Column: Kobe Bryant is gone; the Mamba lives forever in heart of Los Angeles
Lord, how we have grieved.
We have dropped to our knees on a sidewalk in the middle of the city and scribbled his name.
We have painted murals on desolate walls and placed flowers on rocky hillsides.
We have laid our shoes in front of gyms, lit candles on street corners, and hung his jersey from tiny barred windows and giant swinging cranes.
And we have cried, goodness we have cried, our capital of cool streaked with three weeks of tears, in elegant real estate offices, in sterile grocery store lines, in crowded barber shops, short painful bursts out of nowhere, unashamed, unabashed pain.
There have been many tales about Bryant in the wake of his death in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of his 13-year daughter, Gianna, and seven others. Those tales have been told around the world about a man who touched lives from Paris to the Philippines.
But the most stirring story has been about ourselves, a city showing unprecedented unity during an unmatched period of mourning.
The last four weeks in Los Angeles have essentially been one giant wake, our streets a sprawling funeral parlor, services occurring in every type of neighborhood, fueled by every ethnicity of mourner, with a power and scope that no one could imagine.
As we prepare to say a final goodbye to Kobe and Gianna during a memorial service at Staples Center on Monday, the stunning and sweeping outpouring compels a simple question.
What it is about Kobe Bryant’s loss that has affected so many different people so dramatically?
He never cured a disease. He never brokered peace. He never led troops on a battlefield. He never held a religious title. He was never elected to anything.
Far from the type of icon normally mourned by millions, Kobe Bryant was but a basketball player. He was great, but he wasn’t the greatest. He won five championships, but others have won more. He was an MVP, once.
So why has Los Angeles been swept up in such grief that business people are wearing number 24 jerseys to work, that artists inking Bryant tattoos are booked through August and “Mamba Out” has become a new public prayer?
Maybe it’s because, for better or worse over nearly a quarter of a century, this basketball player was ours. For a generous portion of our lives, Bryant reflected this city’s work ethic, mirrored its toughness, mimicked its drama, matched its glitz. He set an NBA record by playing 20 years for one team in one town — the most popular team — and did so with a narrative arc that was equal parts Hacienda Heights and Hollywood.
He showed up as a brash and distant 17-year-old who would stop at nothing to conquer the world. He left here as a wise and loving 41-year-old father who died while ferrying one of his four daughters to her youth basketball game.
He swaggered here, stumbled here, fought here, loved here, triumphed here, connected here, ultimately grew up here, and we were witness to it all. Even if we never met him or spoke to him or even saw him in person, we felt like we were part of him. He was always here, always on display, a giant swath of the wallpaper of our lives.
If you’re older, he was the daily drama that dominated your office chatter, the young punk who both entertained and enraged.
If you’re middle-aged, he was your first real celebration of Lakers glory, the awe-inspiring superstar who inspired the Lakers flag on your car and Lakers tickets under your Christmas tree.
If you’re younger, he was your bedroom poster, your first pair of sneakers and quite possibly your first crush.
He represented something for everyone because he was as human as anyone, the most famous frailty-ridden sports star in this city’s history, and together we rode his wave.
He was a fresh kid superstar but a cantankerous ball hog. He was a fearless competitor who quickly won three quick consecutive NBA titles but didn’t have the patience to co-exist with a jolly giant teammate who could have helped him become the greatest winner ever.
He married young and glamorously but cheated on his wife and was arrested on a sexual assault charge that eventually was dropped when the alleged victim declined to testify. From there, he emphatically evolved, and began writing a new chapter in which he became a thoughtful and dogged team leader.
He wasn’t afraid to demand a trade when the team wasn’t good enough. He was ripped for his demands, but the Lakers then acquired better players and won two more titles, after which he stood on a media table and screamed with delight.
After that fifth championship, despite his great maturation, he still occasionally acted the fool, and was once fined $100,000 for directing an anti-gay slur at a referee. But he kept showing up, kept competing, year after year, his resilience becoming a phrase — “Mamba Mentality” — that inspired thousands to overcome their own frailties and get to work.
He insisted on carrying the Lakers when his body could barely carry him, and the strain ended his productive career when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Yet he came back to score 60 in his final game, and afterward stood in the middle of the Staples Center court and told the Lakers fans he loved them. And my, that glorious night, in a basketball farewell that will resonate through the ages, how they loved him back.
When was Kobe Bryant at his best? It depends on who you ask, and plenty of players, coaches, writers and others remember his great scoring nights, game-winning shots and athletic excellence.
In retirement, his impact didn’t diminish, it only changed. He was still here. Still that wallpaper. Only now, his competitiveness was not only about winning basketball games, but improving the world. He became a champion of women’s empowerment, an anonymous philanthropist, and put his hoops creativity on pages and in film to produce smart and inspiring works pertaining to children. Within two years, his new path led him to win an Oscar for best animated short film called “Dear Basketball,” based on a poem about following your dreams.
From as long as any of us can remember, from his reckless competiveness to his resounding rebirth, Kobe Bryant’s dreams were Los Angeles’ dreams. His rise, fall and triumphant search for redemption comprised a journey that felt like our own.
So when he died so horrifically, it was if a part of us died. We cried not just for him, but for ourselves, for the chunk of our past that was instantly stripped away, for our shared journey that ended far too soon.
In losing him, Los Angeles lost a bit of its soul. And so we grieve, and we remember, and perhaps through this pain we will grow.
Kobe Bryant is gone, but from now on, whenever this city is facing an enormous challenge, his spirit will live. Wherever this city is facing stiff competition, his fire will burn. Whatever challenges we face in our own lives, we can summon the fight we witnessed for some of the most memorable moments of our lives, a fight that lives in us still.
Mamba out. Mamba forever.
Monday’s schedule of events at Staples Center will begin with the Kobe and Gianna Bryant memorial and end with a Clippers game. In between comes plenty of work.
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