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Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant (R) reac
Lakers’ star Kobe Bryant reacts during Game 3 of the 2008 NBA Finals against the Celtics.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

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The death of Kobe Bryant and the pain of losing someone you didn’t know

Superstars aren’t supposed to die. But of course they do. I knew that. I just wish I didn’t know it so well right now.

Some news is just crushing. It comes out of nowhere, stops you in your tracks, punches you in the stomach, steals your breath and slips away. It leaves you with a dumb, dopey open mouth that, in the moment, is incapable of forming the words you’re asking yourself.

What? How? When?

And, most of all, why?

I did not know Kobe Bryant. If I interviewed him or sat in on one of his press conferences, I have no memory of it. And, yet, here I sit in the raw moments after hearing of his death, and I feel like I’ve lost something of my own. Why is that? There’s the suddenness of it, for sure. One moment a man is flying in a helicopter and the next there is only the sky where he and it used to be, like some old TV cartoon. But in those cartoons, there were no consequences after gravity had taken over. Wile E. Coyote always walked away.

Bryant, who could once jump higher than most human beings on the planet, was beholden to gravity like the rest of us. A helicopter crash killed him and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, on Sunday morning in Calabasas, Calif. The former Lakers star was 41.

Why does this news sting so much?

Part of it is that superstars aren’t supposed to die relatively young and certainly not tragically. I don’t know how they’re supposed to die, and, frankly, I don’t know where this idea of immortality comes from inside me. Maybe from that place where a little boy first started watching sports. Where stars can do no wrong. Where they’re bigger than life and above death. But of course they can die. I knew that. I just wish I didn’t know it so well right now.

The death of his daughter, Gianna, feels like another punch, this one after the round had ended. Unfair. And beyond cruel.

Kobe talking with Gianna in 2018.
Kobe talking with Gianna in 2018.
Chris Carlson/AP Photo

Bryant was a phenomenal basketball player, an 18-time All-Star and a five-time NBA champion. He unapologetically patterned himself after the Bulls’ Michael Jordan. We in Chicago teased him about that – about the way he shot like MJ, the way he backed into defenders like MJ, the way he talked like MJ. But the truth is that he was the closest thing to a Jordan clone there has ever been. There’s no faint praise in that, only respect; you had to be damn good just to get a foot inside Michael’s shadow.

Bryant did things on a basketball court that lots of people wanted to do but couldn’t. He scored 81 points in a game, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. He won two scoring titles. He came to the NBA right out of high school in 1996 and fit right in. He was an All-Star his second season.

I didn’t have much use for Bryant earlier in his career, when he was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel worker in 2003. The criminal charges were dropped when the alleged victim refused to testify in court, but he reached a settlement with her after she filed a civil suit. There was an apology from him but no admission of guilt. There was no #MeToo movement back then, and fans greeted him with cheers when he returned to the basketball court. Way too many fans, in my opinion.

It was nasty and ugly and, like a lot of things in a celebrity obsessed country, eventually pushed to the corner of our collective memory. You play long enough, and those endorsements you lost start coming back. That can happen when you average a career-high 35.4 points a game, which Bryant did two years later.

He never stopped being excellent at his craft. The proof of that is what we called him: Kobe. Just Kobe. There was only one of him, and he didn’t require a last name.

He’s a sure-fire top-15 player in NBA history. Many would put him in the top 10, and others would put him in the top five. It doesn’t matter. He was great. You can’t tell the story of the NBA without him. He could get his shot whenever he wanted. He could move his body almost effortlessly in midair. Having springs for quadriceps helped.

He’s gone, and I still can’t quite believe it.

I don’t think I’ve been this shocked over national news since 9/11. If my emotional proportionality is out of whack, I’m sorry. I’m just telling you how I feel in this moment — gutted, for reasons I’m not sure I totally understand.

I don’t feel like I’ve been deprived of something. Bryant gave basketball fans everything they could have wanted when he was playing, but I haven’t sat around since he retired in 2016 wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life. I didn’t pay much attention to the 2018 Oscar he won for an animated short film he wrote and produced.

I feel like I’ve lost something. I’ve lost an idea. I’ve lost somebody I didn’t know. For one person to have that effect on another is an amazing thing. It’s a measure of a life.

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