. That's what I was telling them. It was almost comical. There's nothing you can do about shouting and yelling. If my wife is mad because I didn't put the toilet seat down, what am I going to do? I have to put it down the next time. What are you going to do? You can't sit there and bark my head off. I didn't put it down; I'll put it down the next time. Right? You've got to move on. You've got to forget about it and move on to the next play. Especially as a guard, you have to be able to detach yourself from the game somewhat. Sasha cares so much about trying to do the right thing that he gets too wrapped up into the game emotionally. He's got to be able to step back from that and be more calm...In this type of offense you really have to learn how to be fluid and really separate yourself from the game. That is one of Phil's big teaching points. You can't go out there and play so emotionally that you kind of lose your way."

Vujacic is still learning how to do this, Bryant added: "It's a challenge for him. It's just like learning how to handle the ball or learning how to shoot. It's part of the game. Phil is a master of teaching that and once he (Vujacic) understands how to separate himself emotionally I think that things will sharpen up for him, because then it becomes inconsequential whether you have a turnover or you get fouled or you miss a shot. You just forget about it and move on to the next play."

By this point, it was getting late and the other media members left, so I was the last one remaining as Bryant headed out of the locker room and toward the team bus. I mentioned to him that he always has had the kind of focus that Vujacic is still trying to develop--bad plays never seemed to dissuade Bryant, even as a young player. I said to him, "Other players never learn that (how to focus) or it takes them a lot longer." Bryant replied, "I was a big Bruce Lee fan growing up. Watching him and analyzing him, listening to his philosophies kind of carried with me. Once I came into the NBA and once Phil came on board, he has a similar philosophy--you can't top it."

The classic early example of Bryant's confidence and unflappability, of course, is the three air balls that he shot against the Utah Jazz in a playoff game. I told Bryant, "I'll never forget that game because a lot of people were saying, 'What is that guy doing? He's the youngest guy on the team and he keeps shooting these airballs.' I said at the time, 'No, he's going to be a great player because he keeps thinking he's going to make it. Eventually, he's going to be making them.'"

Bryant laughed as he recalled that snapshot from his early struggles and said, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice."
I did not interact directly with Bryant nearly as much as many other media members who covered the L.A. Lakers on a daily basis, or who regularly worked the national NBA beat--but I interviewed Bryant on multiple occasions in Cleveland, in Indianapolis, and at various NBA All-Star weekend media availability sessions. As an interview subject, I always found him to be intelligent and direct.

I first met Bryant in Denver during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend. Here are some excerpts from one of his 2005 All-Star media availability sessions:
Is it as much of a challenge to fight for the final playoff spot as it was to fight for the championship?

KB: The challenges are in essence the same. Once you get to the top, the hard work becomes staying on top. But you have to work to get there. Sometimes it is really, really tough to get over that hump. You saw Minnesota last year was able to get over that hump and this year it is a struggle for them. It is a work in progress. You always have to be on edge. You always have to take every practice, every game, like it is your last.

It's tough. If we weren't so optimistic, we'd think that the second half of the season is going to be the absolute pits. But we look forward to this challenge. When your back is against the wall, you have no other option but to come out swinging. We have to approach every practice in an extremely detailed and extremely methodical manner.

Your team is increasingly using a little more of the triangle all the time. How do you feel about the constitution of this team to run the triangle?

KB: We're doing a good job. It's tough because we're trying to learn it on the fly. You know how hard it is to learn it when you have training camp. We're doing a good job, though. Got a call from Tex (Winter) and he told us that we're doing well. That's the biggest compliment in the world, when you get a compliment from Tex. Tex is such a great basketball mind. When he gives you a compliment it really warms up your heart.

Do you ever call him?

KB: He came down early in the season and then he came again recently, maybe it was two and a half weeks ago. We exchanged numbers. I've called him several times since then. I love Tex. If it weren't for Tex, I wouldn't look at the game or interpret the game the way that I do. The way that he teaches the game is different than any other coach that I've ever been around.

What specifically is different about it?

