It is still difficult to grasp that Kobe Bryant has not been alive to experience the majority of his post-NBA career enshrinements. He was not here for his Basketball Hall of Fame induction, the NBA All-75 team, or the Thursday unveiling of his statue outside of Crypto.com Arena.
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Bryant and eight other people, including his daughter, Gianna, died in a tragic helicopter accident on Jan. 26, 2020. Four years ago feels like two decades in the COVID world. The 2020 NBA All-Star Game that introduced the Kobe fourth-quarter score was held in Chicago three weeks to the day of his death. His public memorial was eight days later, and 16 days after, that world ground to a screeching halt. Bryant’s family was forced to face the grim reality shared by millions of others, grieving loss during a viral plague.
I had no time to come to the acceptance part of grief with a person who I first saw on the news when I was seven, and then watched Thursday night after Thursday night on TNT for two decades. I remember watching his Moesha episode live almost as clearly as I do his serendipitous last shot against the Utah Jazz.
It is also hard to fully acknowledge the reality of his death because I live in Los Angeles. Bryant stans are everywhere, so I was familiar with the personality traits — hardheaded and obsessive. In LA, it is simply ratcheted up because nearly everybody in the second-largest metropolitan area in America is a part of that group.
I moved to LA a little more than a month before the start of the 2018-19 season. The tension that was talked about in the media regarding Lakers fans welcoming LeBron James was true. It’s still true. Watch the Lakers at a bar out here and inevitably one, or all, of these three phrases will be uttered: “He’s still not Kobe,” “Kobe would’ve made that shot,” “Kobe’s the best.” If James, or the person he passes to, misses a shot, five minutes of conversation about Bryant will surely follow.
Bryant stans serve as the Secret Service for his legacy. And that usually includes defending or overlooking the horrific sexual assault allegations levied against him by a 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado in 2003. She claimed he raped her, he claimed it was consensual sex and charges were eventually dropped when the young woman refused to testify. Bryant later issued an apology in which he never acknowledged the alleged lack of consent, and now most fans think of Bryant as “innocent”, even though the matter was never fully resolved.
Hearing Bryant’s name so regularly right before quarantine, then hardly hearing anything because I could not be around people, and then hearing it again as soon as I was back outside, combined with all of the murals out there, it is almost as if he never left.
A long, one-on-one conversation with a stan about Bryant will eventually turn morose, but when it comes to general sports talk, he serves as the standard bearer. I remember a conversation with my landlord’s son a few years back. He is not a big basketball fan. I do not even remember the player that I was describing, nor what sport that player played. However, when I was done describing the traits of that player his response was: “Oh, like Kobe.”
Bryant does not feel dead here, because the people here do not speak of him in past tense. Kobe would do it differently, not Kobe did it differently. Kobe is the best, not Kobe was the best.
In a place that is fueled by star power, there is one that will never burn out. As someone who never met Bryant, it would probably take me moving away from LA for the finality of his death to sink in.
Bryant was not able to physically receive the honors of an all-time great. His wife has stood in his place time and time again. Sorry, Drake, but for those of us who are lucky enough, there will be someone who was by our side in most places other than shooting in the gym to represent us when we are gone.
Since we never got to see Bryant’s gate slow like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s or the age in his eyes like Jerry West, the vitality that was in him still reverberates out into the world. That is certainly one reason he does not still completely feel gone. But what really keeps him living, is the people who refuse to let his image fade away.