Kobe Bryant died at 41 in a helicopter crash on Sunday, and the shock of it made the world move a little slower. For some of us, it made time stop completely.
That’s because Kobe was a cultural icon—a man too young, too famous, too well-known to die so suddenly. Yet we looked up and in a flash he was gone, just a day after LeBron James moved past him on the all-time NBA scoring list in a game played in the city Kobe came from –Philadelphia.
We claim him here not just because of geography, but also because he was fearless on the basketball court and beyond. He won an Academy award for an animated short. He spoke Italian and gave generously to charity. Beyond all that, Kobe was a husband and a father. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking that his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, perished in the crash along with Kobe and seven others.
We grieve with his family and with the world, but as black people, we grieve a man who lived his life in stubborn defiance of stereotypes. Kobe Bryant didn’t emerge from the ghetto with a dream of using basketball to get out of poverty. There are no stories of Kobe dodging bullets in housing projects, or dribbling a ball between shards of broken glass. No, there are simply stories of a boy who grabbed hold of his legacy and never let go.
Kobe’s mother Pam, had a brother who played in the NBA. Kobe’s father, Joe Jellybean Bryant, played for the Sixers and several other NBA teams before going to Europe, where he played for more than seven years. It was there that Kobe learned the Italian language and culture, and while he was at it, he was developing into what his father called a basketball prodigy.
But the man who broke into the league straight out of high school became more than a young prodigy. He grew into a man so respected by his peers that the man who broke his scoring record did so with Kobe’s nickname etched on the side of his sneaker. “Mamba 4 life,” Lebron James wrote on his footwear on the night he moved past Kobe to take third place on the all-time NBA scoring list.
Just a few days before Lebron broke the record, Kobe was asked how he felt about it. “You got to celebrate … appreciate what he is as an athlete while he is here,” Kobe told the Los Angeles Times. “Appreciate this guy, celebrate what he’s done, because it’s truly remarkable.”
Kobe could have been speaking about himself. But now that Kobe is gone, we are left to celebrate what he’s done, because it’s truly remarkable.
He defied stereotypes and pursued greatness. He took his gifts beyond the court. He showed the world how to carry fame with dignity. He refused to compromise in his quest to be the best. For all those reasons Kobe Bryant will live on in our hearts, and we will always claim him here in Philadelphia.