I almost started a fight at Christian Bible camp one year. It started with a simple question: Who’s better — Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?
Maybe I should have known better, as the campers’ leader. Maybe I shouldn’t have added fuel to the debate by saying both sides were wrong, that Michael Jordan was the best to ever play.
I remembered that time when I heard about Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter accident on Sunday. He and eight others were killed, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
Bryant was more than a superstar basketball player. He was an icon.
Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, playing his whole 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers and becoming the face of one of the most popular franchises in the world.
He led the Lakers to NBA championships in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010. He was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, the NBA MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.
James passed Bryant for third on the league’s all-time list the night before Bryant’s death. James did it in a game in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.”
That was Bryant … classy, thoughtful and respectful. Those qualities made his on-court exploits even more magical, turning him into Generation X’s version of Michael Jordan.
One of his biggest fans was a young man I know named Taylor, who was a part of that infamous debate.
Basketball was, and still is, a major part of Taylor’s world and Kobe is his basketball higher power.
Taylor watched Bryant’s games, his moves, his leadership. He tried to incorporate them into his own game as he became a standout high school point guard in the St. Louis area.
Taylor is now a high school basketball coach and I can bet Bryant’s influence is reflected in his practices, his game plans and in how he motivates his players.
And it struck me … there are thousands of Taylors throughout the world who have been influenced by Bryant. That is his legacy.
While Bryant’s playing days have ended, his influence in the sport and society have not.
An entire nation is in mourning. Social media is flooded with Kobe memories and memorials. I know grown men who never met the man who cried today. They lost someone special.
I live in St. Louis, which does not have an NBA team. Still, the local news is dominated by Bryant’s death.
News crews raced to local gyms to talk to coaches and young players about what Kobe meant to them. St. Louis native and former NBA player Anthony Bonner told KTVI-TV the story about Kobe taking on Jordan one-on-one at the All-Star Game during Bryant’s rookie year.
The news coverage rivaled that of the local coverage Stan Musial’s death got, but that was understandable — Musial was and still is Mr. Cardinal. While baseball is a religion in St. Louis, basketball is down the pecking order of fan interest behind hockey, football and even soccer in some circles.
But that’s what separates Bryant from a normal athlete. His skill and drive made his easy to root for and admire even if he didn’t play a single game locally.
Bryant dedicated himself to promoting women’s sports in retirement. He and Gianna, who was a talented basketball player herself, were on their way to a basketball camp with one of her teammates and her parent when the helicopter crashed.
That hit me personally. My 14-year-old daughter plays high-level sports and we’re constantly travelling to tournaments both locally and out of town.
Though our preferred mode of transportation is car, not helicopter, I imagine their conversation was similar. They were probably talking basketball and Kobe was probably beaming with a father’s pride.
The last thing they were thinking about was dying.
I’ll be taking my daughter to her next tournament soon. Kobe’s legacy to me will be to savor every point that my daughter plays, because we never know when it will be the last.