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27th Jan 2020

Kobe Bryant: All he needed was a ball

Kyle Picknell

Like much of his career the death of Kobe Bryant didn’t just feel improbable. It felt impossible

His image will adorn the front page of every newspaper today and the words will remain scarcely believable. Kobe Bryant dead at 41. Kobe Bryant. An athlete for whom life seemed to stumble over itself to make way for his own storybook narrative. Gone. Just like that.

People mourned as people tend to mourn these days. Open disbelief at a TMZ article worryingly ahead of any other source, a flood of confirmation in the form of WhatsApp messages, then Twitter, to wallow in the deep shadow of the feeling. To share the experience but also to gauge it. To compare and measure. Just how sad is the rest of the world about this? Just how sad am I?

Twitter broke for a few moments as the news did. When it came back on it was awash with videos of Bryant: the one of him watching courtside with his daughter, the one of him appearing on Jimmy Kimmel talking about his daughter, the Oscar-winning animation of his poem ‘Dear Basketball’. Eulogies started small but trickled into a deluge. A near-universal outpouring of grief. Tributes from all corners, Neymar to Obama. The world on pause, something close to synchronicity at last. Grainy footage of LeBron James wandering alone down an airport runway, wiping tears from his face.

Kobe Bryant was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Italy, where his father spent the later years of his own basketball playing career. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers and became the youngest person to ever play in the NBA a few months after his 18th birthday. He was articulate and intelligent but also insensitive to others and pathologically competitive.

He won five NBA titles and put up 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists every night for two decades. He was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman and his wife filed for divorce amid allegations of infidelity before they later reconciled.

He was named an NBA All-Star on 18 occasions and named in the All-NBA First Team on 11. He scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in a game that still feels like it couldn’t have happened. He scored 60 in his final game too, including the winning shot with just over 30 seconds left, another event that completely warped the established boundaries of possibility. Nobody gets endings that perfect. Not even in the make-believe world of professional sport, not even in Hollywood. Bryant seemed to exist at the centre of where the two overlap.

He was, by any measure, one of the greatest basketball players to ever live. He also missed the most shots in the history of the sport. In the city of Los Angeles he is revered as a god. His death begs the question: what is important there? What isn’t? Is all of it? Is any of it?

He carried an exaggerated sense of invincibility due to his self-perpetuated alter ego as the ‘Black Mamba’, which nobody cared about more than him. It was cultivated off the court through his frightening work ethic and Nike’s marketing team, but mostly it was cultivated on the hardwood itself.

In 2010 Matt Barnes, a notorious basketball provocateur, stood a foot away from Bryant and faked throwing the ball straight into his face. Bryant didn’t flinch. He didn’t allow himself to succumb to ancient biologically reflex. He just smirked. In 2013 he tore his Achilles tendon whilst being fouled in a game against the Golden State Warriors. Although it came three years before his retirement, it was the injury that essentially ended his basketball career. Most would have been carried off the court in tears. Kobe Bryant pinched his calf to stop the Achilles from separating completely, walked to the line and sank two free throws to tie the game.

Even in high school, the story goes that Bryant would play his teammates in one-on-one games to 100 points. The closest anyone came to beating him was a score of 100-12. Most people have a worst defeat. He had a worst victory.

Post-retirement, the aura softened and Bryant eased into life not without basketball but much less of it. He became a venture capitalist. He released a series of children’s books. He started coaching his daughter’s team. He seemed more at ease with himself, unerringly comfortable in his own skin now that the fight was over. He spent his playing career gritting his teeth and making more enemies than friends but it was worth it. He spent his retirement grinning.

The news of his death in a helicopter crash, which also took the lives of eight others, including his teenage daughter Gianna, a basketball prodigy in her own right, confounded. Of course it did. People like Kobe Bryant don’t die. They aren’t meant to. People like Kobe Bryant shape the universe to their will. They are unstoppable forces. They exist to show us what can be done. That we are capable of great things. They believe it and they strive for it and so it happens. That’s it. Kobe Bryant showed us the life we want is possible through the relentless determinism of his own. He gave an otherwise seemingly meaningless existence a thin veneer of meaning. That is why the news was so shocking. Kobe Bryant had everything worked out, he had already won. He had pulled up at the elbow and watched the net swish. If this can happen to him, what chance do the rest of us have? Are all our dreams a lie?

They are and they aren’t. His passing reaffirms two opposing truths we always knew but rarely if ever consider side by side. The first is the transience of life. It is too fleeting. Too precious and too fragile. It is not enough. That much is evident every time a loved one passes, or a person people loved. The second is its permanence. Its lastingness. Think of all he did, the scale of it. Joy in waves the size of mountains. An abyss now he is gone. And all he needed was a ball. The life we have is enough.