The last name never seemed to matter. He was Kobe. Just Kobe. That was all. Everyone knew the name and the game.
There was no reason to call him Bryant. He was Kobe — part superstar, part celebrity, part basketball brand, part giant, a player for the ages made for star-driven Los Angeles, the quintessential Laker, suddenly and shockingly dead at the age of 41.
He is gone and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, is gone and seven others have died in the helicopter crash that came on Wayne Gretzky’s birthday of all days.
January 26, 2020: A day we’ll never forget. A day that has frozen and stunned the world of sports. And because he was Kobe, basketball machine, man of attitude, sometimes singular, usually beyond great, Oscar award-winner of all things, he was about basketball and the NBA and more than just sports.
He was about celebrity life in what has become an NBA celebrity culture.
There aren’t many athletes who transcend their sports. Who are as big if not bigger than the games they play. It’s a relatively short list in the basketball world, of near-perfect athletes but not necessarily near-perfect people.
There is LeBron and Michael and Magic and Kobe and not many more than that. We can normally deal with the death of an athlete when it’s Muhammad Ali and he’s 74 and he’s suffered for years. We can deal with Gordie Howe passing away at 88 or Jean Beliveau at 83. Those are full lives lived and years of being held in reverence, years of appreciation and love.
This is closer to Roberto Clemente, from a different time, dying at 38, still active, dying from a plane crash on his way to do charity work in Venezuela, when he was just about the most beloved player in baseball, back when baseball was truly America’s pasttime.
There wasn’t much Kobe didn’t accomplish in and around the NBA. He was a five-time champion with the Lakers and that puts him in an exclusive place in modern-day sports. He won an MVP, played on the planet-changing Olympic Dream Team, had a ferocity about his game that was Jordanesque. And, in the modern era, he scored 81 points in a game, second all-time behind Wilt Chamberlain back when Wilt was of a different size and strength than everyone he played against.
Bryant was no giant physically. He was a giant in his talent and his mentality, He was a shooting guard: The 81 points scored against the Raptors, the most in modern NBA history, gave him a rare connection to Canada. It took a long time for Canada to warm up to professional basketball.
But Kobe was always a story unto himself, someone you couldn’t stop staring at, on the court, off the court, whatever it was he was doing.
Years ago, when Kobe seemed so distant a figure for Canadian sports fans, a name we knew, but not really know, cold and somewhat disliked, Cabral Richards — better known as Cabbie — and David Krikst, his segment producer and creator on two networks, somehow got close to Bryant. They formed a professional friendship of sorts.
Kobe opened up to Cabbie in a way he has opened up to few reporters in his career and by doing so, he not only displayed a soft and funny side of his character but by doing what he did, he brought instant credibility to Cabbie and personality to his name.
“I’m gutted, just devastated,” Richards said from his home in Las Vegas on Sunday barely maintaining his composure. Upon hearing the news of Kobe’s death, Richards broke down, had trouble gathering himself and decided to go to the gym to see if he get through the day.
“I was watching the Pro Bowl on a treadmill and I just broke down in tears. I’ve never felt this way before. I feel for his wife, for his family. Can you imagine going through this? I can’t.
“Kobe did more for me than any other athlete. You have to understand the timing. He had his just gone through his own personal difficulty and here comes this chubby stupid reporter from Toronto, asking to stay at his house and all I’m trying to do is make this guy laugh.
“And then he let me. And we went on limo rides, and then, this surrounds surreal today, we went on the helicopter with him. Can you believe that?
“Kobe always seemed invincible to me. That’s what makes this so impossible. There was never a scenario where you thought he would be gone. I can’t imagine the pain and the shock that Vanessa (his wife) and the girls are going through right now. I’m mourning for all of them.”
Kobe grew into himself over time, supporting women’s soccer, supporting women’s basketball, financing a sports drink company, coaching his daughters, welcoming LeBron James to the Lakers: He grew up before our eyes, really.
And now he’s gone, just like that, tragically and far too soon.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020