I met Kobe Bryant once.
I was 12 years old, on a trip to Los Angeles with my dad and my sister. We spent a night walking around Venice, and wandered into a Barnes and Noble because my dad wanted to buy John Lewis’ new memoir. It was late enough that the store was about to close, late enough that it was essentially empty. We were at the cash register; that’s when I turned around and saw him.
Tall. Taller than impossibility, with an afro that made him taller. He was wearing sweatpants and an Adidas shirt and he looked like something I was imagining. The year was 1998; Kobe Bryant was a few weeks removed from being swept by Utah in the Western Conference finals. He was only 19 years old, averaging 26 minutes a game off the bench for the Lakers and averaging 15 points a game. Unspectacular numbers, but it was clear he was going to be a star.
I turned around to my dad and sister and tried to whisper to them that he was behind us, but the whispers were more like muffled screams that bounced off every book cover in that empty store. I turned around again. This time, Kobe was laughing at me.
“Hey, kid,” he said, “you really need to get a different sweatshirt.”
I looked down. I was wearing a big-ass Nike sweatshirt and Kobe was a newly minted Adidas star. I don’t remember what else we talked about, but I remember he talked to me. Like, really talked to me, when he didn’t have to. My dad to this day says he’d always respect Kobe for that night — and for another reason, too. “Any 19-year-old kid with his life, buying a book at that time of night, has to be a good guy” he’d always say. I left Barnes and Noble trying to understand the fact I’d just met the next Jordan.
I think back to that night often. I wonder what book Kobe was buying. What piqued his curiosity that night so badly that he had to get to a bookstore right then and there? If I ever ran into him again, I thought, I’d ask him. He probably wouldn’t remember, but I’d ask anyway. What was he missing that night? What was he searching for?
As I write this, it’s been seven hours since I learned that I’ll never be able to ask Kobe about that book. A man who spent so much of his life floating above the rest of us came crashing down to Earth in a fatal helicopter crash on Sunday morning in L.A. What he leaves behind is a legacy of greatness on the court, and a wave of complicated emotions and conflicting feelings.
There’s a cruel irony in the fact that a sudden, inexplicable tragedy took the life of a man who approached each basketball moment like there was no tomorrow.
I don’t think we can or should expect people to justify their raw reactions, especially in light of a shocking death. Whatever our first emotions are are probably right; whatever furniture we’ve tossed around in our guts, in our minds, we can put back in place later. So while my first emotion was to think about how lucky I was to meet Kobe for even a fleeting moment, and much of the rest of the world’s initial reaction is sadness and loss, there are others whose responses are tied to the demons of Kobe’s past — and their feelings are valid as well.
Make no mistake: We can’t talk about Kobe without reckoning with why we forgave him for those sins, or why we never held them against him in the first place. Looking frankly at ourselves, at those reasons, is going to break things inside of us. But those examinations shouldn’t share the same space as words eulogizing his daughter.
Gigi Bryant, who perished alongside Kobe in the crash, was a 13-year-old burgeoning basketball star in her own right, growing her own fan base and racking up online highlight videos on what seemed like a weekly basis. She seemed destined for the WNBA, and her greatness seemed to open something in her father. The Black Mamba had been a basketball recluse for most of his career: He didn’t care about anyone or anything, other than being better than everyone and everything. He alienated teammates, opponents, coaches, and even fans.
The apex of that phenomenon was the 2002 All-Star Game in Kobe’s hometown of Philadelphia. The Lakers had just beaten the 76ers in the finals, so the boos were inevitable, but Kobe didn’t care. He created a homecoming of his own making by treating the game like its own game seven; after half a quarter of his crashing the boards and playing tight defense, the other players looked like they’d given up in frustration. He won MVP, of course, while the crowd booed and his peers rolled their eyes. Kobe didn’t give a shit. He wanted to win, needed to, and he did. Everyone had to deal with it.
There’s a cruel irony in the fact that a sudden, inexplicable tragedy took the life of a man who approached each basketball moment like there was no tomorrow. A man who played like life wasn’t promised. A man who practiced like his chances would slip away before he was ready.
That Kobe everyone hated was still there before his death; you could see it when he talked basketball. He’s still a maniac. But when he talked about Gigi, he sounded like he was equally awed by and overcome with love for the young woman she was becoming. He beamed in ways we’d never seen. He was proud. He showed us a fatherly love that was beautiful to watch unfold. It’s fitting that of all the memes and internet that Kobe birthed — from counting to five, to him glancing over at the crowd, to two men willing to meet in Temecula to fight over him — the last and most viral of them is Kobe explaining basketball to Gigi. They’re courtside at a game and he’s breaking down some basketball mechanics. She’s nodding, absorbing the information, and then she finishes his sentence. Kobe takes a half-beat, smiles, and nods. She gets it. Pride bursts from his eyes.
We should have gotten to see more of those moments. Father and daughter should have lived to experience them. Instead, we have memories of a once-in-a-lifetime star and the unfulfilled dreams of a child who was bending space and time. We also have the horror that befell them in those last moments. The tag team, the two basketball savants on their way to share their mutual passion. The final seconds of their lives, the shared moment left to our imaginations and nightmares.
After I’d walked about 20 steps from that Barnes and Noble in 1998, I stopped in my tracks. I looked at my dad and sister. “I have to go back,” I said. “I have to get an autograph.”
I went back in the store, grabbed an ESPN magazine with Jason Kidd on the cover, and asked Kobe for an autograph. He obliged.
I’ve spent most of the day thinking about exactly that split-second decision. In that moment, I understood that life is fleeting. I knew I might never get a chance like that again. And one realization came to me like a bolt: The future may never come. Tomorrow is an act of faith.
Like a basketball leaving our fingertips.