I was driving home from a boys’ weekend in a remote cabin with my 25-year-old son and his best pal when we first heard the shocking news of the deaths yesterday, in a helicopter crash, of Kobe Bryant, 41, his daughter, Gianna Maria-Onore, 13, and seven others. Immediately we felt gutshot. He was so much more than a basketball icon. After so many hours and so many years watching him make his magic, it felt like we’d lost a familiar friend.
In the winter of 1997, I moved clear across the country to Southern California with my wife and infant son. It happened to be Kobe Bean Bryan’s rookie year with the Los Angeles Lakers.
As an average guy with a trio of demanding jobs—marriage, raising a first child, and a career—I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth for friends and hobbies. Though I’d played sports in another lifetime, I’d never been a big fan of watching other people play.
But somehow, in the early days of my time in San Diego, I started tuning into (or video taping or later DVRing) the Lakers and their astounding young rookie. Late at night, when the wife and kid were asleep, Kobe and the Lakers were my solace and my joy. As the years passed, my boy joined me on the couch became a huge fan, too. It was a thing we did together, watch Kobe and the Lakers. A number of times we spent a small fortune on tickets and traveled to L.A. to watch him in person at the Staples Center.
In 2007, when I got the assignment from my Esquire editors to write about Kobe, I was over the moon, a fifty-something fanboy who’d just won the golden ticket. By that time, the events in Kobe’s life, both on court and off, were looking pretty dark. I went into our meetings both skeptical and open. Four decades in the news biz, you learn that most mercurial superstars were not as they appeared.
All told, over several weeks time, I spent about 8 full days with Kobe and his wife Vanessa, both in L.A. and in Las Vegas. It was a time in his life when he was down, hurting and feeling humbled. And mightily misunderstood. And hugely determined.
It was to Kobe’s advantage at that point in his life to finally open up a little bit, and I believe he did. After spending time with him, a lot of the mystery fell away. I learned an even deeper appreciation.
In 2016, during Kobe’s 20th and last season with the Lakers, as he was making his farewell tour of NBA cities, I was asked to reflect upon his career. I think once again I captured a glimmer of Kobe—this time of his life to come.
With deepest condolences to the Bryant family.
Rest in Peace.
This originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Esquire.
In a high school gym on the outskirts of Las Vegas, on an empty court a few hours before practice, Kobe Bean Bryant launches another shot.
As the familiar burnt-orange sphere leaves his hand, he holds his pose, bouncing on the balls of his feet, his impossibly long, sculpted arm extended overhead. The names of his daughters—Natalia Diamante and Gianna Maria-Onore—are tattooed on his right forearm, which is now facing the basket, his wrist still holding its perfect gooseneck follow-through.
The ball traces a high parabola through the air, humid and redolent of floor wax and old socks, and falls perfectly to the bottom of the net. Kobe nods his head once, and then he smiles—a carefree expression seldom seen in public, something he calls his “Kool-Aid smile,” the boyish grin of a character his daughters know as the Tickle Man, a grown-up prodigy who loves ice cream Kahlúa drinks, soccer, and the sci-fi thriller Ender’s Game, about a specially bred boy-warrior who suffers greatly from isolation and rivalry but triumphs in the end.
This was the summer of 2007, when he was twenty-nine. At that point, he owned three NBA championship rings, two scoring titles, and the record for the second-most points ever scored in an NBA game, 81.
And he was universally despised.
The son of a pro basketball player, Bryant spent his early years in Italy; after returning to the U. S. and playing for a high school in Pennsylvania, he was named the Naismith Boy’s High School Player of the Year and jumped straight into the NBA.
And Kobe was talented. But no one liked him. Zero sense of humor, the kind of guy who played tough defense in the All-Star game; he was probably the first to “go for” All-Star MVP. He never mixed with his teammates, didn’t even dress in the same part of the locker room. To be fair, for the first three years, he wasn’t even allowed into the bars and clubs the guys were going to back then. He might have been African-American, but he wasn’t street. He spoke Italian.
Even as the years passed, even as he racked up points, assists, All-Star selections, and NBA titles—even as his jersey led all sales worldwide—Bryant was neither beloved nor respected by fans. Yet no one could enumerate any true flaws in his game, which just kept getting better. Every off-season, he’d add a new element, redesign his body, study more tape, devise new methods to excel. There was Bryant, and then there was everybody else.
Then, in the summer of 2003, there was the incident in Colorado, the alleged rape victim who chose not to testify, the huge diamond apology to his wife, Kobe’s stone-faced press conferences. Add his feud with L. A.’s beloved Shaquille O’Neal, which led to Shaq’s departure in 2004, and then Bryant’s own talk of desiring a trade three years later. Bryant’s perceived arrogance and his wealth—a reported $45 million in salary and endorsements the year I met him—were further nails in the coffin. Sure, Bryant was great, but damned if people were going to praise him. He was seen around the league as a one-dimensional basketball machine, a guy who lacked a soul.
