You’ve heard a lot in recent days about Kobe Bryant’s reputation for ruthlessness.
Show no mercy. Take no prisoners. Be ferocious and relentless for 2,880 seconds, even if it makes the other guy look bad.
And all of that is true.
But the story of Bryant, 41, the pro basketball legend who died Sunday, with one of his daughters, in a sudden and horrific helicopter crash, is actually more of a love story: Love of the game. And love of family.
To be sure, Bryant’s insatiable hunger for competition and his natural gifts were remarkable. He could jump. He could shoot. He could defend. He relished the pressure of the big moment.
He was poetry and venom. And still he constantly worked at getting better.
Among the highlights of his 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers were five NBA titles, 18 All-Star team selections. He scored 81 points in a single game and 60 in his final game in 2016.
But Bryant himself hadn’t always been so easy to love.
From Day One he was determined to challenge the greatness of Michael Jordan, who ironically, now owns the team that originally drafted him, the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets plucked Bryant, 17, straight out of high school, then traded him to the Lakers. (We’ll pause here for just a moment to imagine what might have been.)
Over his illustrious career, he feuded with teammates at times, perhaps most famously, with Shaquille O’Neal. He wasn’t always particularly warm to other stars in the game, whom he saw as rivals for supremacy.
More seriously, he was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003 but the 19-year-old woman refused to testify against him in court. A civil suit was settled out of court and Bryant issued an apology. While he had viewed the encounter as consensual, he conceded, the woman had not.
The public appears to have forgiven him. Even as the cloud of its own sexual harassment allegations hung over the Grammys Sunday night at the Lakers’ home court, the Staples Center, spotlights shone on Bryant’s retired jerseys in the rafters. And one artist after another paid his or her respects.
As for his life after basketball, Kobe, as the world knows him, was writing another remarkable chapter in his love story: love for his family and a renewed love for the game. No longer viewing him as a threat to his legacy, he had tweeted a congratulatory note to current Lakers superstar LeBron James, who passed Kobe on Saturday night to rank third on the all-time NBA scoring list. “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Kobe tweeted. “Much respect my brother.” He and O’Neal had grown close.
Most of all, inspired by his daughter Gianna, 13, he had come to appreciate basketball with a different kind of joy. He reveled in teaching the game to his daughter, a budding star in her own right. He embraced and promoted the women’s game, and had boasted recently that some of its best players could hold their own in the NBA. He performed random kindnesses for strangers in Los Angeles. Then came Sunday’s awful crash that claimed the lives of Kobe, Gianna and seven others. He is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and three additional daughters.
In his Oscar-winning, 2017 animated film, “Dear Basketball,” Bryant professed his devotion to the game that his aging body no longer allowed him to play. “I will love you always,” he said.
That love story continued after his playing days … with friends and family and a whole new set of hoop dreams.
Until it ended. Much too soon.