What Kobe Bryant taught me about grace and joy
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away, throngs of Americans publicly mourned the death of the president. Thousands came out to grieve the 32nd Commander in Chief as his body was transported from Georgia to the nation’s capital. One journalist asked a mourner if he ever knew or met FDR. “ I didn’t know him, but he knew me,” the man replied. “He knew where I was from, what I stood for, and my dreams. He gave me hope and joy.”
As I watched the makeshift memorial quickly form outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles after hearing the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, I had no doubt many basketball fans felt the same way about the basketball legend.
It’s easy to see why Kobe Bryant was loved as a basketball player. The former Laker brought his the team five championships, won two Olympic gold medals, was selected to 18 straight All-Star games. His time with Shaquille O’Neal will be one of the greatest duos in NBA history and his 81-point game will be one of the game’s most mesmerizing performances. He was an equally brilliant defender and scorer.
But his aura off the court that was even more prolific. Kobe was a multilingual global citizen. An avid learner. A delightful interviewee. Confident but cool. Had a work ethic that made investment bankers look slothful (Kobe was known for calling people in the middle of the night to pitch highly-detailed business ventures.)
The man was fearless. No moment, on or off the court, was too big for this Philadelphia native. He went out of his way to take on daunting challenges. Before the start of the 2012 Olympics, Kobe approached Coach K demanding that he defend their opponent’s best player every game.
His fans knew they would be always be entertained. His game had no major flaws. His life with his four kids and beautiful wife looked picture perfect. Laker nation saw him as dependable soul, that friend who you could wake up in the middle of the night to bail you out of jail.
That is why his death is even more tragic. As Jimmy Kimmel somberly stated, “He was the last person you could ever imagine this happening to. In many ways, he was our hero and heroes don’t die like this.”
As my good friend explained to me, Kobe’s passing is profoundly catastrophic for so many groups on so many levels: Laker fans lost their franchise’s best player, the NBA saw an icon vanish tragically, his mentors are still alive to witness his death, those who grow up watching him blossom into the mega-star never thought he’d leave this earth so soon.
The throngs of current NBA players who modeled their game after his wished he was around to witness what they learned from him. Kobe began mentoring the next generation after retiring. Even those who never saw him play grieve for the role model they lost.
Mr. Bryant was also a global icon. When I travel for work, everyone always mentioned Kobe (even in North Korea). From Venezuela to his childhood home in Reggio Emilia, Italy, memorial sites quickly popped up honoring Kobe. NBA commissioner Adam Silver noted, “he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball.”
As an avid basketball fan, I was indifferent to Kobe. The Lakers were not my team. I appreciated his impeccable skills and success, but I never bought into the hype or hoopla about his game. It was his post-basketball life that caught my attention.
After walking off the court, Bryant launched a venture capital firm. In 2018, Bryant became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. He was said to be working on a children’s book with legendary Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.
He also created a video series for ESPN called Detail, in which he broke down the game of specific NBA players. Like his game, Kobe’s analysis was razor sharp and unique. Kobe dissected player match-ups or the evolution of a designed play, and pointed out improvement needed for players. His basketball IQ was matched only by his obvious love for the game.
When Kobe left the NBA, there were no bitterness or remorse. Kobe was at peace knowing his playing days were finished. Unlike other athletes squeezing out every drip of fame, Kobe took pride in stepping away from the game. In one of his final press conferences, Kobe explained, “It’s a blessing to be tired and know you can’t play this game anymore. Those bruises and bumps are a sign of all you put into the game. It’s a reward for your hard work.”
At his retirement ceremony, Kobe briefly touched upon his career, but focused on the future for his kids and the next generation. In every interview following retiring, Kobe spoke passionately about building a legacy of altruism. “As you grow you want you to be remembered for what you did for others and how you got them to the next level.” Kobe explained to Ellen in his first interview after hanging up his sneakers.
Upon receiving the news of Kobe’s passing, baseball great Alex Rodriguez, tennis star Novak Djokovic, NFL cornerback Richard Sherman, female soccer pro Sydney LeRoux, WNBA All-Star Candance Parker, and dozens of basketball players revealed they at some point been mentored by Mr. Bryant.
Kobe reminded us that there is more to life than professional success. That the true pinnacle of contentment comes from serving others, utilizing your skills for the betterment of the next generation. Life’s biggest achievement is sharing your greatness and finding peace with your current state.
I will miss Kobe for the reasons everyone else does: his insane talent, clutch moments, lust for learning, insane work ethic, soft touch humor, and endearing charm. I will also miss him because he taught me the importance of knowing when to push and when to be at peace with the status quo. I will miss him because he showed me that when a monumental chapter ends, another epic phase can proceed. I will miss because he was so generous with his wisdom.
Many say there is nothing we can do, nor anything we can wish for. And for the most part they are right. For now, all we can do is cherish his legacy, grieve, and wish this was a cruel dream that we’ll eventually wake up from.
But if I could make one wish, it would be that the angels above grace him with the joy he gave so many of us.