As a result, today's absolutely devastating news about Kobe Bryant and his daughter felt a little bit like a loss in the family, because the connection to Los Angeles and the Lakers that he represented to so many of us was profound, deep, and omnipresent.
I grew up in an absolutely crazed Laker household. I was a kid for the Showtime Era and as a result, Magic Johnson has always been my all-time favorite player. (We'll save the "greatest Laker" debate for another time; today's not the day, in my opinion.) I have lots of memories of watching him on TV on what was then KHJ Channel 9, with this intro music pouring into our living room:
By the time Kobe entered the league in 1996, I was a sophomore in college, but he quickly took over as that Laker-esque connection to home. I remember watching in agony his air-ball game against the Jazz in the 1997 playoffs at the Stanford Daily offices. The following season, over winter break, a bunch of friends from college who lived in L.A. and I got together and went to a Lakers-Celtics game at the Forum and I got to see Kobe in person for the first time. He was not yet a starter, but he scored 17 points and had 1 assist off the bench that night in a 108-102 loss to Boston. Definitely a sign of things to come.
When Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers were championship contenders in the spring of 2000, I was a rookie reporter at the Oregonian. It just so happened the Lakers were in the conference finals against... the Portland Trail Blazers. It was all hands on deck for our sports department, and I got to be on hand for Game 7, when the Lakers rallied from 15 points down in the fourth quarter. I was behind the basket and up a few rows in the auxiliary press area when Kobe lofted the ball to Shaq for an iconic dunk that sparked a new run of titles for the Lakers (and as a bonus led to one of my all-time favorite Chick Hearn calls; sorry, Portland friends!)
(And I'll be the first to admit Kobe was difficult to root for at times during his career. This is definitely not an apologist's tribute.)
As I continue to process whatever grief I feel, and read the tributes pouring in, it finally hit me this afternoon during a long walk: this must have been what it was like for my parents when John Lennon died in 1980. (My folks are also Beatles fanatics, something they've passed on to me, and I to my sons.) The parallels are strangely eerie: both driven icons in their respective professions. Both suddenly and tragically dead in their early 40s. Both seemingly on the cusp of a wonderful second act in their lives, but gone before it was fully realized.
Paul McCartney once said of Lennon: "John Lennon was a great man. But part of his greatness was that he wasn't a saint."
I think you could say the same for Kobe Bryant. And much like with Lennon, we'll always have the memories. But that doesn't make their losses any easier, because of what they represented to their fans.
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