Kobe Bryant's Life and Legacy | Opinion

Few NBA players ever have one jersey retired. This NBA legend, who was known the world over by one name—Kobe—had two. Indeed, Kobe Bryant, who was killed when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed Sunday morning amid foggy conditions in southern California, was the only player in NBA history to have two numbers retired by the same team.

His sudden death prompted an immediate outpouring of grief. The world had lost more than just a great athlete and competitor. We'd lost a bit of ourselves. For the millions of fans who watched a young Bryant come up the ranks from high school through adulthood and his NBA retirement, he was Michael Jordan and Julius Erving in one body.

As the cameras locked all day Sunday on the entrance of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, fans wandered around in utter shock. That Bryant's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who often accompanied her dad to Lakers games, was also killed on the chopper—and seven other souls—only added to the shock. And grief.

The very last thing Bryant and Gianna did together as father and daughter was attend an early Sunday morning mass at their local Catholic church in Newport Beach, Our Lady Queen of Angels. They prayed and took Communion together. Just hours later, they'd be gone.

"Did you hear about Kobe?" a friend asked me Sunday. When I was asked that in the past, it always had something to do with something surreal he'd done on the basketball court. Some performance that defied basketball logic.

I turned on ESPN, and there was Jay Williams, a smooth talker even by broadcasting standards. Not on Sunday. Williams nearly broke down and cried on air, his raw emotion on view in a rare moment of jock vulnerability.

The voice of the NBA, Mike Breen, was on the microphone for Sunday night's Nets-Knicks game and did something he's never done before: He nearly broke down and cried. "Just don't feel like broadcasting," Breen said through an audible lump in his throat, choking on raw emotion. "I know a lot of the players don't feel like playing. It's just a sad, sad day."

Then came the avalanche of grief from nearly every corner of society: politicians, writers, business leaders, musicians, actors and athletes from seemingly every sport imaginable.

"I'm screaming right now, cursing into the sky, crying into my keyboard, and I don't care who knows it," wrote legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke. "Kobe Bryant is gone, and those are the hardest words I've ever had to write for this newspaper, and I still don't believe them as I'm writing them."

Two grief-stricken former Lakers stars also weighed in. "My friend, a legend, husband, father, son, brother, Oscar winner and greatest Laker of all-time is gone," Lakers legend and lifer Magic Johnson wrote. "It's hard to accept."

It was also hard for Jerry West, another Lakers legend and lifer, to accept.

"Particularly when he was young, to be a part of his life and to watch his career grow, watch him grow, this is one of the most tragic days of my life," said West, who has seen his share of hard things at the age of 81.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Washington Wizards in the first half at Verizon Center on December 2, 2015, in Washington, D.C Rob Carr/Getty

West wasn't just an all-time great guard for the Lakers. He was the general manager of the Lakers in 1996 and had the vision to trade away one of the Lakers' star big men—Vlade Divac—to Charlotte for a skinny draft pick straight out of a Philadelphia high school with a strange first name.

West saw something in Kobe Bryant that we would all come to see: a great athlete who also happened to be the fiercest competitor any sport has ever seen.

"I know somewhere along the way I guess I'll come to grips with it," West added. "But now I have all these different emotions regarding him. The things I watched him do on the basketball court, but more importantly...he was making a difference off the court. It's so unexplainable. This is going to take a long time for me."

It's going to take a long time for all of us.

Timothy Freyer, bishop of the Orange County Diocese, posted these words on Facebook a day after the crash: "Our hearts remain heavy after the tragic loss suffered in the wake of yesterday's helicopter crash in Calabasas." After calling for people to pray for the grief stricken families, he added this about Bryant: "He was a committed Catholic who loved his family and loved his faith."

Bryant was born in Philadelphia and wasn't a stranger to basketball excellence: His father, Joe, played eight seasons for the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers in the 1970s and had pit stops in San Diego and Houston.

In 1978, Joe and his bride, Pam, gave birth to their son. They once saw Kobe beef on a restaurant menu and liked the name so much they thought it would make a great first name. The rest is history.

In 1984, Joe closed out his playing career in Italy, ending up in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, where he twice won player of the year.

It was there that 12-year-old Bryant joined his first real basketball league. "When he started playing in my team, it was immediately clear he was from another planet, a cut above us all," Davide Giudici, a longtime friend and a former teammate, told NBC News.

"When he told us that one day he would become a professional NBA player, we would make fun of him," Giudici said. "But he worked hard for it even back then. At the end of our training, the rest of us would just go watch TV or do other things. Bryant, instead, would go home and keep training with the basket his father put up for him in his garden."

The Bryants left Italy in 1991 and returned to the Philadelphia area. Bryant's dad became a college coach. Bryant became a high school basketball star, winning awards and accolades at Lower Merion High.

Bryant was a top college prospect but decided to skip that step and enter the NBA draft. He'd always dreamed of playing for the Lakers but was selected 13th overall by Charlotte in 1996. But fate—and good old Jerry West—changed that. The first guard in NBA history to come straight out of high school, Bryant had to have his parents co-sign his NBA contract: He was a mere 17 years old.

