“Alright, who got number 8?”
It was our second year playing baseball in the 9–10 year old league at Browns Mill Park in Decatur, GA. Everyone was one year better, bigger, and more excited to compete than the season before — we knew we had a chance to win it all that year so we were hype.
To top it all off, I finally got the chance to wear my favorite number.
In the year’s prior, we just got cascading jerseys from 1–15. When I say that, I mean the smaller sizes had the smaller numbers, and by the time you got to the teens, the sizes were in the XXL range. They were just pre-made like that. I was a late bloomer, so a lot of times I wore something like 2, but not this year. This year we had customs made for the first time.
I grabbed my jersey and smiled at my dad. He knew what time it was, even if no one else did. They assumed I was showing love to Cal Ripken, Jr. since I played shortstop. Now, I liked Cal, and even shared a name with my Dad just like him, but Cal wasn’t Kobe. Kobe, not Cal, was my “8”.
There are very few things I remember before I was six years old. Besides my sister being born, Aladdin, my grandmother passing, and a couple early friends from kindergarten, it’s a bit fuzzy. I do, however, remember Kobe’s rookie year.
My Dad grew up in California and was a huge Showtime Lakers fan all the way through ’91 when Jordan beat them. He says we watched that series together; I was one. As a matter of fact, he says that from the time I could sit up on my own as a baby, I was watching sports with him.
So naturally when Kobe came into the league with the Lakers in ’96, the year I turned six, my world changed. This high-flying high school kid took me from a fan to a stan when he won the dunk contest in ’97 and I didn’t touch the dial for the next 20 years.
Kobe probably never believed in luck, did he? Just hard work and opportunity. He always seemed like the type of person that could find the eighth day of the week to perfect his craft, and it showed. And for that, I do know I was lucky to have seen him. And I saw it all.
You gave me the courage to speak my mind in barber shops as a kid. The ammo to argue with my friends on the way to school about just how much better you were than their favorite player was. You brought the world closer to the game of basketball while bringing us all closer to our inner greatness. You showed us what it was like to play like your freaking life was on the line — because somehow you knew yours was.
Those air balls in Utah were brutal, and so was having to come off the bench those first years, I’m sure. Playing second fiddle to the Big Fella must’ve hurt almost as much as seeing Iverson win that MVP before you, didn’t it? Colorado? Whew, that really almost ended you. But not like those dark years with Kwame and Smush. You even missed the playoffs in the middle of your prime, bro.
But you’d be back — only to lose to Boston? That burned, I know. The climb back to the top of the mountain was worth it though, wasn’t it? You got your revenge and it was sweet. I remember watching you in the end, too. Torn Achilles and broken finger and bum shoulder and bad knees, just thinking to myself how grizzled you’d become and wondering where the 20 years went.
Then you were gone. Not gone gone, just retired, but still I shed a tear. Those were tears of sadness at your career being over. Today’s tears are of joy to a life well lived.
You went through ups and downs for an entire score— 20 years of wanting nothing more than to score yourself. To know you was to wrestle with the thought of our pending mortality over and over again, and still wake up and win. That’s why none of those things I mentioned could kill you. They never even stood a shot.
And speaking of shot, did you know you missed more of them than anyone in NBA history? More than MJ and Lebron. More than Shaq and more than Magic. More than T-Mac. More than AI. And that’s just the game, we ain’t even talking about practice! I can’t even imagine how many shots you got up at the crack of dawn or after games in the gym by yourself, perfecting your craft. I mean, you can’t miss the shots if you aren’t on the court, and you damn sure can’t miss the ones you don’t shoot.
For years, I sat here and watched you go so…. damn… hard. We all did. From peers and coaches, to your beautiful family and regular ol’ fans like me, we wondered just what the hell you were made of. I guess we’ll never know.
And so today, as I type these words, I honestly can’t believe them. They simply do not look right on this page, nor does it sound real coming out of the TV. They’re clumsy as they fall out of my mouth, but here goes nothing:
Kobe Bryant is dead.
The dude with enough bark to spark the competitive fire of an entire generation. The one with the bite to light the game’s flame. You were (read: are) the golden boy that made us all feel something.
I watched them gather outside of Staples Center to honor you the other day. They said the Grammy’s were supposed to be happening later that night, but no one was wearing cocktail attire. Not yet at least, they had to pay respect before opening that building again— basketball game or not.
And on the morning after Lebron passed your scoring record in your hometown? You just couldn’t stand to see it, could you? Haha, you don’t have to answer that — the last thing you ever tweeted says it all. Coming just hours before you left us for good, all you wanted was the best for your brother and the game you taught me to love.
Not a moment too late either. Now how’s that for a buzzer beater?
I never had your height or athleticism, genius or charm. Hell, I’ve never even owned a pair of your shoes, I wasn’t worthy of all of that. But you showed me the value of hard work and actually giving a fuck: two things I don’t take lightly.
I haven’t been sleeping all that well since I got the news. A crick is in my neck and my back is sort of sore too. I’ve been going to bed late and waking up before the sun for whatever reason. But as I sit here at the crack of dawn, with your final game playing on mute, I’m feeling your grit. Your will to win and your Dog (capital “D”). That spark and that light, the will to write.
Is this what it’s like to be great? Asking for a friend.
Kobe Bean. Son of a Jellybean. With more bounce than a jumping bean. Human bean. Thank you for being you.
Thanks for that alley-oop, Game 4 against the Pacers, for “sucking the gravity out of the Target Center” that one time, the game-tying three in Game 2 against Detroit, 62 and 81, that Suns OT playoff game, the MVP year, those two free throws when you couldn’t walk in 2013 and the two that gave you 60 one last time. Thanks for going back to get the ring for your thumb so I could talk my shit.
I wasn’t there, but I was, trust me. And the more in awe with your legend I grew, the more confident in myself I became. And that’s something no one will ever take away from me.
In 1996, you became the youngest to ever be drafted at the time. I guess you can chalk it up to your late birthday. I had one too which is half the reason I was smaller than everyone on my baseball team to begin with. But with that 8 on my back, you made me feel larger than life. Your number. Our number.
I never let that number go until I stopped playing ball, did you know that? I played for over half of my life and you still outlasted me, like a champ!
My grandfather passed away almost a decade ago on a ladder with a paint brush in his hand. He was doing God’s work, his life’s work, and it was something he’d mentioned to me before as a more than an acceptable way to go out if he “ever had to”.
Well, if you weren’t going to go out playing in an actual game of your own, I imagine heading to one of your daughter’s games would be high on your list. Especially in the act of being the absolute best father you could be. The fan in me respects that, but the father in me idolizes it.
Your legacy will live on forever, just as you imagined it would. Immortalized in history, and even bigger than basketball.
In the end, I guess it was just dumb luck that got you? Actually, I take that back, because you probably never believed in luck, did you? Just hard work and opportunity. 8 days a week, 24 hours a day.
Yeah, that sounds about right. Rest in peace, my friend.