KB: He looks at the game in a different way. He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums. He looks at the total concept of the game and then plays it like chess. It's amazing to sit there and learn. When he teaches you something, you go out on the court and you apply that knowledge and it actually works. You start looking at him like he's Yoda.

A Jedi master.

KB: I'm telling you, it's just incredible.

Tex has always had testy exchanges with the people he's coached. When you had your testy exchanges with him people didn't quite understand that. Why is that?

KB: I don't know. It doesn't really matter what they think. It's obvious to see that when we had those exchanges, people just really blew it out of proportion. If it were true (that there is friction), Tex and I would not be as close as we are today

So the press somehow got that distorted?

KB: Yeah, it usually shakes out that way. The truth always comes out, so I don't worry about it. I don't think about it. It's going to shake out. People who talk about me in a negative manner don't know me. They don't know me. If they had a chance to be around me and kick it with me and get to know me, then they can judge. I think that will come out as years go by. People will see how I truly am and what I'm truly about and everything will be all right.
I covered six NBA All-Star Games (2005-10), including two of the four when Bryant won or shared the All-Star Game MVP (2007, 2009). What I remember most about Bryant's All-Star Game performances--both the ones that I attended, and the ones that I watched on TV--is that his intensity level was generally at least one notch above that of most of the other players.

Bryant considered NBA championships--not MVPs, not scoring titles, not individual statistics--to be the ultimate goal and the ultimate measuring stick. He won five NBA titles (2000-02, 09-10) and two Finals MVPs (2009-10). My extensive, detailed coverage of Bryant's post-2006 playoff runs is easy to find by searching this site. Bryant shined in the postseason, unlike many stars/so-called stars whose games noticeably regress when the lights are the brightest. The reason for this is that Bryant had no skill set weaknesses. Tim Legler spoke on Sirius XM NBA Radio shortly after Bryant's death, and Legler said that Bryant had the best fundamentals and footwork of any player he has ever seen.

Bryant also won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. He was the driving force for the 2008 "Redeem Team" that reasserted America's preeminent ranking in FIBA basketball after Team USA had suffered several embarrassing losses (sans Bryant) in FIBA competitions.

Bryant's pain tolerance, work ethic, and toughness are legendary. He drained two free throws after rupturing his Achilles. You were never going to see Bryant hustled off of the court in a wheelchair only to "miraculously" appear back on the court a few minutes later. Bryant kept playing in the 2012 All-Star Game after a blow from Dwyane Wade broke Bryant's nose and gave Bryant a mild concussion. Bryant recently voiced his objection to the whole "load management" trend; much like Michael Jordan, Bryant took great pride in bringing his best effort every game.

After Bryant announced his retirement, I posted a lengthy retrospective on his career, packed with article excerpts and links: Looking Back on the Kobe Bryant Era.

I just watched SportsCenter's memorial tribute to Kobe Bryant. Delaying the posting of this article will not change the sad reality. It was an honor and a privilege to cover Kobe Bryant, to have the opportunity to speak with him, and to attempt to correct false media narratives about Bryant's game. I feel the weight of tremendous sadness for the second act of Bryant's life that will go incomplete, for his daughter who will never reach adulthood, and for all of the family members of all of the victims who are left to ponder the sheer, inexplicable senselessness of their sudden loss.

For some people, it takes a tragedy to help them appreciate life and their loved ones. I can honestly say that I have always cherished every moment with my precious daughter Rachel, and despite trials and tribulations she and I continue to cherish every moment. Fatherhood has brought out the best in me, and it seems that this was also true for Bryant. I ache for his loss at not being able to finish raising his daughters, and at their loss of being deprived of being raised by him.

This weekend, I expected to write an article about LeBron James passing Kobe Bryant on pro basketball's career scoring list. I never imagined that the weekend would end like this. Even as I prepare to click "publish," this does not seem real. I wish it were just one of those intense, realistic nightmares that even after you wake up still seem like half memory and half dream.

Life is cruel, but also beautiful.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM