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Gone, But Not Forgotten: Kobe Bryant’s Legacy Lives on in Every Los Angeleno

a basketball in black and white

I’m crying right now.

It’s happened a couple times this week, but not at the times you might expect, like the tribute at Staples Center last night. Those moments have proved far too surreal, too wrong, too confusing to bring tears. How could Kobe Bryant, whose youth and vitality made him famous, whose resilience and invincibility made him a legend, be gone? It just doesn’t make sense. It still doesn’t feel real.

But in quiet moments, alone, I’ve found myself finally making full contact with the reality that Kobe Bryant, my childhood idol and all-time favorite athlete, was dead.

It’s long been hard to explain to the rest of the basketball community just what Kobe meant to his biggest fans and, crucially, to LA. It wasn’t specifically about greatness, nor was it chiefly about all the winning, and it definitely wasn’t about logic, despite the seething rage of an analytic community who wanted everyone to downgrade Kobe for the unforgivable sin of relative inefficiency (they’re a delightful group). It’s not even that he won his 5 championships with the same franchise, over two distinctly separate eras, and never left, although that did set the stage for such a strong city to player bond.

More than any of that, the thing that made us defend our favorite player so passionately that my brother once dubbed us “a city of mother hens” was the way he made us feel. LA is a weird city in that it was probably a mistake for it to be categorized as a city at all. It’s by far big enough to dwarf many states, and its sub-cultures are so segregated and rarely intersecting that there is close to nothing that makes us feel like a community. Kobe Bryant was one of the few things that broke through; He transcended racial, socio-economic and cultural barriers to make us all understand each other over our intense, sometimes comical devotion to our favorite player. This week, when he passed, we mourned as an entire city in a way I didn’t know was possible. The shared grief was in the very air we were breathing like the ash of a live fire. Our hearts were broken, individually and together, because Kobe Bryant, the man who made us all feel immortal was, himself, dead.

Twenty plus years ago, when Kobe was an all-star and preparing to win his first championship despite not being legally old enough to drink, he gave that feeling of invincibility to a shy kid with severe asthma and allergies. His youth, vitality, brashness, unfettered ambition and transcendent spark made me feel like I could do anything, even if I was going to stop to have an asthma attack on my way there. He made me feel larger than life, as if looking up to him transferred his greatness over to me, setting me on a path for greatness myself that felt inevitable, no matter how unlikely or illogical it looked at that moment. As a role model, Kobe helped plant in me a resilient faith in my own future, and I leaned on that throughout my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

But time makes fools of us all, and the neurosis of adulthood slowly corroded that faith until, one day, those optimistic visions of the future had stopped feeling like the future at all. They had come to feel like far off fantasies; daydreams that were nothing more than a break from reality. I had ceased to see myself in Kobe’s irrepressible life force. A seed of “I don’t have what it takes” had suddenly bloomed into full blown self-doubt, continuing to grow until my faith in myself had, for the most part, disappeared. Worst of all, I hadn’t accepted that it was happening. I was still self-identifying as ambitious, driven, and optimistic, even as those words had begun to ring hallow. Some of those who know me best began to sense this change, and had started to politely ask me to give them a sign that my inner spirit still had a pulse; They were carefully putting a mirror to my pride’s mouth and waiting to see it still had enough air to fog up the glass. I pretended not to notice this was happening because, honestly, I had no compelling explanation to offer.

When the news of Kobe’s death came, it didn’t take long for me to know, as someone who continues to call himself a writer (regardless of any absence of recent proof), I simply had to write about this. Not because the world needs to know what I have to say, but because what is this vocation for if not to express a feeling this big. After all, If I couldn’t synthesize the passing of my childhood hero into something that I could put my name on, the dream simply had to be over. And since there was no long-term film project to be planned because this was clearly neither a movie nor fiction, I had no excuse. “It’s now or never, and never is not an option” is what I imagined Kobe would say, but in some far more terrifying way that would have definitely made Kwame Brown cry.

But I didn’t know what to write. Not in a way that would live up to the scope of what it meant to lose by far my favorite athlete. That was until I scrolled by a video of young Kobe, Afro-era Kobe. In that moment I suddenly felt what it was like to be ten years old again, seeing my favorite player as a god the way 10-year old’s do. I remembered the way that kid had seen himself in Kobe, the uber athlete, and how that made perfectly fine sense to an unathletic, asthmatic Jewish kid, because children are the best that way.

And with that sensation came another. With clear eyes, I could see the truth I'd been avoiding; that I’d become smaller over the years. Not literally, of course, but in my own mind, where that fire burns. More importantly, I finally saw this change for what it really was; not humbleness born of maturity, but a great loss born of fear. For the first time in a long time, I remembered that what I needed wasn't to change but to feel like myself again. I never stopped having that part of me that related to Kobe’s brash pursuit of greatness, I was just too scared to wake it up; terrified of the highs and lows that come when you live with real purpose. Now that all felt so pointless. Such a waste. It was like Kobe himself was telling me to “Wake the fuck up”.

It’s still hard to process that someone so vital, so huge died at the young age of 41, and it’s even harder to accept the death of his daughter, Gigi, at the age of 13; That’s not to mention the seven other lives lost that day, each of which are more heartbreaking the more we learn about them. I suspect this tragedy will never stop being hard to accept, or at the very least will never feel right, but I've found solace in the epic scope of the reaction to his passing. I wish Kobe could see it, the way his city banded together in celebration of his life. I wish he could see it because then he would know that, even if he’s gone, the way he made us feel will never be forgotten. He made us champions, and he made us feel like champions. That never goes away. That’s the power of a true legacy.

To paraphrase Lebron James, “Mamba out, but never forgotten”

Thanks for everything, Kobe.

May you and Gigi Rest in Peace.