For reasons I still cannot fully describe, I was never a fan of Kobe Bryant. That feeling started to change after the 2006 NBA playoffs. The Lakers were completely outmatched by the Suns, but, by sheer force of will, Kobe led the Lakers to a Game 1 victory in dramatic fashion. Though they did not win that series (losing in seven games), Kobe earned my respect as a player who did not make excuses and always gave maximum effort.
From that point forward everything that I had viewed with contempt slowly became emblematic of his unrelenting commitment to competing at the highest level he possibly could. As Phil Knight said, “No matter the sport—no matter the human endeavor, really—total effort will win people’s hearts.”
No one can doubt Kobe’s endless pursuit of excellence in his craft, but why are so many people affected by his death, when his basketball playing days were over? At first, I thought it was because basketball fans, like myself, felt like we were losing someone close to us – because we had lived vicariously through Kobe for over twenty years (I still say “Kobe” when I shoot trash into the waste bucket). As the day wore on, it became clear that it was much more than that.
Kobe had redefined himself in a way that few stars are able. Kobe’s intelligence and language abilities were always mentioned during his playing days, but Kobe truly demonstrated that he was more than a basketball player this past decade. His creative works are thoughtfully crafted, demonstrating a profound appreciation and understanding of human emotions and experiences – ironically the very thing he supposedly lacked as a teammate for so long.
As the afternoon turned into evening, my deep feeling of sadness had actually increased. As I thought about it more, Kobe had not only redefined his creative talents, he’d redefined his life’s role as well. The last phase of Kobe’s commitment to excellence was reserved for the most important position of all: an involved and loving father.
When he died on Sunday, he wasn’t a selfish, well-to-do retired player taking a helicopter to a lavish destination. He was a father taking his daughter to a basketball game. He was doing something every father can relate to – he was participating in his child’s life. He could have been any of us, piling into our minivan with our children and teammates en route to the YMCA for a rec game.
It was this fact that was at the root of my sadness. Yes, we had lost a basketball legend. Yes, we had lost a talented writer and creator. But, most significantly and simply, we had lost a father and his daughter on her way to play basketball. When I realized this, I looked at my oldest son and vowed to continue my own pursuit of excellence as his dad.
Despite the tragedy of the situation, Kobe left behind a legacy; something he frequently referenced in recent years. However, I do not think it was one even he could have envisioned. For me, Kobe will always be a reminder that no matter how great you are at something, there is always a new challenge around the corner, if you’re willing to accept it. Every moment holds the opportunity to redefine yourself, if you’re willing to change. But most importantly, one’s greatest triumph and purpose can be found within one’s home.
For years to come I will look at my son and, oddly enough, think of Kobe and his legacy. How could I not when my son shares his name?