I started watching basketball when I was in fifth grade when I was asked to be the stat keeper for the sixth-grade basketball team. The problem was I didn’t know basketball.
So I sat myself in front of the TV, watching SportsCenter and whatever else I could find as I tried to understand that crazy game. This was 2008. The Bulls were bad, but there were two players taking over the highlight shows, and they were good enough to be known by just their first names: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
I followed LeBron for a couple years, but, like the bandwagon fan I was, I later changed allegiances to follow Kobe’s Los Angeles Lakers. I kept tabs on the rest of his career even though I finally settled on the Bulls as “my team” in high school when they became relevant again.
How could you not follow Kobe? He defined my generation. We didn’t have Michael Jordan — widely considered the greatest of all time. LeBron was becoming a name, but Kobe had long established himself as one. The swagger. The jumper. The “Mamba Mentality.” That was Kobe.
It’s why the news of his sudden death stopped me in my tracks.
He was one of nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Southern California Jan. 26, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Social media lit up with tributes to “The Black Mamba,” who was just 41 years old.
I sat still for 45 minutes before posting mine.
I couldn’t believe it. Hell, I still don’t believe it. The rest of the day felt like a bad dream and I was waiting to wake up. In fact, it still hasn’t fully set in.
I never got to see Michael play. In fact, I was born almost two months after his last title. It was Kobe who shaped my basketball fandom. He’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the game.
His legacy wasn’t perfect off the court — particularly when he was accused of sexual assault in 2003 and didn’t admit guilt — but he certainly left his mark on the court.
Watching him shoot those free throws on a torn achilles in 2013 is something I’ll never forget. Most players would’ve been carried off the court by that point.
Not Kobe. He shot those free throws — and made them — and walked off. Yes, he walked on a torn achilles. That was the “Mamba Mentality.”
I watched his final game in 2016. That was my senior year of high school, eight years after I first watched his highlights on SportsCenter. It made me sad knowing I’d never see Kobe on the court again.
Four years later, he’s gone. And we’re left mourning the loss of a giant.
He should have been in Springfield, Massachusetts in August giving his Hall of Fame speech. He should have been coaching Gianna and her basketball team. He should have been running his Mamba Academy and serving as a role model for the next generation of basketball players.
He was taken from us far too soon. That’s why this is so hard. It was so sudden — almost too sudden.
I wouldn’t be writing this column without Kobe Bryant. His stardom kept me interested in basketball. It was the second sport I’d ever fallen in love with, after baseball stole my heart in third grade.
When I realized I wasn’t good enough to play basketball, I turned to doing play-by-play before writing about it. Now, I write about the loss of one of my all-time favorite players. Does it make it any easier?
No. Not really.