BY Art Thiel 09:14PM 01/26/2020

Thiel: A Laker, but Bryant belonged to the world

Innovations combined with his incandescence made Kobe Bryant a star of the world, not just Los Angeles and the NBA. He was just getting started.

Kobe Bryant was due to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame in the fall./ Wiki Commons

After flying to Springfield, MA., to attend the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ceremonies in September for the induction of former Sonics center Jack Sikma, I was chatting up the driver of the airport shuttle.

“So what do you hear about the size the crowd expected here?” I said.

“Good,” he said, “but nothing like it will be next year.”

“Why?”

“Kobe. It’ll be nuts.”

So it would have been.

Incandescent, indomitable and international, Kobe Bryant belonged to the world. The world would have shown up to show out with him.

Even more so than his single hoops superior, Michael Jordan. Mostly because of how the world changed between their eras.

Bryant became a Lakers starter in 1998-99, the first of Jordan’s three years of his first retirement. It was also before the inventions of the smart phone, Facebook, Twitter and the NBA’s hyper-aggressive globalization of basketball. But as those innovations came on to change much of the world, they became platforms for Bryant’s innovation: A unique combination of stupendous talent, intellect, affability, looks and five NBA championships.

His five-second video highlights were instant gratification for a world increasingly eager for instant gratification.

The world got to know an American athlete as they never had — fluent in Italian and the ways of the world — playing a game almost everyone understood, on a team built for celebrity outlandishness. At the 2008 Summer Olympics, I bore witness to the fact that no athlete, aside from homie Yao Ming, drew more attention and adulation.

From Beijing to Cape Town to Forks, people dug Kobe Bryant.

Those among them who could afford to get to Springfield next September for the inevitable enshrinement into the hall likely would have made a wealthy guy out of my driver, if he were lucky enough to have a ceremony ticket to sell.

The world couldn’t get enough of Kobe Bryant. It will be a long time before the world gets over his death at 41.

The helicopter accident northwest of Los Angeles that killed the Lakers superstar, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others has yet to be explained. It will be important to know what happened, of course, but even when it is, his loss so young forever will be inexplicable.

Most everyone privileged to have watched him play has a moment that sticks.

I recall a meaningless Sonics game I attended at KeyArena in January 2008. The Sonics roster had been parted out and sold off, the Seattle franchise situation was growing more grim by the day, so I had no plans to write, merely to witness Bryant and the Lakers.

The Lakers would go on to win the Western Conference title, and lose the NBA Finals in six games to the Boston Celtics. But on this night the emaciated Sonics, who finished with a franchise-worst 20 wins and earned the right to draft Russell Westbrook, were, despite being in the middle of a 14-game losing streak, surprisingly up for the fight.

They forced the Lakers to overtime. Then Black Mamba took over. He scored the final six points of the game, including an 18-footer over rookie forward Jeff Green with 4.3 seconds left, for the game-winner.

In the 123-121 win, Bryant had a season-high 48 points on 21 of 44 shooting. Green was helpless against a hero he had watched for years.

“Tonight he made a lot of shots and made a lot of key shots when they counted,” Green told Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Gary Washburn. “You always want to try to be the one to stop him. But with a guy like Kobe, it’s hard.

“You dream about being that guy to check him, getting that stop to win the game. I tried my best to contest it, but it went in this time.”

Said Sonics rookie Kevin Durant: “That’s why he’s the best player in the world.”

“It was an ugly game for us,” Bryant said. “It was just one of those things where I wanted to be a lot more assertive.”

It wasn’t just one of those things. Bryant almost always has been assertive. Away from the court, sometimes it served him poorly.

In a 2018 story for the Washington Post, feature writer Kent Babb accompanied Bryant on a trip by helicopter from Orange County to Los Angeles, apparently the same route where tragedy struck Sunday. In the story, Babb recounted a well-chronicled episode of sexual assault in 2003 against Bryant that basketball fans want to forget, yet has come to haunt his new career as a producer of children’s animated films:

More than 15 years ago, he was accused of sexual assault by an employee of a Colorado resort; though charges were eventually dropped, a civil settlement was reached and the reverberations continue today.

When Bryant won an Oscar for his animated short, “Dear Basketball,” more than 17,000 people signed a petition asking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rescind it. Earlier this month, protesters forced Bryant’s removal from the jury of an animation festival.

