Why the Sun Never Sets on Kobe Nation

I wasn’t a big fan of Kobe Bryant, so this isn’t an article about that.

I’m not going to regale you with tales of how I grew up watching him play; I was a 30-year-old man before he started playing.

I’m not going to recount for you his stats or rings or All-Star selections. They are vast and he earned every one of them.

I’m not going to talk about where he ranks on All-Time lists. That conversation is too petty for the moment.

I want to tell you the story of why I openly wept for Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and all those who perished on Sunday—why it shook me to my core.

I was born in Louisiana and, being born in Louisiana, I was an LSU fan. And as an LSU fan, I was a Shaquille O’Neal fan. And as a Shaquille fan, I was a fan of the Shaq Lakers.

For a few years, he was the most dominant player in the world, and arguably had the most dominant stretch in the history of the game. Look at his Finals numbers someday. They’re surreal. But we’re not talking about him, we’re talking about Kobe, who was the second-best player on those teams.

FILE: Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers high five each other during a National Basketball Association game against the Orlando Magic at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

He was an incredible scorer and defender, and honestly an underrated passer.

And he was cocky.

As a Shaq fan, at the time, I put the rift between the two on Kobe, and the inevitable break up on him too. (Though now I’ve come to think they were both at fault.)

I remember debating with a friend who was a huge Kobe fan. He talked about him like he was the second-coming of Michael Jordan, and I laughed that off. But that’s not so far off in retrospect.

At the time, the NBA world really needed a new Jordan: that kind of personality that could pull millions into its gravitational pull. And Kobe was that guy. He had the strength of personality, the charisma, and yes, the ego to pull that off.  So he did.

He emulated Jordan on the court. Remember this video that showed them side by side?

But in a lot of ways, he patterned his off-court success with Jordan too, parlaying his NBA contracts and shoe endorsements into a massive $770 million net worth, closing in on the billionaire class.

Kobe created magical moments, and whether it was scoring 81 points in a game or hitting game-winners, those moments gave his most fervent fans something to believe in, (and the casual fans or even Kobe haters something to marvel at). Sure, we could break down the shots missed or what have you, but his shooting percentage on those plays isn’t the point. It’s the ones he made that count here.

Because the ones he made, made you believe he could make the next one.

And that’s the thing about Kobe. His belief in himself was so strong, it made everyone else believe in him too. It was the heart of his magnetism, and it’s why I think he was so loved around the world.

Whether he was going to China or Europe or staying home in Los Angeles, the adulation was always real. The media loved to discuss him. Players a generation ahead of him propped his ethos and work ethic up as the right way to do things. Those of his own admired him, and those of the next aspired to be him.

Whatever your thoughts on Kobe the player and where he fits in history, Kobe the icon is unquestionable.

Everyone knew who he was, and not just in a name recognition sort of way. Everyone knew him. They knew of his legendary work ethic and determination and will. They knew the “Mamba mentality.”

Apr 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) tries to drive against Utah Jazz guard Shelvin Mack (8) in the first quarter at Staples Center. Bryant concludes his 20-year NBA career tonight. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe didn’t have a fanbase, he had a church, with evangelical believers who just loved to talk about the greatness of Kobe.

I remember sitting in a friend’s kitchen the afternoon after Kobe dropped 81 against the Toronto Raptors. He kept just calling it the greatest game ever. I thought to myself, “Didn’t Wilt score 100?” But that’s the thing about the Church of Kobehei: Tr belief in him transcended facts, because Kobe’s belief in himself transcended facts.

And that’s why his church spread through the world the way it did.

For most of the  20 years he played, Kobe didn’t have his finger on the pulse of the NBA, he was the pulse of the NBA. He’s was as talked about, argued about, spun and discussed as maybe any player ever. Tall tales were woven and rewoven until he became even more than he was.

He’s a legend in the truest sense, where the person grows bigger in each cycle of telling, in the sense where a big dude with an ax and a dog becomes Paul Bunyan and a giant ox.

Kobe became even bigger than Kobe, but he still fit comfortably in the expanded world. His belief in himself was big enough even for that.

And it’s why his death, so sudden and tragic and shocking had the world stunned. When news of it first leaked, there were so many comments to the effect of, “I don’t want to believe this.”

Disbelief seems like the only way to receive the news that the man who had so much belief in himself could be so suddenly snatched from us.

When it was verified, I suddenly felt so mortal. If something like that could happen to Kobe Bryant, it could happen to me too. The realization of that came to me like a punch in the gut, and I was stunned by my own tears at the news.

Raw, actual tears. It was as if part of the fabric of reality had been torn from me. And it was in that moment that I, who have been described as a “hater” on more than one occasion, knew that I loved the man too.

I loved him because in him I see that you can always be more, always be better, always be bigger than you are if you just believe in yourself enough. And as I’ve had time to process it, I realize it’s not something even his sudden, tragic passing on can take away.

Rest in peace, Kobe Bryant. We believe, and that includes me too.

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