Why Kobe Bryant meant so much
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - February 1, 2020 - 12:00am

The outpouring of love and appreciation for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna seems unprecedented in sports. The untimely demise of the retired Los Angeles Lakers guard seems to have penetrated not just basketball, but other sports around the world. The tributes paid to Bryant seem to be universal, save for a few more uncouth pundits who choose this inappropriate time to bring up his mistakes and misbehavior. Other than that, Kobe seemed to be universally loved, even if, in some cases (like Boston Celtics fans) it was grudgingly. The accolades went far beyond his skill as a basketball player.

Of course, there are many solid reasons to remember Kobe. Firstly, he played for arguably the most glamorous (and most expensive) franchise in the NBA. The Lakers are in the biggest media market in the US, the epicenter of cinema, television and entertainment in general. That alone has been enough to lure the best talent in many sports, from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, David Beckham, Freddie Roach, dozens of world champion boxers, and so forth. Your chances of meeting stars in person are just as high as seeing some on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Secondly, it is increasingly rare for an NBA player to stay in one place. And having come straight out of high school, Kobe had a few extra years to grow roots in Lalaland. Twenty years is a long time for a professional athlete, more so to be spending it all in one place. That’s why former Lakers president Magic Johnson kept repeating “Twenty years!” at Kobe’s retirement ceremony. That’s why the Lakers retired both of the jersey numbers that he wore. It is a remarkable testament to his endurance and self-care.

Of course, there are obviously all the awards. Bryant won practically everything there was to win. From the slam dunk title to MVP’s, All-Star Game appearances as long as my arm, to other citations, he was king, even a two-time Olympic gold medalist. He measured himself and was measured against Michael Jordan, and the comparison became frighteningly close, with some American sportscasters making the concession that Jordan was the better player, but Bryant was the more skilled. 

And so the tributes, symbolic and personal, poured out. In the Philippines, one of the NBA’s strongest markets, remembrances blanketed cities. The Black Mamba had visited the country seven times since 1998, and his fans are legion. They collected everything: action figures, basketballs, posters, shoes, paraphernalia and jerseys, even those horrid green St. Patrick’s Day Laker jerseys. Kobe wore the Barong Tagalog, danced the tinikling, played with fans, signed balls, talked to people. In a country that loves everything basketball, Kobe had a special place of prominence. To top it all, he wins an Oscar with his first foray into film. 

But I believe that the deepest, core reason why Kobe Bryant stirred us so is that he took us to places inside us that very few of us dared to go. His commitment was absolute, his curiosity fathomless, his confidence bulletproof. His 4 a.m. workout regimen was legendary. He often worked out and played in four two-hour blocks a day. Every day. He took thousands of shots daily. He studied film, he broke down plays, players’ tendencies, picked up on every nuance he could. As an adolescent in Italy, he challenged pros more than twice his age. Somehow he knew he would overcome. It was just a matter of how soon.

It was his fearlessness to look within, to face his weaknesses, to pile onto his strengths, to refuse to recognize limits, that is what we mourn. Kobe Bryant jettisoned the all too familiar human habits of delaying, avoiding, and making excuses. He poured all of himself liberally into constantly new molds of his own design, then shattered each mold to fit himself into a new one. He charged headfirst into the unknown, at top speed, no less. Whereas many of us shrink in the face of fear (until some – and only some – inevitably overcome it), Kobe did not waste any time with that nonsense. He only asked himself what needed to be done to get better, then he went and did it. No hesitation. No excuses. 

Kobe Bryant ventured alone into the realm of what is possible more deeply than most of us ever will. He saw no boundaries or obstacles, because when you are that clear with your goals, you see right through everything. He showed us the light that leads inside of us, and faces his own demons and flaws to prove that it could be done. He led by personal example. He scaled such dizzying heights because he never looked back down, only ever forward. 

That light was dimmed with his passing. Now we are left to face our fears and excuses on our own once again. No paragon, no intrepid trailblazer leading us to peer into ourselves. That is why Kobe Bryant will be missed. That is why we cry. His passing – for us – dims the world entire.

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