Kobe Bryant, an Unforgiving Innovator of the NBA

Kobe Bryant was his own physics. All matter and motion, seemingly gravity-defiant. Or maybe it is more accurate to say he was Mt. Kilimanjaro, unmoving and not easily conquered. A kind of natural wonder. Or maybe that he was art—textural, operatic, insistent on worship. But even those descriptions seem to fail the totality of his grace and complexity as an athlete, son, father, friend, and cultural totem. In his playing career, Bryant wore the hat of hero and villain, living his life at a magnificent volume. Of his most unmistakable trademarks, it was his viper-intensity, his steely dedication and refusal to be made small by opponents, that defines him in the grandest of hues. Winning was all he would accept. He submerged himself so passionately in the game that his drive to win was often mistaken for arrogance. Which is not to say he wasn’t arrogant, because his early years were very much a theater of egomania, often to a fault, but then again how could he not be, how could we not expect him to be: He was a goddamn Emerson poem, lyrical and profound and full of difficult meaning.

Kobe Bryant is dead at 41. The former all-star shooting guard of the Los Angeles Lakers was among nine people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday in Calabasas, California. The reality of the tragedy is a nauseating paradox: It counters everything fans have come to accept about Bryant’s talents. As Hollywood endings go, this one does not obey the logic of Kobe lore. He had mastered the air—racking up five NBA championships in an awe-inspiring twister of last-second daggers, pull-up jumpers, pump-fakes, chandelier-shattering tomahawks, and corkscrew fade-aways that tested the assumptions of what was humanly possible—and thus, the reasoning went, he could never be brought to earth.

From the start, his life was made for TV, even as it was fanged by public scrutiny at every turn: the claims of juvenile self-importance, famously taking Brandy to prom and even more famously feuding with teammate Shaquille O’Neal, then the game’s most dominant big man, who helped erect a dynasty in Los Angeles with Bryant just as the millennium was getting underway. I grew up in the shadow of Showtime, in southwest Los Angeles, between Ladera Heights and Culver City, where winning was expected. Purple and gold was our birthright. Being a Kobe fan is all I know. Writing this does not come easy.

From the inside, Laker fandom is a given. It makes sense. You don’t question it. It’s why Kobe defines my childhood in ways that Michael Jordan, for all his superhuman ability, will never. If Jordan was god, then Kobe was proof that deification was attainable, that you could become a god, that one was not bound by the limits of the flesh as long as you stayed true to the craft. As long as you gave it everything you had. Jordan was an impossibility. Kobe was evidence of a miracle—flawed, yes, but committed in every regard, a kind of spectacular calculus. He was within reach.

LA is a very particular town made up of a particular people: a sprawling palm-tree’d fantasia with its wide boulevards, art-deco architecture, movie lots, incessant smog, earthquakes, and bronze-pink sunsets. The reality is that most Angelenos live small lives but dream big. We are a people who love stories as much as we love the storytellers. Kobe was both for us, especially if you called LA home during the 3-peat era of the early 2000s. For a city that has historically fallen prey to easy divisions—beset by gang strife, corrupt politics, and racial discord—those years linked us as one. Time felt infinite. We felt untouchable.

The trajectory of Bryant’s life did not take a linear course. In the summer 2003, at the height of his powers, he was accused of raping a young woman who worked at a Colorado hotel where he was staying. After dragging on for nearly a year, the case was dropped, Bryant apologized, and a civil suit was settled privately out of court. In a 2015 interview with GQ, he described that period in his life as a “turning point.”

The ensuing five years were the most trying of Bryant’s professional career. O’Neal eventually decamped for Miami, where he won another championship ring, and Bryant was left as the lone face of the history-setting franchise. In January 2006, during that cartoonishly unstable period for the team, Kobe scored 81 points in a single game against the Toronto Raptors. The legend of the self-proclaimed Black Mamba lived even as his team floundered around him. The feat ranked Bryant just below Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962, as the second-highest scorer in a single game in league history. In time, the Lakers rebounded, revamping their squad, and again tasted immortality—they won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.

On the night of his final game in April 2016, propelled by all that had shaped him until that moment, Kobe scored 60 points in an inspiring farewell performance. The once Philadelphia phenom still had something to prove. It was almost too sweet. The last handful of years found Bryant pivoting to full-time fatherhood, becoming even more involved in the lives of his four daughters, and generally—surprisingly so—content with where he was in life. The veteran. The wise guru. The basketball dad. It was an odd sight—the man who was never satisfied was finally at peace.

At WIRED, we look to the future. We cover all the ways the world is changing into fantastic, and sometimes dangerous, new permutations. We report on creators, coders, designers, engineers, TV makers, hackers, and callow CEOs. Kobe Bryant fits squarely into this lineage. He was an unforgiving innovator of the NBA. Single-minded. Precise. Gifted. On the court, he forged an undeviating path to greatness. The near-perfect 2001 playoff run. His first finals MVP crown in 2009, confirmation that he could win without Shaq. An 18-time NBA all-star, Slam Dunk champ, and two-time Olympian.

What I will remember most about Kobe, more than his peerless accolades, is his face, and the way his body gushed across the hardwood. How his eyes welled with heat and he would explode into a sudden, wild movement down the court. The game took him places. All of us watched with anticipation. In the stands at Staples Center. At home with family. Gazing into the TV at the local bar. We looked on in naked amazement as he stalked the court with his cerebral, artful genius. Each time, we knew as he had: His virtuosity said things.

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