My generation of sports fans learned early that the athletes we idolized were neither immortal nor invincible. I was 11 when Magic Johnson, my childhood hero, announced that he was retiring from the NBA after testing positive for HIV, then a seeming death sentence. Within a few years, Bo Jackson had suffered a career-ending injury, Mike Tyson had been convicted of rape, and O. J. Simpson was on trial for double murder.
These were humans, not superheroes. My friends and I all knew that by 1996, when Kobe Bryant, the first NBA superstar who was about our age, joined the league out of high school. Skipping college was so anomalous back then that lots of skeptics characterized Kobe as arrogant. I never doubted Kobe’s decision any more than he doubted the shots that he took as an immature rookie. And today, as fans celebrate a Hall of Fame career while mourning the death of the 18-time all-star, his daughter, and seven others in a helicopter crash, it is easy to think of all his basketball successes as foreordained and his on-court failures too inconsequential to dwell on. But to ignore those failures is to miss part of why many Kobe fans are mourning him so intensely.
Those of us who watched his rookie season remember. That first year, then–Lakers coach Del Harris brought him off the bench. If the team needed a bucket late in the fourth quarter, the play would likely be drawn up for Shaquille O’Neal, or the point guard Nick Van Exel, or the sharpshooter Byron Scott, or “Big Shot” Robert Horry. In Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, however, Shaq had fouled out, Scott was injured, and Horry had been ejected. So Kobe was on the floor in the final minutes of an elimination playoff game. With 11 seconds left and a tie score, Kobe was in the backcourt with the ball in his hands and a chance to play hero.