The Kobe I Knew Became a Champion for Others

The Lakers legend was fearless, driven, and excellent.

Kobe Bryant
Bob Levey / Getty

My first real interaction with Kobe Bryant started over a disagreement. The legendary Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard had made some dismissive comments in 2014 about the case of Trayvon Martin, the African American teenager who had been shot to death in Florida by the neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman two years before.

Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal on second-degree murder charges incensed many black athletes—but not Bryant, who told The New Yorker, “If we’ve progressed as a society, then you don’t jump to somebody's defense just because they're African-American.” I was working at ESPN at the time, and criticized Bryant on camera as tone-deaf, among other things.

About 10 minutes or so later, while I was still on air, I received a direct message from Bryant on Twitter. He told me to call him as soon as the show was over because he thought my comments were off base. That was Kobe. He was never afraid to speak up, and certainly not afraid to defend his opinions, however unpopular.

So I called him on my way home, assuming it would be a quick discussion. Instead, we battled back and forth for an hour. He explained to me that he was speaking from the experience of someone who had been on trial for sexual assault and, in his mind, had been wrongfully accused. (The criminal case against him had been dismissed; Bryant reportedly reached a civil settlement with his accuser.) I told him that he couldn’t speak only from his own experience. He had to understand how horrible the situation was for Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. Their son had gone to the store for snacks, and never came home.

Bryant was open to changing his mind. Later, he met with Martin’s family and apologized. He even spoke at a rally for Martin that occurred a year after Zimmerman had been acquitted of his murder.

Bryant and I interacted several other times over the years, but our discussion about Martin’s case is the one I’ll remember most fondly. Like so many people, I am devastated that Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. I am in mourning. Kobe felt like a member of my family. For me and many others, he was the embodiment of what we thought we could be—fearless, driven, and excellent.

My admiration for Bryant as a player ran deep. I once wrote that I thought he was a better player than Michael Jordan. Yes, I said that. Even if you thought I was crazy, you would be hard-pressed to find any basketball fan that didn’t recognize him as one of the greatest artists who has ever played in the NBA. He was a scoring magician. Every time he took the floor, there always was this expectation that he was going to do something that would leave your mind reeling. And he always delivered.

Let’s allow his NBA résumé to sink in: He was a lock to make the NBA’s Hall of Fame this year. He was an 18-time NBA all-star with five NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals. He was a regular-season MVP and a two-time NBA Finals MVP. When he scored a record 81 points in a game—his personal best—I was rooting for him to tie or break Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 100. In 2003, he put together one of the greatest scoring months of all time. In February, he scored 40 points or more in nine consecutive games, which tied Michael Jordan for the fourth-longest such scoring streak in NBA history. In March 2007, he scored 50 points or more in four straight games.

But as outstanding as Bryant was as a player, his growth in retirement was more impressive, in a way. Once the epitome of precocious arrogance, he evolved into being a true champion for others. Few players of his stature embraced and supported the WNBA the way he did—which no doubt was partially related to the fact that his daughter Gianna was beginning to look like a mini-Kobe on the basketball court. In fact, Bryant recently said that he felt like several WNBA superstars could play in the NBA right now.

He used those criticisms he faced regarding Trayvon Martin as an opportunity to learn. He was very vocal about the shooting death of another unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, who was killed by the St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson. When a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, Bryant reacted bitterly, tweeting, “The system enables young black men to be killed behind the mask of law.”

It was comforting and inspiring to know that Bryant was embracing being an elder statesman—especially because there had been a time when fans and fellow players thought he was far too competitive, and some might even say too selfish, to ever accept being that NBA uncle who willingly handed out advice to the next generation of stars.

When I interviewed Bryant for the BET Awards not long before he embarked on his final NBA season, I joked with him that he was going to be awful at retirement. He would struggle, I felt sure, to find anything that gave him even a tenth of the fulfillment that basketball did. Bryant promised he wouldn’t be that way, and said that he was drawn to storytelling. Inevitably, he approached retirement like a competition. He knew that dopes like me would assume he would be unhappy once he retired, and he decided to show us that he could immerse himself in other things.

He became the first champion professional athlete to win an Oscar—and the first black person to win one for best animated short film—after writing and narrating Dear Basketball, a tribute to the game he loved. After he won the Oscar, Bryant told reporters that it was better than winning an NBA title.

“I swear,” he said, “growing up as a kid, I dreamt of winning championships and worked really hard. But then to have something like this come out of left field—I heard a lot of people tell me, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ I want to be a writer and a storyteller. I got a lot of ‘That’s cute.’ I got that a lot. To be here right now and have a sense of validation, this is crazy.”

I was one of the people who doubted him. That’s why it’s so hard to believe he’s gone. Kobe defied and banished every single doubt anyone ever had of him, and he plowed through obstacles as if they were invisible. That there was something he couldn’t beat—the unpredictability of life—is something I will never fully comprehend.