After passing Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list Saturday night, LeBron James was asked about the significance of moving past a legend. James then spoke for five minutes about Bryant’s impact on his life while the craziest media scrum I’d ever been a part of hung on his every word.
As he sat in his locker reminiscing about the man known as the “Black Mamba,” James couldn’t get over the magnitude of it all and how everything came back to Philadelphia when it came to he and Bryant.
“I mean, it's just too much. It's too much. The story is too much. It doesn't make sense. And just make a long story short, now I'm here in a Lakers uniform, in Philadelphia, where he's from, the first time I ever met him [was here and] he gave me his shoes at All-Star weekend. It's surreal. Doesn't make no sense. The universe just puts things in your life and I guess when you're living the right way, or you're just giving everything to whatever you're doing, things happen organically and it's not supposed to make sense but it just does.”
As someone who watched both careers blossom from afar, it was a surreal moment to be a part of.
The next day, Bryant, the Philadelphia native, 18-time All-Star, five-time NBA champ, two-time scoring champ, 2007-08 league MVP and unquestioned future first ballot Hall of Famer, died tragically in a helicopter crash. He was 41.
The son of former Sixer Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe Bean Bryant was born in Philadelphia but famously starred at Lower Merion High School. I can remember being 11 years old and seeing the 17-year-old Bryant on the cover of local newspapers, sunglasses propped on his forehead, standing at a podium as he declared for the NBA draft.
In that same draft, there was a badass point guard out of Georgetown that was taken No. 1 overall by the Sixers. To a nerdy kid with a bowl cut, buck teeth and gold frame glasses, Allen Iverson was the baddest man on the planet. He could do wrong in my eyes. I had all the Reebok Question and Answer sneakers for as long as he was a Sixer.
There was one exception: The year I begged my parents for the Adidas KB8 II. I just remember thinking about how cool Kobe was. He faced scrutiny for going straight to the NBA from high school. He was from Philly. He won the dunk contest at 18. He was an All-Star at 19 and took Michael Jordan head on. He was brash. He was exciting. Most of all, he was also kind of a badass — well before the "Mamba mentality" even became a thing.
I loved Iverson up close and admired Bryant from afar, but those worlds collided during the 2001 NBA Finals. Iverson carried a team of hard-nosed castoffs. Bryant was the sidekick of Shaquille O’Neal at his most unstoppable.
After Iverson propelled the Sixers to an improbable Game 1 victory, Bryant helped the Lakers take the next three, telling a fan that he intended “to cut your hearts out” in Game 5. Well, he was right. Bryant crushed the hopes of everyone in the Delaware Valley and denied Iverson in the closest the Hall of Famer ever got to capturing a title.
Bryant became enemy No. 1 for what he did to the basketball player I idolized.
Then in 2003, it turned from a silly sports hatred into something else entirely. Bryant was arrested in connection with an investigation of a sexual assault complaint filed by a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colorado. While Bryant admitted to adultery, he said he believed the encounter to be consensual.
Though he went on to cement his legacy as one of the greatest basketball players to ever live in the following years, it was hard to reconcile this.
In 2015-16, Bryant decided that he was going to retire. The first stop on what turned out to be his farewell tour was Philadelphia. Though he had a rocky relationship with the city and its fans, Bryant and Philly made amends and showed their mutual respect for one another.
When “a 6-6 guard from Lower Merion High School” was announced by PA announcer Matt Cord, it was met with a warm reception. Fans then cheered as Bryant poured in 20 points in his final game at the Wells Fargo Center.
Bryant, the person, was just different at that point of his life. Humbled. Smiling. Not the same cocky kid with the sunglasses on his forehead.
In the time during his retirement, Bryant seemed to devote his life to his family. He could be seen mentoring his daughter, Gianna, who also tragically died in the accident at just 13. He took “Gigi,” the second of his four daughters, to basketball games all the time. You’d see Kobe in her ear, pointing out things on the floor. She wanted to go to powerhouse UConn and carve her own path to the WNBA.
There also just seemed to be a genuine father-daughter love between the two. She appeared to share her dad’s competitiveness and brashness. Kobe recently shared this about his daughter on Jimmy Kimmel Live:
“The best thing that happens is when we go out and she’ll be standing next to me and fans will come up to me like ‘Hey, you gotta have a boy, you and (Vanessa) gotta have a boy — somebody to carry on the legacy and the tradition’ and (Gigi) will be like ‘Oy, I got this. We don’t need a boy for that. I got this!'”
One of the last things Bryant shared on his Twitter page was a video interview Iverson did for the Players’ Tribune. Iverson, who seems at peace with the mistakes he's made and struggles he's had, was almost prescient in his words.
“I’ve made a billion mistakes. I’ve done things right a billion times. I’m human. And that’s that. I don’t read no comments. I don’t read the comments. Got too much love around me, too many great people around me to let the evil things override that. My love around me is too powerful.”
Knowing he'd have a good chance to pass Bryant, James wrote "Mamba 4 Life" on his sneakers. Bryant wasn’t perfect and so his legacy, as everlasting as it is, won’t be either.
I mourn him and his young daughter while respecting the greatness of his career and having conflicted feelings on his actions in life.
What we can all agree on is that he should’ve had more time to add to his legacy and spend with his family.