Legacies of hugely successful people are rarely uncomplicated.

Besides trauma for the victim, it nearly cost Bryant his marriage to Vanessa. And now his wife and two daughters must bear the burden of his loss, and as well as that of Gianna, apparently a budding basketball star. The Los Angeles Times reported Bryant was scheduled to coach Sunday in her game at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, and was en route there when the helicopter crashed.

Among the seven other victims were John Altobelli, a well-regarded baseball coach at Orange Coast College for 27 years, his wife, Keri, and their 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who played on the club team with Bryant’s daughter.

All of the deaths are hard to grasp, especially the abrupt, random nature of the circumstances. The luminescence of Bryant’s career — including the number of lives he touched, locally and globally, in his second career as an author of children’s books and a filmmaker —  compounds the tragedy. He was just getting started, like his daughter.

Something Bryant once said is worthy of consideration.

“If I panic,” he said, “everyone else panics.”

Once he shock wears off, perhaps the sports world has even more reason to gather in Springfield this fall. Not to panic, but to celebrate a life that belonged to the world.


YourThoughts

  • Sebastian Moraga

    He was in Cashmere, Wash., two weeks ago, watching Gianna’s friend Hailey Van Lith play for CHS against Medical Lake. Devastating news to the CHS team today.

    • art thiel

      Did not know that, Sebastian. Thanks for letting us know.

  • 1coolguy

    He was a class act and it was during a period in the NBA when class acts were hard to come by.
    He always played hard every minute he was in, just like Payton, and was a joy to watch.

    • art thiel

      Bryant had many positive impacts great and small. He retired in 2016, so I’m not sure when class acts were or were not hard to come by. My experience is that there are a lot more players who share many of Kobe’s values than there are guys who make headlines doing dumb stuff. Good guys rarely make news doing good deeds. Then again, should headlines be necessary for doing he right things?

  • Kirkland

    Question for you, a journalist. A lot of people are mad at TMZ for breaking the story of Bryant’s death apparently before authorities could notify his family. What’s the accepted protocol among journalists about coming out with the news of a public figure if it’s before that person’s family hearing from the authorities? Thanks.

    • art thiel

      The accepted rule is to respect the request (not a law) of authorities to notify family first before publication. But it’s murkier when it comes to public figures, especially in case of accidents where there are witnesses. TMZ often pays witnesses for their accounts, which is a major violation of journalism ethics, and why TMZ isn’t considered journalism. Nevertheless, once TMZ posts to social media, word travels fast, and if it’s accurate, makes media outlets following the rules look either slow or appear to be hiding something.

      It’s awkward, but TMZ has a huge following because they have no guilt when it comes to bribing for information, some of which comes from police/hospital/coroner/EMT personnel, most of whom are underpaid relative to their value.

      • tor5

        Nice write-up about Kobe, Art. Thanks!
        Interesting points about TMZ. I suppose I’m old, but I don’t know why it matters if the news is delayed. It surely doesn’t matter at all relative to the feelings of family members. It’s a pretty stark example of putting profit ahead of common decency. And it’s weird because the “profit” in this case is just in being recognized as “the first,” a dubious honor to say the least. In fact, it’s ugly.

        • art thiel

          I would agree, and would always yield in favor of families’ rights.

          Being first is how lots of media outfits build reputations. But I wouldn’t want TMZ’s reputation when it comes to violations of decency.

  • Joe_Fan

    I’m on the fence about how I feel about Kobe. Great basketball player. Trying to be a good dad and human. Flawed person (as we all are) living with the legacy of his sexual assault. What a horrible tragedy for the Bryant family and the seven others on the helicopter. My condolences to all.

    • art thiel

      A lot of people are on the fence about Bryant. What he did to his victim can’t be erased, regardless of settlement. His work with and for young people has been commendable. He is like many of us.

    • Kirkland

      There’s a sensitive area between the #MeToo tenet of “I believe women” and the judicial principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. The only agreed upon fact of that night is that Bryant (admittedly) committed infidelity; after that, it’s only speculation, especially since he can no longer give his side of the story.

      The most nuanced view I’ve seen is from a female soccer writer, who was an admirer of Bryant … and a sexual abuse survivor. https://theix.substack.com/p/the-ix-soccer-monday-with-annie-m-919

      • art thiel

        Thanks for linking to her take. She has cred with me, and her conflict over Kobe’s history resonates with many.

