Recalling an NBA legend

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There’s no gambling angle to tie into the tragic death of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and eight others in a helicopter crash that occurred Sunday morning. This column is simply to honor their memory.

The Lakers aren’t going to be more likely to win the 2019-20 NBA championship even though that narrative will likely nauseatingly come into play. Anyone who believes that probably didn’t see Clippers coach Doc Rivers fail to keep his grief in check as he addressed the media before Sunday’s game in Orlando. His son Austin plays for Houston, another top contender, and was rightfully emotional in addressing the loss of an idol he knew all of his life. Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, both L.A. natives, grew up on Kobe.

Bryant’s impact is he inspired so many of this generation’s players while becoming an icon for the era he represented. Bryant and I are the same age and I got to talk with him something like 15-20 times over the years.

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He came into the league as a teenager and ultimately became so beloved that he birthed a legion of Kobe Stans, people who will never accept anyone saying that LeBron James or even Michael Jordan was a better player. They’re the ones who took his side against Shaquille O’Neal in the feud that broke up the Laker dynasty of the early 2000’s and are the reason schools throughout the country have many more kids named Kobe in them than before he came to prominence.

We were on different coasts so my contact with him came at All-Star Games and in the Finals he got to against the Celtics and Magic that I was credentialed to cover. He came through Orlando late in his career and held court in the locker room. Bryant was every bit the magnetic force you expect he’d be, a defiant, confident superstar who sugarcoated nothing, didn’t bother to watch his language but gave you the vibe that it was because he didn’t have time to suffer fools or mince words.

Kobe didn’t cut corners. He played after attending court proceedings when fighting sexual assault charges back in 2004. He tore his Achilles in 2013 and came back from it to ensure that he’d close out his career on his terms. The Lakers never ascended to championship heights again, but they rode out their time with the player who had come synonymous with the brand nonetheless, standing by through the rotator cuff tear and tibial fracture as the losses piled up.

Lakers Nation was rewarded by that 60-point outburst in the final game of his career, which ultimately serves as a fitting ending for someone who so consistently battled so long as there was time on the clock.

He didn’t accept excuses and never took a shortcut outside of the one that you or I probably would if we had the means to. He didn’t care for L.A. traffic and took his helicopter everywhere. From that standpoint, the irony surrounding this tragedy is that a chopper trip to a kid’s basketball game ended in disaster. Heavy fog was an obstacle and is said to have played a role in the aircraft crashing into the side of a mountain in Calabasas.

Bryant died alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, his second-oldest. She had become increasingly more popular on social media over the last few months as clips of her playing started making the rounds. He went on Jimmy Kimmel and detailed a story about how Gianna said “I got this,” when her father was asked by fans if he planned on having a son to carry on his legacy. A father’s pride can’t be faked and the impact he had instilling his daughter with confidence was clearly evident.

I know that I would take some solace in the knowledge that his demise came as a result of trying to get his daughter to a basketball game. There’s some nobility in that, especially since Kobe had started becoming a force promoting women’s basketball. His support for University of Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, one of his daughter’s favorite players, was beautiful to see. He called out a few names of WNBA players who he believed could hang with the men.

Believe what you will on that front, but the point is that he helped make the debate a national topic of conversation. Women’s basketball lost a great champion for their cause. The Lakers lost one of their icons. Basketball players of all ages, from Trae Young to Vince Carter, lost a friend and mentor. Three daughters, one of whom is just seven months old, lost their father and sister.

Keep his widow, Vanessa, in your thoughts. Noted baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa lost their lives alongside another team mom, Sarah Chester, and her daughter Payton, coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zoboyan.

They were all just trying to get to a weekend basketball game. I was at my daughter’s on Saturday. Some of you probably have a similar connection. To think something that pure and innocent could ultimately result in such a devastatingly sad outcome should give you pause.

Debates will be had whether to change the NBA logo from Jerry West to Bryant, something that West himself will probably have a hand in. The next few Lakers games will feel like a funeral of sorts. All the families of the people mentioned above who also perished would be represented in something like that, so count me in as all for it.

Everyone will have their own memory of Bryant. I can close my eyes and see him holding court a few feet in front of me if I want to. I can channel visions of him huddling up with Shaq or Phil Jackson that I remember from pre-media days. Bryant has been in the limelight so long that he was drafted out of high school while I was in my freshman year in college and ended up playing two decades. He even recently won an Academy Award for his 2017 short film, “Dear Basketball,” so it’s easy to conjure up the image watching him accept his Oscar.

Personally, I’ll now remember him imparting knowledge to his daughter in a clip that became a meme. Gigi was happily engaged in the conversation, relishing in a connection to her father and embracing the opportunities in front of her. May that forever live on as an inspiration to anyone who needs it.

Friday

Nuggets at Bucks: Denver is hoping to get starters Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap back in addition to top defender Gary Harris, who just returned from injury himself. Finding a rhythm will be an issue on the road and the fact they’re facing the Bucks on the heels of hosting the Jazz in a Northwest Division showdown makes this a terrible spot.

The Nuggets will find out that Milwaukee takes its most high-profile invaders extremely seriously. The Bucks have beaten the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz and Raptors, the teams right there with Denver in sporting the five best records in the NBA behind 40-win Milwaukee entering the week, by a combined 45 points. Look them to win by double-digits here and won’t be laying more than nine. BUCKS

Saturday

Heat at Magic: Miami and Orlando remain the top teams in the Southeast Division, but unlike last year, the Heat have surged ahead and don’t figure to be caught. Still, the Magic have held the Heat to 95 or fewer points in three of the last four meeting between the in-state rivals. Look for this encounter to be a race to 100. UNDER

Sunday

Bulls at Raptors: Chicago will visit Toronto on Sunday without shooter Lauri Markkanen, a 6-foot-10 matchup problem that keeps the Bulls from being easy to guard. Fred VanVleet has been tremendous in keeping Toronto atop the Atlantic Division, the Raptors are too deep and well-coached by Nick Nurse to have much trouble in this matinee. Look for a blowout Toronto win and lay the points in a game that will likely be parlayed heavily. It’s chalky, but I think this one will make the books nervous since it will be difficult to set this spread high enough. RAPTORS

Last week: 2-1

Season: 22-16-1

About the Author

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national sportswriter for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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