He had lived in Italy for some years from the age of six, describing it as the happiest period of his childhood. His later choices seemed to confirm it. He maintained fluent Italian as an adult. And when his second daughter arrived in 2006, they called her Gianna. Or Gigi.
It was with Gigi that he departed, by helicopter, on a foggy LA Sunday morning. Yesterday.
Rotor blades were Kobe Bryant’s answer to the city’s traffic. He was headed to coach his daughter’s team, part of his wider youth initiative to encourage basketball excellence among boys and girls. Fellow team-members, coaches and parents filled out the passenger manifest. They were nine souls in all.
But most helicopters chose not to fly in the LA area on the morning of 26th January 2020. The cloud deck was low, and the fog over the canyons more dense than usual.
But they went. And then their journey was held in a circling movement over LA Zoo for 15 minutes, awaiting clearance into the Burbank air traffic control (ATC) zone. There was communication between their American-Armenian pilot and ATC. He pressed on.
But something went wrong. Perhaps many things all at once. Their Sikorsky S-76 helicopter hit the hillside at Calabasas, northwest of downtown LA. Everyone aboard perished.
An ear-witness, Scott Daehlin, described the sound of the copter, low and slow overhead, then coming to silence after an abrupt slam. There was no secondary noise of rotary blades peeling off. Which led him to speculate that the helicopter had impacted, blades first. ‘It was quick’, Daehlin said. ‘I hope the occupants didn’t suffer’.
Kobe Bryant, a distant American sportsman who has existed at the far reaches of my cultural consciousness, has slammed into full view today.
News of this breaking global sports story came last night by way of an American friend, whose brief Facebook post used unusually raw language.
‘I am broken. Kobe Bryant is my favourite Laker of all time. Rest is peace, Mamba’.
I know little of the ins and outs in basketball. Reversing that would take a lifetime. But to get the measure of a man? That can happen faster than you think.
And the story of Kobe Bryant is the stuff of giants.
Sport is the grand metaphor of life. We see sportsmen as gods because they exist in a curated, rule-based universe in which results are clear: in sport we can draw a line between effort and reward, winners and losers, triumph and disaster.
It is rarely so clear-cut in the real world.
When he retired in 2016 after twenty stellar years with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant set about crafting his life’s second act. After a few missteps, he framed his new role as one of entrepreneur, and found his essence in the role of storyteller.
It is through stories, he asserted, that the world is changed. Be they stories of information or of inspiration – he believed that people are moved through narrative.
His own story was such a tale.
He had played basketball since the age of three. Growing up in Italy, he had returned to the USA for summer basketball leagues. His first league year, aged ten, was a disaster. He scored not a single point. Zero. Four years later, he would become the best basketball player of his home state (Pennsylvania).
In accounting for his pubescent sporting transformation, Kobe offered a simple analysis. His peers beat him at aged ten because of their superior athleticism. His physique was not yet ready to take them on. And so, he brought focus to learning basketball’s fundamentals. How to take a shot. How to tackle, and pivot.
His dedication was daily and absolute.
Not yet a teenager, he committed to psychologically play with those athletic overlords who would regularly hand him his ass on court. While everyone else settled down to eat lunch, Kobe would break from the pack, choosing an extra hour in the gym over food or rest. In mastering the fundamentals, he was then ready to grow into his body and own his athleticism.
Suddenly, he was winning everything. In truth, it was not sudden. And for Kobe Bryant, winning was surely not a surprise.
It is as a leader and strategic thinker that he excelled. His method was all about detail. After playing a game, he would grab the videotapes and study what just happened. If the Lakers had won, how might they have been even better? The answer lay in the micro-second. The placement of a foot here; the roll of a wrist there. This analysis by way of breaking down milliseconds ultimately allowed him to speed-analyse live games in real time.
He saw defeat as a gut-wrenching, golden opportunity. Failure gave a chance to examine what went wrong, and, with surgical precision, put it right. You just have to have the balls to review the bad tapes too.
Bryant lived in a city built on the fault lines of soil and soul. He became the spirit of his city. He too had lived rough and smooth.
In a town called Eagle, west of Vail in Colorado, he was accused of the rape of a hotel receptionist. This was at the height of his career, in 2003.
Bryant’s defence was that the encounter was consensual. Ultimately, the case did not come to trial as the alleged victim refused to testify. She went on to bring a civil case against him, settled outside of court.
I did not follow that story, nor do I know enough of the details to have a point of view on what transpired. (As if, even then, I would be justified in deciding the right and wrong of it all…)
My interest is in a very specific detail of how Bryant thought about his predicament. For several seasons, during which the rape allegations were pending, his name had become problematic. It was challenging for some of his team mates to play with him; and for some his fans to stay with him.
Recognising this dilemma, Bryant sought to put distance between his personal self (flawed, by his own admission) and his on-court persona (indestructible, by his own volition).
He created an on-court alter-ego called ‘Black Mamba’, after the sub-Saharan snake famous for its combative stance and venomous bite. In this manner, during a trying period, he found a chink through which fans might cheer for Mamba, and think no further.
What a person does is different from who a person is, he claimed. And a man can find the seeds of transcendence in reviewing how he has temporarily lost his way.
Bryant went some way in acknowledging his personal failings in a public forum. His wife, Vanessa, eventually filed for divorce, but two years later the couple announced a reconciliation.
Kobe pressed on. Post-retirement, he expressed his love for basketball through his encouragement of Gigi, his love for life through his embrace of family, his passion for storytelling through works of art and media which won him backing, plaudits and, indeed, an Oscar.
And all the time, in interviews, Bryant’s vision would remain strategic, self-aware, and so thoroughly engaging.
In the majesty of his skills, his thinking, his passions and his plans, Kobe Bryant lived a life of purposeful renewal. Unfortunately, it is only now, as the curtains draw, that this complicated, beautiful, heroic man comes to tell me his stories.
I feel hooked. Riveted. Rapt. But it is late, and the fog has drawn in.
So, riddle me this. Where goes the story when its teller leaves the stage?