You don’t even have to be a huge basketball fan.
It hurts because, for every generation of Black boys, there are only so many real-life role models who look like us.
It hurts because seeing a model of fitness and athletic virility leave us at age 41 is a sobering reminder that tomorrow is not promised.
It hurts knowing that Bryant leaves behind his wife Vanessa and three young daughters, one of whom is so young that she will never remember time spent with her father.
As if that pain wasn’t acute enough, we all had to watch and wait for the knife to be pushed in deeper with the news that Bryant’s second-oldest daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, a.k.a. “Gigi,” perished with her father as they were headed to do things that fathers and daughters do together every day.
An update on the scene across from Staples Center: “Kobe” chants in front of a fan-created memorial to Kobe and Gigi. pic.twitter.com/qR3cGas3qO
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 26, 2020
I am not a traditional NBA fan, but I’m aware that Bryant falls on an extremely exclusive list of athletes who transcend team alliances. I was born at a time and raised in a city (Detroit) that should’ve resulted in me detesting Michael Jordan, but I adored him like every other little Black boy. Same goes for every millennial who came of age and watched Bryant work his magic, regardless of how they felt about the Los Angeles Lakers.
If you’re an NBA stats nerd or Bryant super-fan, you can probably rattle off his professional accomplishments – five championship rings, two Olympic gold medals, lead NBA scorer for two seasons in a row, four All-Star MVP awards, oldest player to score 60 points in a single game, youngest player in NBA history to hit 30,000 points, and so on – without consulting Google.
But even if you aren’t, you’d have to have been stranded on the moon for the last two decades to not recognize Bryant’s influence on the game of basketball. LeBron James, who is often considered along with Bryant and Jordan as the NBA’s greatest player of all time, spoke about Bryant’s influence on his career after breaking his career points record less than 24 hours before his death.
— Carlos (@_sweet_bread) January 26, 2020
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
Bryant’s impact on pop culture at large was also unavoidable, even if you never watched a second of him dribbling a ball on court. My first encounter with him was as fictitious Crenshaw High School player Terry Hightower on Moesha. There was also his brief foray into music, including that self-titled song with Tyra Banks on the hook (which sounds like the most 2000-est song ever made) from his one and only album, K.O.B.E.
As all legends do, Bryant certainly had his fair share of detractors, as all. Many derided his brusque and off-putting style of competitiveness, arguing that his personality put a blemish on an otherwise objectively singular career.
There was also his 2003 sexual assault case, which was settled out of court and which Bryant arguably weathered because it happened during the nascence of social media, and many years before #MeToo. He was publicly contrite, ultimately got back the endorsements he lost and continued to dominate in the NBA.
The magnitude of those accomplishments are such that Bryant became mononymous – “Kobe!” shouted out when someone attempts a long-range shot in anything ranging from a regulation net to an office trash bucket. He mattered enough that his 2016 retirement became a “tour,” an event unto itself that we likely won’t see again soon (unless James is interested). He mattered enough that NBA games scheduled the day of his death started with a 24-second violation in honor of his now-immortal jersey number.
Both the Pelicans and Celtics took 24-second violations to start tonight’s game to honor No. 24, Kobe Bryant. pic.twitter.com/8EOBQkB5zX
— ESPN (@espn) January 26, 2020
Even as I write this while reading and watching the outpouring of grief, which has spilled onto the live telecast of the Grammy Awards, it’s still difficult to process the fact that he’s gone. His long frame and beaming smile in his photos still makes him feel larger than life and death. The now-viral video of him chatting with his daughter Gigi courtside, presumably about the logistics of the game, seems like something they’ll wake up and do again tomorrow.
Bryant was only a couple years older than me – middle-aged but with so much life and love ahead of him. Despite being retired from a game that may never see another player like him, he still had so much left to accomplish.
He’ll never see the rest of his daughters grow older, graduate college and start families of their own. His wife will go to bed this evening knowing that her cornerstone for two decades is gone, as well as her own child. And Gigi – she was just getting started with life.
You certainly don’t need to be a basketball fan for this loss to cut deeply.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. Miraculously, people have paid him to be aggressively light-skinned via a computer keyboard for nearly two decades. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at his own site, wafflecolored.com.