Author’s Note: This article was written on Sunday, January 26, the day of Kobe Bryant’s passing. This knee-jerk reaction was both a tribute and a farewell to my childhood hero.
Back on March 10, 2009, TIME.com uploaded a video on YouTube. When I was still yet to turn ten years old, my brother and I came across this very video. For context, I was a swimmer at this time, and I didn’t follow a single professional sport, save for the quadrennial Summer Olympics.
“Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant Gives a Free Lesson,” the video was titled. With intrigue, my brother and I watched the 7 minute, 37-second video — now viewed by 6,410, 293 people as I speak.
“Tip #1” Bryant gave was about how to grip a basketball and shoot it correctly. Put your fingers “in the seams,” Bryant instructed. “Sell the fake,” Bryant would say in his second piece of advice. He would go on to give 7 tips in total, lessons I never knew would drive my love for a sport.
And before I knew a single rule, a single fact about basketball, I was in love with it and the man who gave me an introduction to it.
For hours on hours, every day after school, I would begin to pick up the sport that had seemed so foreign to me just a week earlier. No matter that my form was terrible, my dribbling slow, my knowledge lacking; I found the sport I loved, and I wasn’t turning back.
By fifth grade, I quit swimming altogether — the very sport my brother and I had become state champions in that summer.
Though I was too young to watch Kobe score 81 points on the Raptors, 62 on the Mavericks in just 3 quarters, or grind his way to back-to-back championships, he was like a guide, a mentor to me as I explored the sport which he had mastered.
And so my short, amateur basketball career began. Until seventh grade, the most points I scored in a game was 7 — but I still loved basketball so dearly.
And in seventh grade, finally, with the chance to play for my school, I’ll never forget my first game. I finally broke double-digits in points, we had a miraculous comeback — and on my feet were a brand-new pair of Kobe’s signature sneakers.
I still have these shoes in my closet today, never realizing how important they are to me.
When I began following the NBA, Bryant was declining. I remember him fighting through obvious pain to carry the Lakers to the playoffs in 2013 — only to go down injured. I also watched as he would continually struggle with even more injuries, to the point where he announced his upcoming retirement in 2016.
And throughout that season, I followed Bryant more than ever, from his early-season struggles to his final ever game. My brother and I begged my parents to let us watch his final game in Houston, my hometown.
I have seen an innumerable amount of games over the years, a few in-person, but nothing will ever top watching Kobe bid farewell to the city I grew up in.
My brother and I came to Toyota Center early, both to beat the downtown traffic and to catch a glimpse of a childhood idol at work. And, during the pre-game introductions, everyone remained standing after the National Anthem, waiting for the big event.
“#24,” the PA announcer would say, “Kobe Bryant!”
Bryant scored 35 that night, torching our perimeter defense and giving me a glimpse into the past dominance I had missed. The game was like watching the basketball tutorial on TIME.com all over again — the same crisp movement, guile, and grace remained.
Instead of giving me and millions of fans a tutorial, however, Bryant was teaching Rockets stars James Harden and Dwight Howard a lesson in front of all of us in Toyota Center.
Later that year, I highly anticipated Kobe’s final game — yet, because of time zones and schoolwork, I missed. “How many points will Kobe score?” I wondered. “Maybe 25 or 30,” I thought. And with that thought, I went to bed, not realizing I was missing out on sports history.
I woke up that morning and ran straight downstairs to check the box score on NBA.com. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Kobe scored 60 points. Just as quickly, I rushed to YouTube, where Kobe’s dominance quickly shined upon me.
Though Kobe walked away from the game, replaced by younger, newer stars, I never forgot him. I didn’t forget him when I had my first 20-point game, my first (and only) triple-double, or my first ever true game-winning basket.
By eighth grade, my Kobe’s were wearing down, and my feet were growing too big. I needed new shoes. In, my last game in the bright orange Kobe 10s, I scored 43 points — setting the tone for our school’s incredibly successful middle school season.
Kobe was gone from the game and his shoes were gone from my feet — but his impact on me would never and will never die.
YESTERDAY, I began thinking about Bryant again. After dinner, I rushed to the TV to watch Sixers vs. Lakers on ABC, a primetime matchup. The matchup had Ben Simmons vs. his childhood idol LeBron James, and the Sixers stars of Al Horford and Tobias Harris vs. James’ partner in crime, Anthony Davis.
I watched as LeBron James, another figure I admired throughout my childhood passed Bryant in career points — moving him to third place on the all-time rankings.
And, this morning, I was going to write about the dynamic between my two childhood idols, and the rivalry that they were meant to have.
LeBron vs. Kobe: The Greatest Rivalry That Wasn’t Meant to Be is a draft that is still on my account in Medium — and I will never let it go, though I will never type another letter on the document.
It is a reminder of how precious life is, how fast things can change. Never in my wildest dreams would I think I would be saying good-bye to Kobe this early. I have watched as Juice WRLD and XXXTentacion have left this world, yet though I occasionally listened to their music and felt for their loyal supporters, the pain never hit me. Until today.
Just a minute ago, it felt like the basketball world was owned by LeBron James, who was widely acknowledged by all, including Kobe, for his other-worldly accomplishment. Never have those praises felt more empty than right now, knowing that Kobe is no longer with us.
Of course, my story is no less unique than millions of other people whose lives Bryant has touched and inspired. And that fact just makes today’s events even more tragic.
Kobe Bryant, forever.
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