  • Husky73

    Among Baylor, West, Chamberlain, Magic, Shaq, Worthy, Wilkes, Jabbar, Goodrich……was Kobe the greatest Laker? I would say yes.

    • art thiel

      Helluva list. I’d have to Magic, for how he changed the game.

      • jafabian

        Mikan has his number in the rafters. Remember the free throw lane was widened because of him. He dominated the game at the time, no one saw a man as big as him being 6’10”. The same size as SF Rashard Lewis.

        • art thiel

          Good point. His deeds were pre-national telecast, and a little lost.

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      Wilt.
      Please go back and look at his NBA stats, which are unbelievable. While you’re at it, just for funsies, look at his other college athletics. Long jump, high jump, (6’6″ in jr high), discus, etc. He had a 56′ shot put, Ran a sub 11 second hundred yards, broke 2 minutes in the 880. Consistently over 50′ in the triple jump.
      Last point here: He and Russell went at it each time and it’s little known but for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, they shared their big meal early in the day, went to their separate abodes, and went at each other that night.

      • jafabian

        He’s talking about the best Laker not the best player. Wilt was at the end of his career when he joined them but still an integral part of their championship team. But nowhere near the player he was in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

        • art thiel

          Good point. Wilt was the athlete of the 20th century.

  • jafabian

    When the Sonics drafted Desmond Mason I looked forward to seeing them battle one another for years to come. I thought the Sonics got themselves a player who could defend Kobe on his level, a priority with Gary Payton entering his twilight years. When Desmond was later traded for Ray Allen I thought the team upped the stakes. I was well aware of the personal rivalry between the two 1996 draftees and thought the Sonics got a player who could compete with Kobe on his level for years to come. I have been disappointed at not only seeing my hometown team move but losing out on seeing an all time great player in his prime play against the Sonics and visit Seattle at least 3x a season.

    Kobe was someone who was always in the limelight throughout the year. He became one of those athletes who transcended their sport the way Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan did. In fact I’ve always found it a bit curious that when who the next Jordan would be discussed after his Airness retired that players like Lebron and Dwayne Wade would get more mentions than Kobe. Was it because of his being a Laker? Was there a stigma from having bypassed college? Or was he taken for granted? At being so successful at so many levels he couldn’t be for real. And now he’s gone. There’s a void that we’re not used to having because as I said earlier he’s usually always in the limelight, whether it’s for the NBA, Olympics, endorsements, music, philanthropy and even in Hollywood. His passing is right there with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. RIP Mamba. Wish we got to know you a little better.

    Beat LA! Beat LA! Beat LA!

    • art thiel

      I believe Mason was known for a time as the Kobe stopper, which was more of a hope than a reality.

      You’re right that Bryant was never quite given the eminence of Jordan despite the close proximity. Not sure why exactly, although a small part may have been that he sometimes publicly demanded it, as opposed to letting his play speak for itself. He could be annoying.

      • jafabian

        It was always hard for me to fully embrace Kobe for those reasons. It at least partially drove his feud with Shaq which I felt turned many off. It’s surprising that the feud never really divided their fanbase. I believe now Kobe will begin to rise more to MJ’s level in critics views. I don’t have a problem with that.

        • art thiel

          The tragedy will for some time overwhelm any objective judgment about his career. But I think you’re right about the feud damaging Kobe. Lots of people saw Bryant as too self-absorbed to be a good teammate. Not unusual for great players.

    • Husky73

      I think (always dangerous) that Kobe was seen differently than Magic, Michael and a few others. They were seen as both individually great, but also consummate team players. Kobe was seen as a ball hog, which was a root cause of his feuds with Shaq. Magic got the spotlight because he had an aura. Kobe demanded the spotlight, and if he had to put up 40 shots to get it, he would. I would put Carmello Anthony also in the ball hog category, but he was not at Kobe’s level of greatness.

      • art thiel

        The 08 game I described was a typical Kobe game — 41 shots to get 48 points. But it worked well enough for five titles, two without Shaq.

      • jafabian

        Nothing says more about someone demanding the spotlight than to create their own nickname. Two of them in fact. Always wondered if he switched numbers for that reason.