On Sunday, as the shocking news of his death turned a hopeful new year somber, the tragedy made his rush understandable, sadly. He couldn't have known he would get only 41 years as Kobe Bryant, the mesmerizing basketball superstar and enigmatic cultural icon. But he seemed to understand the fleeting nature of his fame — of his life — and he managed to accomplish more than almost anyone could.
In photos: Kobe Bryant through the years
Yet his story still feels disturbingly incomplete, and that’s why so many are taking his death so hard. Greater celebrities have left this world even younger, but there’s something especially jarring about losing Bryant. It’s the combination of three things: his exceptional and unforgettable body of work, the feeling that we were still just getting to know him and the hope that, without all the basketball superpowers and ego, he was about to become much greater in retirement than he was on the court.
We mourn Bryant and remember all that he did, but the great tragedy is what he wasn’t able to finish. He was chasing more, as a media and entertainment mogul and as a man. In more than two decades in the spotlight, Bryant had gone from cocky 18-year-old to universally respected champion to flawless endorser. He had gone from defendant in a sexual assault case to reinvented Black Mamba to leave-it-all-on-the-court legend who scored 60 points in his final game. It might be an unprecedented career arc for a sports figure: so perfect, then so flawed, then so transcendent.
But for all that we knew about Bryant, we still didn’t really know him. He was starting to open up. He was evolving, it seemed. And though he would never admit it, he was determined to try to make amends for being accused of sexual assault nearly 17 years ago. The charges were ultimately dropped, but Bryant and his accuser later reached a settlement in a civil case. We will never know the absolute truth about what happened that July 2003 night in Colorado, but it branded Bryant as much darker than perceived, and he knew it.
He created the Black Mamba persona because of it, and even though he rebuilt his reputation and enjoyed 13 more years in the NBA after the incident, he couldn’t expunge that part of his story. So, typical Bryant, he tried to outwork even his shame. As a businessman, he hired and empowered women. He tried to become a better husband. He and his wife, Vanessa, had four daughters.
Bryant became a huge advocate for women’s basketball, partly because he wanted role models for his hoops-obsessed girls. His genuine love for the women’s game and appreciation of its stars were going to mean much as the WNBA transformed its pay structure and made an increased push for greater fan support. It was so heartbreaking that Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among those who died in the helicopter crash while en route to her AAU basketball game Sunday morning. Their lives ended on a journey to a game that bonds the entire family.
As a humanitarian, there was more Bryant wanted to do through his foundation. For so long, he was allowed to care mostly about himself, and he took advantage of it, becoming the greatest shooting guard not named Michael Jordan that the game has ever seen. Bryant’s career essentially started in the post-Jordan era, and while the obsession with MJ overtook the game and burdened many great players, Bryant embraced the comparisons. He came as close as any player ever will to Jordan, even copying some of the superstar’s legendary moves. But by the end, he just wanted to be a better version of himself.
Last month, TMZ posted a video of Bryant comforting drivers after he witnessed a car crash in Newport Beach, Calif. He wasn’t in a rush on that day. He was just a concerned human being.
Life was just beginning to slow down for Bryant. He was always going to live at a fast pace. He was always going to want more and sleep less. But the competitor who viewed everyone as a rival was giving way to the retired athlete who just wanted to tell stories and enjoy a world he often ignored. In Kent Babb’s incredible profile of Kobe in November 2018, Bryant described his new professional aspirations.
“I’m just chasing a perfect story, whatever the hell that means,” he said.
By then, he was wise enough to know there is no perfect. But he couldn’t resist the chase.
It’s this pursuit that we will miss. In his second career, Bryant already had won an Academy Award and established credibility in a different form of entertainment. Somehow, he was respected even as the #MeToo movement gained steam. Right or not, being Kobe Bryant afforded him a level of acceptance and forgiveness that others would be denied. He was determined to make the most of it.
As he left basketball behind, he was easier to embrace. Or maybe he was easier to be embraced. For years, he had been cold toward LeBron James because he saw James as the new wave and was desperate to fight him off. Then James joined the Lakers. On Saturday night, he passed Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. James was emotional, expressing how much “Kobe Bean Bryant” has meant to his career. And Bryant could not have been more gracious, sending a tweet that began, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect brother.”
It would be his last tweet.
Then, on Sunday morning, he sent a direct message on Instagram to Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaq, his former teammate/nemesis, who recently announced his decision to transfer from UCLA. Shareef shared the exchange.
“You good fam?” Bryant asked.
“Yeah! Just been getting this work in trying to figure out next move,” Shareef replied. “How you been?”
Bryant never had the chance to answer. His helicopter crashed in Calabasas.
Of all his notable qualities, curiosity was his most underrated. Bryant had an insatiable desire to wonder, to explore, to learn. He was famous for contacting people, sometimes out of the blue, to set up meetings and ask specific questions about process and success. Recently, he learned a few Slovenian phrases just so he could surprise Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic. He went from high school to the NBA, but he never stopped receiving an education.
The learning ended Sunday. Bryant is gone, and for all the greatness he left behind, it’s devastating to ponder how much he left unfinished.