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Kobe Bryant: Ahead of his time 6 min read

Kobe Bryant: Ahead of his time

By Cary Littlejohn

Like Slaughter-House Five’s Billy Pilgrim, yesterday I came unstuck in time. The news of former NBA star Kobe Bryant’s death allowed me to experience time as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians do.

For a refresher, here’s a snippet from Salman Rusdie writing in The New Yorker:

Tralfamadorians, we learn in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” perceive time differently. They see that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously and forever and are simply there, fixed, eternally. When the main character of the novel, Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped and taken to Tralfamadore, “comes unstuck in time” and begins to experience chronology the way Tralfamadorians do…

The catch in my throat and watering of my eye was undoubtedly the past. As a mild-mannered kid in the 90s, basketball was as close as I ever came to rebellion. I was groomed to play baseball, and I loved it. But at a certain point, I didn’t like it very much. My dad coached and drilled me, and his expectations at times were unwanted. On some level, that was basketball’s great appeal — he didn’t have any expectations around that sport, and I found it liberating. I remember growing up in a house without cable TV and living for NBA on NBC on weekend afternoons, channel 5, WMC-TV out of Memphis. Michael Jordan was savior, but I truly came to basketball during his hiatus to try his hand at baseball. In his stead, I fell in love with a dynamic duo from Orlando — Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. They were young and exciting, and Penny had a hometown feel about him, as he’d grown up and played college ball just two hours away in Memphis. They had clutch seasons, ended by the Houston Rockets in the ’95 NBA Finals, and after that, while my love for them never wavered, it was all about Jordan. He was back, and he was glorious. Three years of unbelievable basketball followed, and I still remember his game-winning shot over Russell from the free throw line, helped by that competitor’s push-off that only Jordan could get away with and the way his wrist dangled in follow-through. And with that, he was done. It felt like I’d been born a bit too late, coming of age just in time to see his ‘96, ‘97, and ‘98 seasons and then no more. Who could take up his mantle? There was talk that it just might be this high school phenom from Philly named Kobe Bryant. We didn’t truly know it until the 2000 NBA Finals, where I was drawn to the Lakers in large part due to Shaq, but it was then we saw the qualities from Kobe that would draw lifelong comparisons to Michael Jordan.

What struck so many of us at the time was how blatantly he wanted, invited, craved that comparison, not so unlike another young superstar breaking through at the same time: Tiger Woods. Golf diehards were no doubt excited to see this new blood in the game, something fresh and exciting, but many found it heretical and hubristic that this young kid would dare to so openly chase Jack Nicklaus’ record for all-time majors. But then they started to perform, both Tiger and Kobe, then they came into their own as finely tuned athletes, and before we knew it, they’d grown up before our eyes and those all-time greatest/what-if/who-would-win questions didn’t seem so silly.

The present was bisected by the scattered disbelief of it all (“Weren’t we all just talking about Kobe last night?”) and recognition of the fact that things could fall from the sky. The day before Kobe died, LeBron James, who followed so famously in his footsteps as a high school phenom to step straight onto the NBA’s stage, passed Kobe for third place on the all-time scoring list. Kobe’s last tweet was to James, congratulating him on the accomplishment.

Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644January 26, 2020

Roughly 12 hours later, he, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash. I heard the news from my brother, and I my mind raced to make sense of it all but failed. In my failing, small connections made the moment real to me. My brother, out in California, who works daily with helicopters for the U.S. Navy broke the news. At the moment he did, our mother was in the air, from Atlanta to Charlotte, to be with our sister. To my knowledge, she’d only flown two other times during my lifetime —to and from California to see my brother. She had anxiety, probably from the myriad tasks of getting to the airport and through security but, on some level, probably due to flying itself. I offered mere platitudes, assuming everything would be okay because, so far, it’s always been okay for me. We take for granted air travel; the refusal to be earthbound, no matter how awesome the concept, is barely worth a raised eyebrow these days. But sometimes things fall from the sky. She’s on that trip to see our sister, who’s due soon to deliver a baby girl into the world. A baby girl, like Kobe’s four daughters. Like the daughter who was bound for basketball greatness in her own right. Like the daughter born just months ago. My niece will be my parents’ first grandchild, and there can be no excitement like the anticipation of new life. It is full of hope, of looking forward. Kobe was always ahead of his time, and in death, he was no different. An unexpected tragedy is the inverse of such excitement; it’s all the more painful because there was no time to say goodbye, no expectation of loss, only regret for a life cut short too early, of fear that death comes for us all and it could happen literally any day now.

The future is a question mark because the potential was so limitless. There are certainties, of course. This year, Kobe will go into the Hall of Fame. Will he go in unanimously? Or near-unanimously like another late-90s teenage phenom who spent an entire career for one storied franchise named Derek Jeter? Time will tell. But time won’t tell how Kobe would have processed it, like if it would have touched him the same way Jimmy Johnson was when he found out he was in the NFL Hall of Fame now. One of the greatest pieces of sports journalism ever is Wright Thompson’s profile of Michael Jordan as he turned 50. It is an intimate portrait of a living legend, coming to terms with living merely as a legend at a point in life where one seriously contemplates the possibility of more yesterdays than tomorrows. What’s crazy is that the world was still nine years away from the Kobe-at-50 article. And yet still even more removed – 37 years away – from the Gianna-at-50 article. What might have been?

There is a list, unwritten and unspoken (but immediately identifiable) of celebrities whose time draws nearer every day, and once they pass away, we’ll all mourn. We see them, and our heart is guarded for the certainty of it all; not if, but when. But we were not ready for this. When the number reaches 65, 70, 75 and up, reasonable minds can quibble over whether it constitutes a “long life.” On this we all can agree: 41 is too young.

I don’t write as an expert on Kobe Bryant. I don’t write seeking to absolve him of his transgressions; I don’t believe his legacy is complete unless one reckons with Colorado in 2003. I don’t write as an expert on NBA. I’ll freely confess that, in this age of cord-cutting, I’m a lackadaisical sports viewer across the board. I’m not an Angeleno. I own neither a number 8 jersey nor a number 24 jersey. I never saw him play in person. But that disbelief, that horror at the reality of it, that sense of loss, that emotion, the catch in my throat and the watering of my eyes…well, those were real, and in spite of my lack of expertise, it seems fitting to write a eulogy to Kobe Bryant as the ever-present force he was. In truth, I’m not writing so much about Kobe as I am about Kobe as a backdrop for my life. For the majority of my it, he was there, humming along in the background, always game to drop 35 points on a random night when I’d decide to check-in on the NBA. And suddenly, he’s not. A city is without its hero. A team is without its coach and teammate. A wife and mother is without her loving husband and precious daughter. And three daughters are without their father.

He was cause to reckon with my past, present and future, all at once. It’s a precious few on this earth who can do so, and for that, and many, many more reasons, he will be missed.