In Los Angeles, we live in far flung neighborhoods, with thousands of intersections but little overlap. Except where sports is concerned.
The richest fans sit courtside at Staples Center, but they are no more a part of the sports community than legions of anonymous black, white, Latino and Asian fans who work and sweat and yearn and watch games on television, wearing the jerseys of Magic, Kareem, LeBron and Kobe, and believe, always, that winning is not a just possibility but a local birthright.
Kobe Bryant was their guy. Our guy. A guy who made us believe that with enough work and desire, winning is more than a distant dream. A guy who once sat on the end of the bench but became a local hero who delivered great joy.
And, on an eternally gray day, an even greater sense of loss.
The first time I proposed writing about Kobe, I had a colossally bad idea.
The year was 1997 and I was working for Time Inc., in a job that involved occasional stories for Sports Illustrated. I had begun my career as a sportswriter and always had an eye out for stories to pitch to SI, and I was certain I had a good one.
I wanted to write about what a mistake it had been for Bryant to skip college and turn pro straight out of high school.
I was living in Philadelphia at the time, not far from where Bryant caught the attention of the basketball gods while defying gravity for Lower Merion High School. And I actually felt sorry for Bryant, who spent much of his first season with the Lakers planted on the bench.
He could have been leading a great university to an NCAA title, I thought, and getting a college education, too. Instead, there was no telling how long it might take him to become a contributing member of the Lakers.
More than one editor rejected my pitch, arguing that it was too soon to make such a judgment, and besides, who was I to tell a young phenom how to manage his life?
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve written a few stories I regret, but that one would have topped the list.
A year later, at 19, Bryant was the youngest player ever to suit up in an NBA All-Star game. It was the first of 18 All-Star appearances in a 20-year career that included five titles, and he seemed always to have known his destiny.
I was working on an unrelated story a year or two later and saw Bryant in the Lakers’ locker room, where he was being interviewed by an Italian news crew. I knew that he’d spent part of his childhood in Italy and that he spoke Italian. Still, I recall being impressed by his poise and deft handling of the language.
Of course, we make too much of athletes. We glorify them, idolize them, expect miracles of them. And they of course are human, which means they are deeply flawed.
Bryant was no exception. He was accused in 2003 of raping a 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado. A civil lawsuit against him was settled confidentially and criminal charges were dropped. Bryant apologized for what had happened, but some fans — particularly women — never forgot.
In 2011 Bryant was fined $100,000 by the NBA for using a homophobic slur on a referee. He later said “that wasn’t cool and was ignorant on my part” and he encouraged others to own up to their own biases.
I didn’t know Bryant. Few of us did. But as a father, a husband, a businessman, a person, he showed repeatedly that he was more than his darkest moments and worst instincts, that he grew, that he understood that his greatness gave him a platform to appeal to our better selves.
He is immortalized now in Los Angeles lore both for his rare combination of talent and relentless commitment to hard work, and for the tragedy of his early death in the helicopter crash in Calabasas that took the life of his teenage daughter and seven others.
When I first saw a social media post on the accident, I hoped it was a mistake or someone’s idea of a sick joke. For a man who devoted so much attention to the detail of his craft, it seemed incomprehensible that he would go down in a helicopter in dense fog on a day when the darkness never lifted. But he did, and the pall that spread across Southern California has traveled around the world.