He was about to grow up really fast. And the world was about to grow up with him.

In his first season, he started in a handful of games, giving vets like Nick Van Exel a breather. But as the season progressed, Bryant earned more minutes, becoming a top rookie of the year prospect.

In his second year, Bryant improved dramatically, ending the season with a 15.4 point average. His breakout third season coincided with a shortened calendar due to a lock-out: He started all 50 games.

In the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers began playing in their new downtown arena—the Staples Center—with a new coach, Phil Jackson. By the close of the 2002 season, Bryant—along with Shaquille O'Neal—had won an elusive three-peat. Only four teams had ever won three consecutive championships until then.

But all was not perfect in the City of Angels or with Bryant's personal life. In 2003, he was charged with sexual assault against a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. Bryant held a news conference and claimed his innocence on the criminal charges but admitted guilt on the adultery front.

"I sit here before you guys embarrassed and ashamed," he told the world, his wife, Vanessa, by his side. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case. A civil lawsuit the woman filed against Bryant ended in a settlement.

Soon after that low point in Bryant's personal life came a low point in his professional life: Many fans believed it was he who caused the departure of O'Neal and Jackson from the Lakers. Bryant himself—most sports analysts agreed—was looking to leave the team, too. But the Lakers wouldn't leave him.

And then came Bryant's rebirth and redemption. Time passed, and Bryant pressed on. His wife stuck with him, and by all accounts, he repaired and even healed the family he'd almost destroyed. And a few years later, the Lakers were back in contention, thanks to some key trades—including Paul Gasol's arrival from Memphis in 2007.

The next year was—in Bryant's mind—the greatest of his basketball career, as he led the "Redeem Team" to an Olympic Gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, with Mike Krzyzewski at the helm.

"Coach K instilled in his players the importance of representing their country," Jonathan Abrams of Bleacher Report wrote in 2018. "He brought in military generals to speak with the players, as well as Navy SEALs, who shared some of their insights on what it meant to serve."

Those stories of service and duty inspired Bryant. "Basketball was a call to duty: Our small way of representing the United States of America," Bryant recalled. "You can play for the Los Angeles Lakers, you can play for the Spurs, the Heat, the Mavs, whoever, but it's different when you put on a USA jersey because now you're playing for country."

Many wondered how the normally aloof Bryant would blend with many of his younger teammates—particularly LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

What brought the team close was Bryant's work ethic and routine. "Bryant woke up early to practice. And other players soon followed suit, waking up early with Bryant, adjusting to his schedule," Abrams wrote.

Wade was the first player to join. "He met me in the gym at 5, and then LeBron started showing up at 5, and then they all started showing up at 5. And then next thing you know, most of the guys were in the gym at 5 getting some work in," Bryant explained.

That early a.m. gym time forged a camaraderie between the players and quickly became known as the "Olympic Breakfast Club."

What the world was beginning to see was a new and more mature Bryant. And the winning didn't end in China. The re-energized and revived Bryant guided the Lakers to not one but two successive championship seasons in 2009 and 2010. Bryant was named the NBA Finals MVP both years.

The lasting image of Bryant's fifth title win occurred after a Game 7 win against a talented Boston Celtics team. There was Bryant standing on top of a press table on his home court, arms raised high, with a beaming smile as confetti fell all around him. He'd gone from hero to villain to hero right before our eyes.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates after the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 17, 2010, in Los Angeles. Christian Petersen/Getty

Bryant wasn't perfect. But—flaws and all—he always came back for more, fighting harder than ever. And we always came back for more, too.

When Bryant announced his retirement, he chose two sentences to summarize his two-decade career with the team he loved.

"No hero is perfect, and no villain is completely void of heroic intentions. We all live as both," Bryant wrote on his website. "What sets the great ones apart is how they use their inner villain to create something epic. It's living as a HeroVillain. The HeroVillain channels fear, rejection, anger and doubt and turns them into strength, courage, power and determination."

When Bryant finally retired in 2016, he was the hero of his own story. He authored one of the greatest comebacks of all time, and one of the greatest careers in sports history—exceeding his own very high expectations. He scored the third-most points in NBA history (James recently jumped ahead of him) and was an All-Star 18 times, the second-most in NBA history. And he was the only player besides Wilt Chamberlain to score more than 80 points in an NBA game—netting 81 in a game against Toronto in 2006. That night in Los Angeles, the official scorekeeper had trouble entering the points into the scorecard.

The offensive superstar also took his defense seriously, winning four NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards and 12 NBA All-Defensive Teams—more than any guard in NBA history. And he's the only player in NBA history to play for the same team for 20 consecutive years.

Unlike James or Kevin Durant, Bryant never changed teams in pursuit of an NBA ring. As with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before him, great players changed teams to play with him.

No one worked harder than Kobe Bryant. Few had his competitive drive. And he never left any gas in the tank when he laced up to play. All of which took a toll on his body.

Bryant even left the league his own way, penning a poem for his loyal fans. It was called "Dear Basketball." It closed with these words.

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I'll always love you for it.
But I can't love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it's time to say goodbye.

And that's OK.
I'm ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.

We're not ready to let you go, Kobe. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.