Kobe: Unique icon for a generation
Gone so soon. So way, way too soon.
I'm sure I'm like most of you on this Sunday. In disbelief.
Bryant and 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning in Calabasas, California. He was 41.
Brian Shaw, a former teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers, said through tears on NBA TV that it's important Kobe's fans and all who mourn him call up their memories and not let them go.
Right now, even that is hard to do. I'm finding it painful to look at the photos, the images, the footage, knowing that they now are all we have left.
Kerry Eggers' column on Kobe Bryant's appearance in Portland during his final season as a player.
As someone who got to meet him and observe him while covering his early battles with the Trail Blazers, the memories are unforgettable, though.
Portland fans understandably were not always fond of him. That's putting it mildly. Kobe was a thorn in the side of the Blazers seemingly from the minute the Lakers and then-general manager Jerry West were able to make the trade that enabled them to pluck the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft from the Charlotte Hornets.
Bryant was young — 17 going into that draft — and that was just one thing that made him unusual. He had all the skills and potential as well, though it naturally took him awhile to get his game to what would be such an amazing and elite level.
He would soon be one of the world's biggest stars, but my first and somewhat favorite memories are him from the 1996 summer league in Southern California, and of seeing a rather ordinary-looking Kobe as he walked out of the hotel all by himself. No fans were around him and no one even appeared to be much aware of him as he would stroll to a nearby restaurant for some takeout food to bring back to his room.
Those kinds of quiet moments I'm sure soon would be impossible for him to duplicate.
Kobe always struck me as different from other players, even other NBA greats. I think part of that was of course just how tremendous he was and because of the immediate expectations and the demands on him. But also he was different because of his upbringing and his early life in Italy, where his father Joe "Jellybean" Bryant went to play after his years in the NBA. Kobe had international experiences and knowledge that served him well.
I'm not sure he was so much a loner as he was unique, and so intensely driven. He wasn't known, during his playing days, for doing much socializing or for being overly chummy with non-Lakers.
Initially, the 6-6 Bryant battled for playing time on a Lakers team that was talented and had capable other guards and small-forward scoring types in the likes of Eddie Jones, Rick Fox, Glen Rice and others.
He wasn't the Black Mamba yet. He was just starting to develop his fame and resume as he battled others around the league — Blazers included, as Portland was able to throw multiple guys at him who weren't too shabby, either (e.g., Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Bonzi Wells).
The indelible moments of Kobe for me are of the historic 2000 Western Conference finals — as the Kobe/Shaquille O'Neal Lakers coached by Phil Jackson fought off the best team money could buy, the Bob Whitsitt-built Blazers, in a seven-game heavyweight fight.
Kobe helped push the Lakers back with their famous, fourth-quarter blitz. You can see the dynasty emerge in the final minutes of that game, in video of Kobe, and with one minute left, as he penetrates into the key and throws that lob to Shaq for a dunk and a six-point lead. The L.A. fans erupt, and Shaq races to the bench with his mouth wide open, as if even he can't believe what they have just done.
The Lakers would go on to win the championship rather easily against the Indiana Pacers — who among Blazers fans doesn't believe Portland wouldn't have done the same?
Kobe would go on to win and win and win —five NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, 18 All-Star Games and four All-Star Game MVPs, 33,643 points, 7,047 rebounds, 6,306 assists, tough defense (nine times all-NBA), two Olympic gold medals and all the other awards and accolades.
As great and at times unstoppable as he was as a scorer, he should be remembered perhaps above all else as a winner. His desire and will to win were almost unmatched.
Just as impressive was what he did for the game as a superstar who filled the seats. Like many of the great ones, you either rooted for or against him — passionately. He didn't shy from that, he wasn't afraid to compete against anyone or anything — be it the legend of and comparisons to Michael Jordan, the opposing players and defenses geared to try to stop him, the haters … anything.
He also seemed to be a real stand-up guy. When he had to taste defeat, he simply worked harder and came back tougher. His toughness, especially mentally, stands out to me among all the NBA players I covered.
Of course any tragedy like this affects the others and other families. Among those reportedly killed was John Altobelli and his wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa. He was head baseball coach at Orange Coast College for the past 23 years and the father of J.J. Altobelli, who played for the Oregon Ducks and served as manager of the Portland Pickles. J.J. Altobelli is a scout for the Boston Red Sox. They are more than a footnote.
Undeniably, though, the loss of Kobe Bryant is an emotional blow to an entire generation. So many young people grew up with him as a literal TV star and as a leader in the NBA's era of huge expansion. My kids grew up watching Kobe. A game with Kobe, especially against the Trail Blazers, meant a night in front of the TV, and lots to talk about. Any game featuring or versus Kobe had a buzz and was a big event.
And he was just coming into his own as an ambassador for the sport, for all sport. With his ability to speak mutiple languages and with the way he studied the game and life itself, his insights and international stature will be terribly missed.
His death leaves an especially deep hole and ache for fans of women's basketball, in Corvallis and Eugene and everywhere, as he was an ardent supporter of the women's game and had befriended Oregon Ducks star Sabrina Ionescu and others.
Almost larger than life on the court, he had so much still to do off of it.
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