By Andrew Edwards, EAN Staff Writer
Growing up in the South, especially Alabama, you learn that college football is king. If you’re born here, you’re seemingly raised either an Alabama or Auburn fan. If you move here, you’re quickly forced to pick a side.
Under my roof as a child, we had a ‘household’ divided with my father being an Auburn fan and my mother bleeding crimson and white. At some point, my mom must have won the battle. If you know me now, I’m one of the biggest followers of UA athletics that you’ll ever meet.
At the time, it felt like Alabama athletics was all that I ever needed. I always knew that I liked sports, but I always kept it close to home – never branching out and giving my full attention to other athletes and organizations.
That changed in the summer of 2010.
On June 17, 2010 I was sitting in a hotel room in Kansas City, MO resting after a full day of watching the high school speech and debate national final rounds. I was in ninth grade, wearing my Alabama National Championship vs Texas T-shirt, a game that the Tide had won just five months prior.
Flipping through the channels I saw that the Los Angeles Lakers were playing the Boston Celtics in game seven of the NBA finals, so being a sports fan, I decided to change the channel to that station.
I never really knew much about the NBA, other than a few stars here and there, as well as a handful of teams. I also never took much interest in it because the closest team was the Atlanta Hawks.
To me, there wasn’t much of a reason to care.
But after that night, I cared more than I ever thought I could.
I watched the legendary Kobe Bean Bryant carve up the original ‘big three’ in the Boston Celtics, coming up clutch time and time again on his way to his fifth and final NBA championship.
The action in the game was breathtaking – fast-paced, exhilarating, and above all – highly addicting to watch.
After the game, I couldn’t wait until late October for the next season to start.
But the story may not go where you think it will. When the 2010-2011 season started, I wasn’t suited up ready to watch Kobe and the Lakers. I was, instead, eager to watch Lebron James on his new team, the Miami Heat.
For years, I followed Lebron from team to team, captivated by his skills on the court. I was so enthralled by him that I was actually envious of other players that I felt were a challenge to him.
Chief among them: Kobe Bryant.
The man who originally got me into the sport was now someone that I found myself rooting against, and for no particular good reason other than the fact that I was jealous that he was just as good as Lebron.
But feelings can change on a whim, as is the case with a lot of experiences in life.
In 2014, during game two of the NBA finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, ESPN aired a short clip during halftime of an interview that they had with Bryant. Now at the back end of his career, Bryant spoke about his daughters (he only had two at the time), Natalia and Gianna. He talked about how important his family was to him in the most genuine, thoughtful way possible. It was clear that he knew his time in the NBA was coming to a close and that he was ready to try to become more than just an NBA player. It was evident that he wanted to focus on being the best dad possible, and to devote his time and effort to a family that meant so much to him.
And just like that, I was a Kobe fan again.
Over the last couple years of his career, Bryant suffered serious injuries – some of which kept him sidelined for months at a time. But it never seemed to sway him away from the game. In fact, it seemed to make him hungrier to come back and prove himself even more – an attribute that defined his career time and time again.
As many of you may well know, Bryant finished his final game in April of 2016 against the Utah Jazz in the most iconic way possible, scoring 60 points in an effort that would bring a tear to the eye of any NBA great.
After the game, the crowd chanted “Kobe” for what seemed like a lifetime. He made his rounds, hugging each and every teammate as well as past teammates and friends on the sideline.
“I appreciate the journey that we’ve been on. We’ve had our ups and downs,” Bryant said to the crowd after the game. “I think the most important part is that we stayed together throughout. I can’t believe this has come to an end. You guys will always be in my heart. Mamba out.”
Kobe Bryant was done in the NBA.
But it wasn’t the last time that you would hear his name. He was still a regular attendee for Lakers games, helped to create the Mamba Sports Academy, and was an extremely vocal advocate for the WNBA.
Above it all, he was now a full-time dad – spending as much time as he could with his wife Vanessa and four daughters. He had become more than just an example of greatness for young NBA players, he become a role model for anyone and everyone.
Up until his last day on earth, Bryant was putting his family first.
At 9:06 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 26, 2020, a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter departed from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, with nine people aboard: Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, six family friends and the pilot.
The helicopter was travelling to a practice session at Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks.
At 9:45 a.m. the helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles and caught on fire. Bryant, and the other eight occupants, were killed.
In the blink of an eye, Kobe Bryant was gone.
I was shocked, disgusted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There’s no way that Kobe Bryant, a man who still had so much to give to the world, was dead. There’s no way that his daughter, Gigi, someone was going to play for the UConn Huskies one day before reaching the WNBA, could be gone just like that that. I was heartbroken.
There’s been a handful of major celebrity deaths in my 24 short years here, but Bryant’s is one that feels more personal than ever – and I’ve never even met the man. He was, after all, the one that got me into the sport that I love to watch so much.
I shouldn’t have spent so many years being envious of him because I felt like he was a threat to another player that I loved. I should have, instead, appreciated him for what he’s is – a genuine, hard-working, inspiring family-man who did whatever it took to win.
Fans of the NBA get so caught up with “who’s the greatest all of time,” but I believe it’s time to put that debate to rest. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Jordan, Kobe, Lebron – all of these players are incredible in their own right. No one has to be better than the other. Instead of debating, lets appreciate the greatness that they all displayed on the court night after night.
This goes for sports in general. In Alabama, don’t get too caught up in bickering about the two teams. Everyone out there is just human, like all of us.
People we love, celebrities or not, can be gone in a matter of seconds. Make sure to take a moment to thank those you love for being a part of your life. It’s easy to forget to do something as simple as this in our hectic world, but it’s a necessary gesture that we need to do more of.
To Vanessa, Natalia, Capri, and Bianka Bryant, I offer my deepest condolences to you.
To Laker nation, keep your head up high knowing that Kobe is smiling down now, cheering you all on for championship number 17.
In Memory of: Kobe and Gianna Bryant, John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Ara Zobayan, Sarah and Payton Chester, and Christina Mauser