I’m going to try to put into my own words what my favorite athlete meant to me as best as I can. I have too many memories to write, and none will do justice to the loss suffered world-wide today, so I’ll try and focus on his impact, and how we carry him out moving forward. I am by no means worthy of trying to capture with words what he meant to the world, only to shed light on what he meant to me, and impacted how I carry myself day to day. Thank you, and 24 forever.
The player seems to take a back seat today. You may have loved him, you may have not, but it’s hard to deny his impact the man had worldwide. Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Neymar, Mike Trout, hundreds of other athletes, celebrities, President Donald Trump, former President Barack Obama, and millions of others around the world join in grief to the news that Kobe Bryant and 8 others lives were taken far too soon. He has been my favorite athlete since I can remember, and today I’d like to shed light on how Kobe Bryant, from many miles away, impacted and continues to impact a young man in Illinois.
When I was in the 2nd grade, we were to do a project on a public figure and talk about their life and what they meant to us, as best a 2nd grader could. Thousands of people to choose from in the world, and I chose the up and coming basketball star Kobe Bryant. At that age, to me, he was an invincible figure; a superhero playing a game that for me became a sanctuary growing up. For those who don’t know, I feel its important to note that I grew up in the middle of nowhere Illinois, and the closest thing to me was 15 minutes away by car. So to pass the time, I would hit the driveway, and just shoot – for hours. I wasn’t Frank Laterza in the driveway. I was Kobe Bean Bryant. Fadeaways, reverse lay ups, And 1 shots when the air would foul me, and of course countless game winners, all imitating the legend that was.
Fast forward to the 5th grade, when it was time to dip my toes into some real basketball and baseball teams. I wore 8 in both, because that’s what Mamba followers did. But I was riding the bench, and ready to quit. My teams would win championships, and I would just give them to my dad and cry because I wasn’t playing. I was grateful at this time in my life to have a father and mother like I did, and a superhero like Kobe was, because to them both, there was only one way out: work. So I did. Everyday I would stack chairs to be defenders and shoot over them, or dribble around them; when it was pitch dark at night my dad put a light on the barn beside the hoop so I could shoot whenever I wanted; we bought a net to pitch or hit of the tee into. That mentality wasn’t just because of Kobe – it WAS Kobe. I would watch countless hours of his highlights, then go and try to mimic them. I would listen to stories about 4 am workouts that last hours upon hours, then go out and work because if I didn’t, I’d be letting him down. I wanted to be the best – EVER. It’s funny to look back on that writing this, but most of my buddies now I didn’t know at the time outside of the basketball court, and they couldn’t stand me. But I mimicked him as best I could, and I sure had no friends on the court, and I played my ass off no matter the circumstance – I hope they read this and laugh, because I got to know them on the court or field as teammates in high school, and they are some of the best friends I have, and I love them everyday. I think that’s something that gets lost about Kobe: all of his former teammates, when they look back at it, only see how passionate he was, and how much he cared, and they love him for it. Back to my story: I’ll never forget a camp in 7th grade, a player in high school I looked up to took the time to pull me aside and say, “You’ve improved the most out of anyone this summer, and the work doesn’t go unnoticed. Keep going.” I guess it has become cheesy or too soft to do in today’s society, but those words carried me. Like this hard work, it wouldn’t go unnoticed. And I know I didn’t need him to say that, because at the end of the day I played for myself and my friends and my family, but just an act of kindness that we need more of. Maybe I wasn’t as talented or as tall as Kobe, but I was going to work as hard as him. Or at least in my young years, I thought I would. And somewhere, he’d be grinning.
Again, I just have too many memories to share, but I just wanted to hit on one more that means more to me due to the recency. I’ve had 4 knee surgeries to my right knee, and the last 3 came in my Sophomore year of college: ACL, Meniscus, and Micro-fracture surgery. It was some of the darkest days of my life. Kobe was going through the repairs of a torn Achilles at the time so I had his highlights, but it wasn’t the same as watching games, and I couldn’t get to my sanctuaries – football or basketball – because I couldn’t move. But that Mamba Mentality. I swear it’s real, and it drove me every single day at therapy. Days I wanted to give up, not just football, but everything. It sounds silly now because as we’ve learned now and time and time again that life is such a gift, but the mind, it goes to some dark places when your up against it. Fast forward a year and a half and it’s just before my senior year. I’m captain of the team, and I promise I am still trying to be the best. 4 AM was too early, but I’d be up at 5 AM twice a week before work to get individual work with a trainer, go to work, then after work at 6 go workout and condition. I did it for a summer and it was tough, this man did it for 20+ years! Invincible. He was a full time superhero. During my senior year I was watching a Kobe documentary, and one quote changed my entire view on my outlook for not just playing sports, but really everything i do:
“He came to realize that the goal that he set out initially to be the greatest of all time was a fickle one. What he realized is that the most important thing in life is how your career touches those around you, and how it carries forward to the next generation. He realized that’s what makes true greatness.”
I think about this idea every single day. I ask myself, “How did I make an impact today?” It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, you can make an impact on someones life, you have an opportunity and a gift to go do something amazing, and that’s what this quote means to me. Kobe did that, for me and for MILLIONS of people that he never even met. He walked the walk: you saw the actions from him, and you HEARD about it from others. What he did for a young kid growing up with some dreams: the work ethic, the passion, the drive, the attitude, the mentality: I just want to thank him. His lessons will carry on and get passed on for an eternity of years to come.
On the court, WHEW too many memories. My favorite Kobe play: he caught a football-like throw off an inbound from Robert Horry over his right shoulder, took one dribble with the right, brought it behind his back around the defender, took off on one leg, 360 in the air and finished on the other side of the hoop. They wouldn’t let you do it in a video game. Some other quick highlights: All 5 titiles, game 4 of the 2000 NBA finals series on the road against the Pacers when Shaq fouled out and he scored 7 in OT with the game sealing bucket, all the game winners, 81, Kobe 62 vs. Mavs 61 through 3 quarters, 50-point streak, 60-point streak, MVP year, the double clutch dunk against the Hornets that year when it was essentially him and CP for the honor, the comeback against the raptors, 2 free throws with 1 Achilles, playing through so many injuries, the Suns/Jazz/Denver battles, The Jazz air-balls, the 9 times he was first team all defense, that face he made when you knew it was over, that 2008 gold medal game where he was undoubtedly the best player on the planet, and so many more.
What he brought on the court are things I don’t think we will ever see again. What he did for myself, and for countless others, off the court, well, for that I am at a loss. Heartbreak as we mourn the loss of an all time great player and leader. But as Kobe would want us to do, the work to be great doesn’t stop now, it just continues. That’s how you honor him. You remember what he gave you, the lessons he taught you, and you keep moving forward. You keep giving forward. Thank you, 24.
Love forever, Mamba.