Kobe Bryant’s legendary life wasn’t supposed to end in a nightmare

by | Jan 27, 2020 | Sports, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Man is not built to fly. Some still do.

Kobe Bryant did. He flew through the air of  suburban Philadelphia basketball courts and he flew over college altogether and landed in the NBA as a 17-year-old, where he flew through defenders, flew through the record books, flew through the hero worship and the criticism, flew through the worst kind of controversy, flew through 20 seasons with the same L.A. Lakers team, and, when his body could no longer handle those heights, he flew into retirement and a new life as a storyteller, for which, before his 40th birthday, he had already collected an Academy Award.

Kobe Bryant flew through life. But even seasoned pilots warn that the air is not benevolent. As Sunday unfolded in a foggy Southern California, morning, Bryant, 41, was flying again, this time inside a helicopter with eight other people. One of them was his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. They were reportedly heading for a youth basketball game where she was to play and he was to coach.

They never landed.

Kobe Bryant is dead. His daughter is dead. The other passengers and pilots in that helicopter are dead, after it crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California, starting a brushfire. As of this writing, no one is saying exactly what went wrong.

The media is thick with tweeted tributes to Bryant from celebrities and NBA stars. The sports channels are rerunning every amazing, gravity-defying, eye-blinking move that Kobe made en route to five NBA championship rings.

But none of it feels appropriate. It all feels too …


Different sides of Kobe

This feels less a time for tribute than for tragedy. A father and daughter have been cut down far too young, leaving behind three sisters — one a newborn — and a heartbroken wife and mother. The other passengers leave behind shocked and grieving loved ones as well.

It doesn’t seem the moment to assemble a basketball player’s accomplishments and hang them on the national clothes line for an assessment of his place in history.

But that is what we do in this business, and so suffice it to say that Kobe Bryant will certainly go down as one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball, a man who took more than 30,000 NBA shots and made a crazy amount of them, a man who played with indefatigable joy in his early years and grizzly aggression in his later ones, a man who was doggedly determined at everything he did, including coming back from injury.

He led the Lakers to five championships and some say he blocked the Lakers from a few championships as well.  He was a fantastic guy to have on your team and yet not always a fantastic teammate. He had an ego big enough to invent a nickname like Black Mamba, yet a brain that burned a laser through the toughest defenses. He was bright and analytical and was convinced he could do anything, and he often did.

And yes, he certainly had his failings, the most noted of which was a sexual assault charge in a Colorado hotel by a woman he had just met minutes before their physical encounter. Now is not the time to rehash that, but it is undeniable that under other circumstances and at another time — like these days of #MeToo — that incident may have defined Bryant far more than his basketball.

But it was a different time and a victim who refused to testify, and like everything else, it seems now to be overwhelmed by the unshakable image of that early morning hillside and a trail of smoke and tears.

Kobe wasn’t immortal

Detroiters may remember Bryant best in defeat, a rare defeat, when the 2004 Pistons shocked the heavily favored Lakers and won the NBA Finals in five games, the last of which shook the Palace to its core. Only in Game 2, at the Staples Center, did Bryant hit a dagger of a shot to send the game to overtime and the sole L.A. victory.

Meanwhile, Bryant told a Los Angeles newspaper a few years ago that one of his favorite career moments came in Detroit, when, during a conversation between the captains, a Pistons player snuck in, even though he wasn’t a captain. According to Bryant’s account, the player said, “I just wanted to shake (Kobe’s) hand.”

Added Bryant: “I just saw the hand come from around Andre Drummond, and I shook it.”

Bryant liked his place in the game. He liked it when he was the young buck, and he liked when he was the elder statesman. He was thoughtful, reflective, sometimes even meandering in his interviews, but always with an intelligence and worldview that came from growing up partly in a foreign country (Italy) and being an international ambassador of the game.

He once scored 81 points in a game. And in his final performance as a Laker, he dropped 60 on the Utah Jazz. Sixty in your finale? I don’t care if they’re feeding you every pass. Scoring 60 points at age 37 … is damn amazing.

And Kobe Bryant was amazing.

He just wasn’t immortal.

Famous people sometimes ponder what the first paragraph of their obituary will feature. Kobe Bryant’s should have come 40 or 50 years from now, and should have contained a great deal about his life’s accomplishments. 

Instead that obituary now contains as much of how shockingly he died as how he lived, and that is a shame. There are no words for a man who loses his life and his daughter at the same time. No bucket of sadness could hold all those tears. There may be debate over how or why people need helicopters to get to places others drive to, but this is not the time for that.

This is the time to look stunned at the frailty of life and the unflinching grab of death, even when the subjects are so young and strong and blessed and, well, unlikely.

A.E. Houseman’s haunting poem “To An Athlete Dying Young’’ starts this way: 

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Now, Kobe Bryant and his daughter will go home a different way. It’s the wrong way. The tragic way.

Kobe was once asked by the media to reflect on his 20 years in the NBA. This is how he answered:

“How many kids can say growing up that they’ll turn pro and play for their favorite team in the world and spend their entire career there? It’s been a dream.”

And now it feels like a nightmare.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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