LOS ANGELES — I’m sitting in my favorite sandwich spot more than 24 hours after and still visibly shaken. This quickly becomes obvious to an unknown woman, who hugs me without us even exchanging words. Los Angeles, like the despondent man whom she discovered in a vintage yellow T-shirt covered with five pictures of basketball icon Kobe Bryant, remains frozen.
That we will speak of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in the past tense after a fatal helicopter crash near Calabasas, California, on Sunday is a tragedy that just won’t register, and probably never will.
Certainly, the illuminated “Kobe 4 Ever” sign is right there in purple and gold off the 405 freeway. New murals continue to arise, and his Nos. 8 and 24 jerseys lay next to candles and flowers far and wide. I’ve been surrounded by thousands of stunned fans near downtown LA’s Staples Center. Countless others fight through tears 10 miles southwest to deliver handwritten messages on a large white banner with Bryant’s face on it outside of the Lakers’ training facility.
Bryant is synonymous with banners, but not these kinds. We’re trying, but we can’t accept this.
To understand this kind of disbelief is to understand my relationship to Los Angeles. As far back as I can remember, my parents would tell me about the greatness that stars Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brought to the hometown Lakers. The successful showmanship orchestrated by the slick-haired Pat Riley in Inglewood’s Great Western Forum captivated them.
My mother and I often re-created a backyard version of the NBA Finals after school, with the winner of the seven-game series doused in apple cider that was our version of locker-room champagne. The one time I left preschool early was to make sure we got to a Lakers playoff game in time. Nearly every morning of my early childhood was spent reading the Los Angeles Times’ sports section and every night was spent dreaming of when I could speak of my Lakers with the same reverence they did.
In June 1996, it was no longer just an idea. A 17-year-old Bryant would soon team up alongside future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal, changing my life and the landscape of sports. The Lake Show was back!
Family, friends and colleagues have always taken the “ask Joseph” approach when it comes to learning something you didn’t know about the Lakers. As a result, my mother knew my over-the-top excitement upon learning on the radio that then-general manager Jerry West had traded for the Philadelphia area prodigy must have been something special.
However, I don’t think any of us could have predicted the unforgettable run we were about to embark on. Except, of course, probably Bryant himself.
“LA is the land of opportunity,” Bryant said in an Instagram post in October 2019. “It’s as big or small as you want it [to] be. … It’s the place where you can learn from the greats who came before you. And where you can continue their journey farther.”
Bryant, as confident as he was flawed, understood this from the start. He understood us. Bryant came straight from high school and off the bench, jumping past grown men in the unwavering pursuit of greatness.
Many people relocate to Los Angeles with grand plans only to quickly return to their hometowns at the first signs of discomfort. Bryant was the opposite. He stayed, he grew and with every impossible shot made or misstep, a uniquely blended group of different races and religions felt that much more together.
Very few can handle being that guy. Kobe was that guy for Southern California and beyond. He’s one of the reasons I work the way I do and chose a career in sports media.
No matter the amount of glitz surrounding him or the franchise, you never felt for a second like Bryant cheated the game. The drama matched the never-ending desire for more, and that extra passion didn’t just result in 18 All-Star selections, 2008 NBA MVP honors, five league championships and two NBA Finals MVPs.
It gave Los Angeles, no matter where you were in the city, a shared talking point due to Bryant’s nightly displays. The entire world watched as LA’s brightest rose from fearless teenager to a larger-than-life champion and father.
Bryant seemed inexhaustible until he ruptured his Achilles during the last phase of his basketball career. Still, he came back for more. It was hard for many to imagine Bryant putting this type of conviction into anything else after he officially told the basketball world goodbye in 2016 with a 60-point performance. However, his second act appeared like it was going to be even greater than the first.
Post-basketball life saw Bryant become the first Black person to win an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. He was passionate about storytelling and was focused on creating a book series to inspire the next generation’s love for reading. He wanted to move basketball forward, as most evidenced when he coached his daughter Gianna’s team.
The legacy Bryant leaves with the city and all people who love him most is purpose-driven dedication to excellence, unforgiving drive, love of family and inspiring the next up. Tears and grief will continue to encompass a city that will never be the same, but so too will the joy and Mamba mentality embedded in its DNA.