On the twenty-sixth of January, in 2020, Kobe Bean Bryant died. He died in a helicopter crash in the foggy hills of Calabasas, California. Nine people were on the copter — a pilot and eight passengers.
Kobe’s thirteen-year-old daughter Gianna Maria Onore Bryant was one of the passengers onboard the helicopter.
Kobe Bryant was a proud father. And had he survived the fatal accident he would have lived only to die in a different way. He would have had to live with the fact that his second born child was gone forever. That pain would have killed him every day.
No parent should ever have to bury their child. No parent should ever have to place flowers on the grave of the person they promised to protect for as long as they lived. It is not natural. It is out of order. It is not the way it is supposed to be.
I cannot relate to the Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Laker. I cannot fathom winning NBA Championships and earning Olympic gold medals. But I wholeheartedly can relate to Kobe Bryant the father. The man who loved and dedicated his life to his children. He was my favorite version of Kobe.
Your parents give you a name when you are born. But then there is a moment in life when a new name presents itself as a gift — this time by your child. Some say baba, pops, daddy, or dad, but it all translates to the same thing — father. It is a name that you must earn. It is a name that you must live up too. You are a father. Fatherhood is beautiful. It is boundless. It can make you feel full as the belly of a feasting fool. And yet, at other times, as empty as the stomach of one starving during famine. At moments it hurts us deep. And at others it hugs us tightly. It is what it is — a beatific struggle.
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died doing something I had done with my son countless times. They were traveling to a basketball game. He as the coach. Her as the player. This is the Kobe I intimately understood. I have had the honor of coaching my son. I have coached him from instructional league basketball, all the way up to high school varsity. I have watched him grow from a little boy balling in size eight, Kobe 4 shoes, to a young man plotting on my size thirteen, Kobe 10 Elite High sneakers. Some of my most cherished memories with my second born child have come in the gym.
When news came of Kobe and Gianna’s death, I found myself watching footage of the two of them training in the gym. Working on footwork and fundamentals. I watched a teacher and a student. A father and a child. I was witnessing love and basketball. I cried, because I knew that bond. I had lived through those moments. Watching their videos lead me down a path of viewing ones of my own, stored in my cellphone, with my son and myself. I watched my son’s first time making a bucket during a game. I remember how happy I was for him. How he looked at me like we did it. I remember how pure his smile was in that moment. I relived the lows of my son’s frustrations. He hated how much I focused on shot form. On keeping his elbow in on the release. He was agitated with how his muscles could not memorize the motion. But he kept trying. He did not give up. I respected him for that.
I sat on my couch laughing and loving the moments that we have shared working and growing together. I saw selfies of Kobe and Gianna at basketball games. You could see the love in their smiles. They were in the same poses and positions as the pictures I had taken with my son at college and NBA games. Both sets of pictures had the same soul. They were preservations of precious memories. Had someone been filming my son and I, they would have seen me trying to teach him the game, like Kobe did with Gianna.
I understood this Kobe well.
So did many others.
On the night of Kobe and Gianna’s death, I had an adult league basketball game. The majority of the league is made up of Black fathers. A lot of us bring our kids to the games. One of the fathers there said he had been at Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Academy a few weeks back at a tournament with his son. He talked about watching Kobe’s moves on the floor. Not as a basketball legend, but as a father coaching his child. He said he watched Gianna play with such poise and polish and how Kobe looked at her with such pride and purpose. We then began talking about the nexus between fatherhood and coaching. How coaching our children is a conduit of connectivity. The hours that we spend in the gym with our children are beyond bouncing balls and making jump shots. Our conversation turned into a crowd of Black men, all sharing their love for Kobe Bryant. None of us mentioned his fade away. Nobody mentioned the 81 points he dropped on the Toronto Raptors. There was no talk of Bryant’s 60 point final game of his career. There were no mentions of Kobe’s mamba mentality. Instead, all we talked about was his father mentality.
Kobe Bryant, the father is his true legacy. His NBA records will be broken in time, but his relationship with his four daughters will last forever. It was his love for his daughters that made him create Legacy and the Queen. A book that he said was special to him because he had, “four girls at home and it’s important that they see characters that look like them.” If not for his daughter Gianna, Kobe would have been done with the game he had mastered, the game that he loved, noting that, “Before Gigi got into basketball, I hardly watched it, but now that she’s into basketball, we watch it every night.” Kobe was no longer focused on being the greatest basketball player of all time. All he wanted to do was give all of his time to his family.
Through fatherhood you learn to live an unselfish love. A love wrapped in adoration of your beloved children. You never stop being a father. It is a continuous connection. Walking here on earth or in the heavens of the hereafter, you are always a father. It is a position of perpetuity.
To his very last breath, Kobe Bean Bryant died being a father. That is the Kobe I will always remember.