But: When the whistle blew, magic happened. The jab step, the pump fake, the blow-by, the baseline up-and-under, the fall-away from either side, the long three at the buzzer. The smothering defense on the opposing All-Star point guard. The jersey between his teeth, the long spidery fingers wiping his chest for moisture, the feet set slightly off-kilter on his free throws, annoying several generations of youth basketball coaches. The hooded left eye, the Mutomboesque wagging finger, the Kareem-style hook, the Magic-like no-look passes, the joyful jump into Shaq’s arms, the airplane run across the floor.
At the time I met Bryant, to write a story for this magazine, he had reached rock bottom and was just starting to reinvent himself. He was starring in a series of new commercials for Sprite and Nike that portrayed him as he liked to see himself: Kobe as the master practitioner, a man who worked so hard at his craft that he had willed himself into greatness. The message: Kobe Bryant didn’t want our love. He just wanted to be the best.
Bryant was also working on a new personal logo. He showed me a drawing and explained each piece like a high school kid in his bedroom revealing a notebook sketch. The logo is called the Sheath, he said. It was drawn to resemble the sheath of a samurai’s sword. The sword is the raw talent, Bryant explained. The sheath is the package it’s kept in—everything you go through, your calluses and your baggage, what you learn.
Like his cinematic heroes Jason Bourne and James Bond, Bryant explained, he saw himself as a modern warrior able to train his way into dominance. Film my workout, he suggested. That is the essence of me: the guy who guts it out on every rep.
At one point, we sat down for a long talk in his hotel suite in Las Vegas. I was on a couch and he was sitting on a barstool so as not to have to bend his knees. I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a statue. He was loose that day. We spoke of his secret desire, when his career was over, to go down in a shark cage and to jump out of a plane. How Michael Jordan—with whom he has been forever compared—had become a confidant and how Jordan’s advice “is like getting advice from that Buddha that sits on the top of the mountain, who has everything figured out and passes on some of his knowledge to the next guy who’s trying to climb that mountain.”
As for his lousy public image, “the aloofness thing,” he said, “honestly, I didn’t really hear about it until later. A lot of it was just naive, because … I had no clue what was going on, what people were saying about me. It sounds silly to say, but it’s true…. I had a reporter ask me about it one day, you know, ‘People think you’re arrogant—what’s up with that?’ And it absolutely just seemed to come out of left field. I was just like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he was like, ‘Haven’t you read the papers?’ From that day forward, I started reading the papers.”
The thing that came through strongest was that Bryant was kind of an idiot savant of basketball. Like geniuses in other fields, he seemed to lack an understanding of how different he was from everyone else. It’s as if he’d been so focused on himself—and being great in the sport he loved—that he had no clue what he’d become and didn’t really care.
Over the years after our visit, the new Bryant continued to flower. He won two more championships—pointedly without Shaq—in 2009 and 2010. He led the U. S. team to gold medals in two Olympics, pointedly playing the role of defensive stopper, pointedly playing the role of team leader. He surpassed Jordan in all-time points scored. Now that the older guys were gone from the league, there seemed to be less resentment about his sanctimonious work ethic and more respect—and more and more young players were putting up a thousand shots a day over the summer to hone their treys. Whereas summer once meant vacation for NBA players, it is now known as the time to work and install new moves. This is Bryant’s doing, a contagious quest for excellence. Because of Bryant, everyone has upped their game.
Now: Witnessing the Lakers’ thirty-seven-year-old Bryant limp through his retirement lap around the NBA has been bittersweet. An aging superstar in his twentieth year with the same storied franchise, Bryant has had flashes of the old brilliance while playing with a young and lackluster team. A thunderous dunk early in the season, over the Houston Rockets’ youthful Swiss big man, six-ten Clint N’Dumba-Capela, made everybody wonder for a moment if maybe he wasn’t actually done. “The Mamba still has venom in those veins!” gushed sportscaster Reggie Miller, who himself played until age thirty-nine.
Then it became obvious that Bryant had reinjured his surgically repaired right shoulder—for my money, it happened while posterizing the twenty-one-year-old. Every old jock knows the play, the last hurrah.
In between his ceremonial minutes now, Bryant is on the bench encased in ice packs. He no longer practices. He doesn’t participate in shoot-arounds. Following the All-Star break, the shoulder kept him out over a stretch of games.
Most notable as he takes his final bow is the way Bryant seems to have matured over the years. Since the season began and he announced his retirement, he has been open about his struggles with his aging body, and also about his appreciation of the momentousness of his achievements. Although he sucked at being a little brother, he has turned out to be a pretty good mentor—his fierce leadership, on and off the court, helped key the Lakers’ late-season upset of the juggernaut Golden State Warriors.
When I see Bryant on the highlight films as he says his goodbyes, the thing that strikes me most is his smile. Large and white and unconstrained, visible now for all to see, it has cracked at last that stony mask. And revealed the man inside whose life is just beginning.