Why you should care
Because he was the perfect global ambassador for basketball.
It was a cold day in February about 10 years ago when my brother and I walked into the then Air Canada Centre in Toronto to see Kobe Bryant play our Raptors. Kobe’s one game in town every year was always marked in our calendars. I had been to a bunch of games, but there was always something different about when Kobe and the Lakers showed up. During the starting lineup announcements of the visiting Lakers, there was no booing when Kobe’s name was called out — it was more like an eerie white noise hovering about the court. Darth Vader had entered the arena and he was about to put in work.
I’ve been a crazy basketball fan for 30-some-odd years, and Kobe is my second favorite player of all-time. Second to Michael Jordan, the man he most tried to emulate in terms of on-the-court style of play and the competitive mentality that seemingly made games a matter of life and death for these two dudes.
But Kobe was not just Michael Jordan, he was Michael Corleone — cold-blooded and calculated. He wasn’t always the most physically gifted player, but he was always the smartest guy on the court and 10 steps ahead of the team he was playing. Kobe was the assassin you cheered for, and he didn’t want to just win — it was sheer destruction he was going for.
As heartfelt remembrances roll in from around the globe in the wake of Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash that also killed his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, Kobe is being assessed as one of the greatest basketball players of all time and a Los Angeles icon.
But more importantly, Kobe embodied the age of globalization, both for the NBA and the world at large. Jordan may have been the first global superstar, but Kobe took it to another level. He made fans in Canada — which first got NBA franchises one year before Bryant joined the league — quake in fear. And he got Chinese fans — now a huge, influential market for the league — glued to their TV sets in the early 2000s. Bryant made several promotional visits to China at the height of his fame, driving his popularity through the roof there. The Chinese microblogging site Weibo was full of remembrances and well wishes as the news of his death spread.
A polyglot who spoke three languages fluently (Italian, Spanish, English) and was named for a Japanese delicacy (Kobe beef), Bryant was the perfect global ambassador for the game. Unlike basketball’s many foreign-born stars, Bryant could sell abroad as an American — but one who lived in Italy as a child while his father played pro ball there, someone who understood how the world viewed America. He also had impeccable timing: His on-court rise came as globalization and the Internet opened the world to his talents.
After his retirement from basketball, Kobe chose a nontraditional second act. Instead of going the usual TV analyst route, he made films — and won an Oscar. He was endlessly curious, always tackling new endeavors and thinking outside the box.
We are all worse off because of his death. He was applying the same focus and dedication to his new craft as he did his old, and was touching the lives of so many through his literary and media endeavors, as well as Mamba Academy — where he was heading Sunday, when his life was cut short. Kobe wasn’t perfect; he had his share of missteps, but he was real. Jemele Hill put it well when she wrote: “he was the embodiment of what we thought we could be — fearless, driven, and excellent.”
For me, this is one of the darkest days in sports history. As a fan who never met the man, I always felt like you get what you see with Kobe. He was all about one thing: winning. And that intensity flowed into every aspect of his life. Off the court, Kobe was an intelligent, complex man who loved his family, and on the court he was a competitor, a killer and a bad motherf**ker. He will be missed by generations to come.