There are good players, there are great players, and there are icons. Kobe Bryant was an icon, a giant of his sport, a living legend. Not just one of the finest basketball players, but a generational figure.
There is not a single NBA player active now who would not claim to be in some way inspired or influenced by him.
And not just in his athletic brilliance, but in the way he carried himself.
Kobe Bryant tragically passed away on Sunday night in a helicopter accident in Los Angeles
Bryant manages a slam dunk against the Sacramento Kings in a game back in January 2011
LA Lakers supporters pay tribute to Bryant ahead of his retirement as a player for the franchise
Following retirement, his love letter to his sport, Dear Basketball, won an Oscar as the best animated short.
The poem begins:
From the moment
I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary
In the Great Western Forum
I knew one thing was real:
I fell in love with you…
Bryant poses with the Larry O’Brien championship trophy and Finals MVP trophy in 2009
It is arguably the most eloquent tribute ever recorded to a sport from a protagonist, a paean from a one-club man whose love for the game drove him to elevate it to heights few could have imagined.
‘You asked for my hustle, I gave you my heart,’ wrote Bryant, who died on Sunday in a helicopter crash, aged 41, ‘because it came with so much more.’
And what heart it was. Like all of the greatest players in any sport, Bryant’s work ethic was as impressive as his skill set. He won accolades for his defensive work almost as much as his outstanding offence.
And he rewrote the record books. The first player in NBA history to have 30,000 career points; the first to have 6,000 career assists; the only player chosen to start in the All-Star team in 18 consecutive seasons; the first shooting guard in NBA history to play 20 seasons; five NBA titles; two Olympic gold medals.
He celebrates with the trophy after another successful season with the LA Lakers in 2010
He lurks near the pinnacle on every page. The second most points in a single game — 81 against the Toronto Raptors; fourth in the list of regular season scorers; fourth in the list of post season scorers. He was both the youngest winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and the oldest player ever to score 60 points in a game. He was a genius.
Bryant modelled his style on Michael Jordan, the way the current generation would say they took their leads from him.
Like Jordan, he excelled at the fade-away jump shot, taken while falling backwards away from the basket. He was a brilliant scorer in the dying moments of games, often surrounded by opponents, aware of his audacity but unable to prevent it.
He played up to that bogeyman status with opposing crowds, too, revelling in the hostile atmosphere and his ability to silence it with a moment of magic. And, yes, it came at a cost. Bryant would go for the basket relentlessly, sometimes at the expense of team play. It was said his style in the early years could be encapsulated in three words: gimme the ball.
Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Bryant (left to right) celebrate Olympic Gold at the 2012 London Games after winning the men’s basketball for the United States
Bryant said he would rather be 0 for 30 then 0 for nine. ‘Nought for nine means you psyched yourself out of the game,’ he argued. His style was to keep trying, to keep shooting, until he made it happen. He was extraordinarily brave.
Physically, too. He played through enormous pain on occasions and it was his physical condition, not fading desire or absence of commitment that made him retire.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time
to say goodbye.
Bryant (right) and Shaquille O’Neal (left) from the West hold up the NBA All-Star game trophy
And he did take a pounding. There is a beautiful freeze frame shot of Bryant trying to beat the buzzer against the Sacramento Kings and he has the entire opposing team around him. All five. But he’s going to try the shot anyway.
Some may think that’s arrogant. Yet that was his greatness. He didn’t make it look easy, he didn’t make it seem fun.
The strain of being Kobe Bryant was visible every time he played, the burden he shouldered, just being him. He brought a savage intensity to every game, playing as if he was the only shot at glory the LA Lakers had.
And now he’s gone. Not in the way his numbers at the Lakers are: eight and 24, stood down proudly with him on the day he quit, the only player ever to retire two shirts. He is gone at 41 in that horrid, sudden, random way, the shock giving way to tears and tributes. A terrible crash that also claimed the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
Bryant, 17, jokes around as he holds his Los Angeles Lakers jersey at the Great Western Forum
The social media outpourings were heartfelt and sympathetic, no doubt, but Bryant had already written the best and most poignant farewell of them all.
And we both know, no matter
what I do next
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1
Love you always, Kobe.
The Lakers retired both his No 8 and No 24 jerseys when he retired from the sport in 2017