So where were you? What were you doing when that sickening trickle of news started to drip, drip, drip into your mind and heart? Kobe Bryant … dead? That can’t be. Kobe is strong. Kobe is always smiling or scowling, and both faces showed how strong he was. Kobe can’t die. Wasn’t LeBron James just passing him for No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center, then speaking with eloquence and depth about Kobe’s influence and effect on him? Wasn’t he on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show, charming and smart, a proud father talking about his daughter Gianna’s basketball career, just the other night? A helicopter crash? In the middle of a Sunday? And Gianna, too? What? That can’t be. But there it is, first on TMZ, then one confirmation coming after another. Drip … Kobe Bryant … drip … gone at 41 … drip … NoNoNo.
You try to make sense of something like this – something like one of the greatest basketball players of all, one of the best to come from the Philadelphia area, Lower Merion High School, taking his talents to the NBA, to the Lakers, five championships, cutting the hearts out of the 76ers in the 2001 Finals, the controversies with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, the sexual-assault scandal in Colorado and his shedding its stain to regain the public’s respect, the life he’d led and would yet lead, all of him and it extinguished – and there’s no sense of it to make. It’s barely worth trying. You sit there and it sinks in and you gape and shake your head.
So where were you? Spacing out in front of the TV with the Pro Bowl on ESPN? Cleaning the garage? Me, I was hustling home so my 8-year-old son could change and get to his 3:45 basketball game, and when we got there, I didn’t notice it, but he did, and he didn’t tell me about it until after the game: a player on the opposing team, wearing a green uniform tank top with a white T-shirt underneath, the word KOBE written in marker on his sleeve.
That’s the kind of day Sunday was and will be, the kind you never forget. That was Kobe’s reach and power. We attach so much to our athletes. We see what they have done and can do. That’s their gravitational pull, the attraction they have to us, isn’t it? They give us a standard to aspire to, a bar against which the rest of us can measure ourselves, and with Kobe, that pull was even stronger, because he was not limiting himself to basketball. He had been the executive producer of a short animated film, Dear Basketball, that had won an Academy Award and was based on a poem he wrote when he retired. He appeared a doting and loving father in his post-Lakers life. There seemed great things ahead for him, things beyond the cold confidence required to take the final shot when everyone in the arena knows you’re going to take it.
And those great things had started here, in the leafy suburb of Lower Merion, on the city courts of the Baker and Sonny Hill summer leagues, and those Sixers practices at St. Joseph’s in the mid-1990s, when a teenaged Kobe would walk into the gym and school all those NBA veterans, and coach John Lucas could only wish that the Sixers would have the good sense to draft the kid. Yeah, you can argue Kobe technically wasn’t from Philly, but ask yourself: Was there ever a player who better embodied what being a Philadelphia basketball player meant, what it looked like? “It taught me how to be tough, how to have thick skin,” he said in late 2015, before his final game here against the Sixers. “There’s not one playground around here where people just play basketball and don’t talk trash.”
Those great things started with Jeremy Treatman, a local sportswriter and mover-and-shaker in the world of Philly hoops, telling anyone who would listen back then that Kobe was the next big thing, that we’re all going to end up saying we knew him when, which we did. And then Treatman answered his cellphone Sunday afternoon from Jefferson University, where he was overseeing a girls basketball tournament, and he could barely get the words out. “I can’t ... believe it,” he said. “I can’t breathe.”
And when Treatman hung up, someone else called immediately. It was Aleta Arthurs, the sister of Michael Brooks, another Philadelphia basketball legend gone too soon. Brooks and Kobe’s father, Joe, had been teammates with the San Diego Clippers in the early 1980s, and the families had been so close that, during a visit to the San Diego Zoo, Aleta had spent the day pushing 2-year-old Kobe around the grounds in his stroller, getting him good and close to the elephants and the tigers. “I have the worst chills,” she said, and she wasn’t the only one.
So now, do me a favor, and do yourself a favor, and do someone you love a favor. If you’re reading this, shut off your phone, close your laptop, or put the paper down. Go to your wife or your husband, or your mother or your father, or most of all your son or your daughter, and give him a hug. Give her a hug. Call them. Visit them. Tell them you love them. Go to their basketball games and their dance recitals, or just stop by for a beer and a laugh. Turn off the trickle for a while, and remember what the lasting lesson of Kobe Bryant’s death and this sickening day should be.