Never touched a basketball and appreciated its round fit in a hand? Never played a single game of basketball on the playground, in the school yard, in a high school or college gym?
Never seen a professional NBA game in your life or on television? Never heard of a three-point shot, a rebound, a layup, a free throw, a fadeaway, a fast break or an alley-oop? A slam dunk, a dribble or a jump shot?
If that’s so, none of that experience or knowledge are necessary to still be powerfully affected and afflicted by the news of the shocking death, at 41, of Kobe Bryant, one of the select all-time great National Basketball Association players, in a helicopter crash in a foggy area of Calabasas, California, on Sunday morning, Jan. 26.
His death, and that of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, along with seven others, was heartbreaking in the way that news of the death of the greatly admired among us always is. And when the young die like this of a stunning suddenness, with no time to imagine or ponder in the immediate sense, the heartache spreads oddly in ever widening circles to family, friends, fans, friends, rivals, beyond the sharply etched and reported chronicles of basketball into the great wide world.
You don’t have to know something about basketball or play basketball to mourn this loss, because it stings sharply in a basic human way.
Just look at those pictures of Bryant, with or without his Los Angeles Lakers basketball uniforms: numbers 8 and then 24. You can read a lifetime into those portraits, with his family, his daughters, with teammates, grinning, in a suit in his fairly recent life of retirement. What immediately strikes you is the portrait of a journey — that early kid straight out of high school into a glowing, shining future, brimming with confidence shaded by the arrogance that only a very young man with great gifts can show.
It’s a journey that moves from that young all-star beaming face — those arching shots from long range, those moves, those human mistakes that come with early success — to a kind of maturity. In time, Bryant saw beyond the confines of a basketball court. His vision contained family and fatherhood. A restless imagination allowed him to write children’s books, create foundations and schools and support women’s basketball with the same exuberance that he showed on the court.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, to know a little something about basketball — to have run on a wooden or neighborhood cement court, to have fired away from 30 feet, even at a carny game. It doesn’t hurt to know a little about the galaxy of legends to which Bryant belongs.
If you lived in a city, you know the names, from its beginnings: the defensive genius of Bill Russell, the too-tall excellence of Alcindor/Jabbar, the early swift passer Bob Cousy, Kobe’s teammate and sometime rival Shaquille O’Neal, the magic of Magic Johnson and the implacable Celtic Larry Bird, the quiet accumulations of Tim Duncan and the razzle-dazzle of the increasingly more diverse stars of today’s players and game.
Bryant was chosen to be in the NBA Hall of Fame today — the immediacy not only reflecting his passing, but also the evidence of his excellence.
He’s right up there with two very different figures: Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bull uber-super-best Michael Jordan, who with his sheer willpower and gifts drove the NBA into the commercial stratosphere; and LeBron James, another young star straight out of high school, already in the NBA long enough to make him seem like a sage in his 30s.
James swept past Bryant on Saturday for third place in the all-time list of top NBA scorers at 33,655 points. To which Bryant replied in a tweet: “Continuing to move the game forward, much respect, my brother.”
It was his last tweet.
It was also classy, pure Bryant — the man, and not just the player. In the game, little if anything was left to prove. He had several league championships with the Lakers, scoring titles, all-star appearances, a 60-point game, an 80-point game. He had troubled times and good times and great times, and the achievement of maturity.
He was more than a basketball player, but in the way he played the game you get a feel for what the game is about at its best. And that was Bryant, a shooting, darting, fake-moves, soaring guard. He played with pain, but always with joy and exuberance.
Watching Bryant shoot, move, fire away, the arching of the ball, him going up and slamming down, you got another idea: The one where a man, a woman, somebody with big dreams says, “I think I can fly.”