Los Angeles Lakers and NBA legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. He was 41 years old. We’ve all gone our entire lives attaching words to athletes, talking about them at work, at home, with friends and colleagues and strangers on social media, only to come to a moment where words cease to exist.
The collective shock that is currently running through not just the NBA community or the sports landscape at large, but the entire world, will not end soon. It might never fully end. Kobe Bryant was that big. The kind of global, iconic figure that transcended our fascination with sports and celebrities in etching his legacy into the cultural time capsule of a generation.
The reports that Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was also on board and is one of the nine deceased takes this tragedy to an even more unspeakable level. It is heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. Sickening. It is all of that mixed up in a swirl of emotions and so much more, and somehow we’re left with the impossible task of trying to remember, and accurately frame, the impact and career of a father, a husband and a son who happened to be one of the greatest basketball players to ever walk the planet.
“It’s a gut punch,” one league exec told CBS Sports in the wake of the Bryant news. “It just hit so hard that it doesn’t matter who you are, you better appreciate life as a gift. I worked with Kobe before I was in the NBA and then coached against him for years. Kobe touched so many lives. There will definitely be an unmatched outcry from our [NBA] players.”
First and foremost, Bryant, who played his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, was a five-time NBA champion, winning three consecutive titles alongside Shaquille O’Neal from 2000-2002 and then back-to-back titles again in 2009 and 2010. Everything that Bryant stood for as an athlete began and ended with winning. He was a maniacal competitor with an obsessive work ethic. Championships were his singular focus and thus only true athletic barometer.
Beyond that, Bryant is fourth all-time on the NBA career scoring list with 33,643 total points, having just been passed by LeBron James on Saturday night. Bryant was an 18-time All-Star while being selected to the All-NBA first team 11 times. He was a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a two-time scoring champion and a one-time league MVP in 2008. Far from just a scorer, Kobe was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive team 12 times. He won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012.
On the Lakers’ all-time list, Bryant ranks first in games played, points, 3-pointers, free throws and steals, second in assists, third in rebounds and fifth in blocks. He is the only player in NBA history to have two numbers retired on one team, having worn No. 8 for the first half of his career and No. 24 for the final 10 years, winning multiple championships in each. His 81-point game vs. Toronto in 2006 is the second-highest output in a single game in NBA history, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962. The 60 points that Bryant scored in his final game is also an NBA record.
You look at all these historic numbers, these achievements and accolades that will forever serve as the obligatory bullet points of an extraordinary career, and somehow they still fail to capture Kobe’s greatness. He was one of those players you had to see. The look in his eyes when he saw a mark in front of him. The Black Mamba. A basketball assassin of the rarest breed. A central figure in the NBA’s global explosion, a mentor and hero to so many of today’s NBA stars and children and people around the world.
Bryant’s career was not without controversy. In 2003 he was accused of sexual assault by a hotel employee in Edwards, Colorado. The criminal charges were ultimately dropped, with Bryant going on to settle a civil suit.
The accusation did little to diminish Bryant’s popularity, and as the years went on, his charitable contributions and many business accomplishments served to rewrite a large part of his off-court legacy. In 2018, Bryant won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short for his six-minute film titled “Dear Basketball.” He published a book — The Mamba Mentality: How I Play — in 2018. In 2007, Bryant founded the Kobe Bryant Basketball Academy to train and mentor young athletes.
The academy was merely the tip of a gigantic iceberg in terms of the influence Kobe had, and will continue to have, on the game of basketball. We throw around the word “legend” quite a lot these days. Kobe Bryant was, and always will be, a legend. You can feel it in the reactions on Sunday. People around the world are devastated. Players are crying. The emotions are running deep for those that knew him and those that respected or supported him.
You cannot replace a Kobe Bryant. You certainly can’t replace a child or a father. My five-year-old daughter is sitting next to me watching her iPad as I write this, and I keep thinking about her innocence, and the simple fact that my being here, for the moment, keeps that intact. Bryant’s family was shattered on Sunday. Utterly shattered. They will mourn and grieve this loss forever.
It just so happens that the entire basketball world will, too.