Sixteen years ago, I sat in my mother's house in Sacramento armed with a fandom and no clear direction for my life's path.
Eleven miles away, my mother, a journalist on assignment at Arco Arena, was covering a matchup between the Kings and Lakers, who employed my favorite player: Kobe Bean Bryant.
The game was a drag. Kobe took just one shot in the first half, in protest of his coach Phil Jackson's previous criticism of him shooting too much. By the end of the night, the Super Lakers lost handily to the Kings, putting their hopes for a division title in peril. But the highlight of the night came shortly after the game, when mom called equipped with a message: "Just listen."
At Metro Networks, my mom's primary postgame responsibility was to gather sound from the opposing locker room. Knowing my favorite player occupied the space, she decided to take me along her latest journey via her headset.
For the next 30 minutes, I heard Shaquille O'Neal complain about the refs and coach Phil Jackson try to ease the tension with Kobe, all the while waiting for my mom to finally interview her 10-year old's hero. Kobe appeared last, blurted out cliché responses, denying any rift with his coach and teammates. Bryant's greatest quote came following the session when my mom broke journalistic code, revealing her baby boy was on the other end of the line and was a huge fan. The man responded, "If he can hear me, tell him I said wassup."
Floored, I dropped the phone, ran around the house, in disbelief that someone so famous would acknowledge my existence. By the end of the evening, it was clear I wanted to get into my mother's profession and that Bryant's words made the newfound dream tangible.
However, the events surrounding Kobe in 2004 began the lifelong complication with his on-court greatness. Nine months before Bryant's message, he was accused of raping a woman in Colorado, putting his career in peril. Five months after my afternoon house sprint, he settled with the alleged victim, saying that the two sides didn't see the event in the same light. Now, after his sudden death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., I'm forced to reconcile the kinship to a man with a complicated legacy.
As a youth, Kobe's on-court mentality provided a baseline for how I approached life. Like Bryant, I was a loner, often finding common ground with kids I wouldn't otherwise talk to through sports. Going to predominantly white schools in the Bay Area, I felt a disposition going to a school in Alameda, waiting for the chance to head back to Oakland, pick up my football pads and practice at Brookfield Park with kids that looked like me. All the while, with my mom in Sacramento and my dad working late nights in Oakland, Kobe's basketball examples made me believe I could get out of my circumstance.
In elementary school, I mimicked his moves on the blacktop, often missing as I attempted his fadeaway jumper. At Berkeley High, I vigorously defended his basketball legacy against LeBron James. My arguments disappointed most of my peers, who argued Kobe was washed and James held the crown of basketball's best player in every conceivable way. Four months into college, his example of work pushed me to drive 90 miles from Oakland to Sacramento for an unpaid internship to attend Kings games.
One of my first assignments was to drive to Sacramento to attend Lakers shootaround and ask questions to exceptional athletes. At the time, the Kings were putting a promotion called "Blackout" in which the team and its fans wore all black to intimidate the opposition. With that in mind, I planned to ask Lakers staff and presumably Kobe about the crowd noise. When Kobe walked into the scrum, I blurted my question with curious execution.
"Hey Kobe, there's a blackout in Sacramento, how are you going to handle that?" I asked.
"Huh?" Kobe asked the 18-year old in front of him, presumably wondering how he got in the building.
"Yeah, everyone's wearing black, how will you deal with that?" I responded.
Confused, Kobe followed up with a stock answer about how he and his team were battle-tested and it shouldn't be a problem. Embarrassed, I said thank you, proud of myself for following Kobe's mantra of 'Just shoot,' while acknowledging I had a lot of work ahead of me to be a respectable sports writer.
Along the way, through the internships and odd freelance jobs, my mythology of Kobe began to wane as I began to read up on the man's biggest alleged transgression. Following the 2002-03 season, a 19-year-old hotel employee accused Bryant of rape at a Colorado resort.
Bryant immediately proclaimed his innocence, saying the encounter was consensual and the only crime he committed was of adultery to his wife. Following pre-trial hearings, the case was dropped after the victim refused to testify on the stand. Bryant's ensuing statement brought more confusion.
"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did," the statement read. "After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
Reading the words brought disappointment and confusion. Bryant admitted that the woman didn't give consent, yet still went through with his actions. The declaration hurt to the core. A player I loved seemed to admit to these serious transgressions. Nonetheless, the league I began to cover continued to celebrate the man. He won Academy Awards and became one of the allied faces of the WNBA, often bringing his daughter Gianna, who also died Sunday, courtside to games.
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All the while, Bryant influenced a generation of basketball players. Warriors cornerstones Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, along with their coach Steve Kerr gushed about his greatness before his final game at Oracle Arena in 2016. The Warriors gave the guard a vacation package to Napa, along with a giant bottle of wine from Amuse Bouche winery.
Twenty months later, the coach and trio, alongside former teammate Kevin Durant stood on the floor at Staples Center as Bryant saw his both his No. 8 and 24 raised to the rafters. I sat on the other side of the gym, watching much of my childhood go up with the garments, trying to the tame the 10-year old from Oakland that adored the man while figuring out where he stood in my current lexicon.
On Sunday, Jan. 26, I'm left to reconcile Kobe's presence in my life. He was a man whose on-court mentality I tried to mirror, but whose alleged transgressions will forever complicate my celebration of him.