Words Can't Do Kobe Bryant's Life and Legacy Justice

Ryan Phillips
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers / Harry How/Getty Images
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I've been staring at a blank screen for hours and can't find the words to write about Kobe Bryant.

My assignment is to write a column on Bryant's life and legacy after he died in a helicopter crash on Sunday at 41 years old. It's simply not going to happen. I mean, how do you do that? How do you put into words what Bryant meant to so many people? How do you sum up the achievements of a global icon who conquered multiple fields with a focus and tenacity we've rarely seen? It can't be done. Someone like that can't have their life wrapped up nicely with words on a page.

I suppose I could sit here and just reel off all of Bryant's monumental basketball achievements. Tell you how he went from high school phenom to MVP and five-time NBA champion. How he took his game and elevated it to become one of the greatest to ever pick up a basketball and inspired two generations of NBA stars. There would surely be notes in there about his place near the top of various all-time lists and the litany of awards and honors he earned. But words can't possibly sum up what he could do on a basketball court. After all, he was a near-perfect offensive player who was at his best when the moment demanded it.

I might try to describe what it was like to see Bryant take over a game, but those would just be words. They wouldn't be a substitute for actually seeing him go into "Mamba Mode." I couldn't convey how intimidating he was when he wore the "Kobe Snarl," or how no player in history could go from cold to nuclear as quickly as him. Bryant could play so beautifully when he got hot and he could own the moment like no one else. Any words about that would be wildly insufficient. You had to see it. You had to experience it.

If my task was to describe Bryant's impact on the game, I would have to detail how in 2007 he and Mike Krzyzewski made playing in the Olympics "cool" again after Team USA's failure at the 2004 games. Bryant and Coach K convinced an entire generation of young players that representing their country was more important than getting a summer vacation. That the name on the front of that jersey meant something and there should be a sense of pride in keeping the United States atop the basketball world. I'd also wax poetic about how he stepped up in crunch time and took over the championship game at the 2008 Olympics, securing the first of his two gold medals.

There would need to be a section on Bryant's insane workouts, how he was better than everyone else because he was obsessively driven. He worked out harder and longer than anyone in the sport and that contributed to his longevity. He was a man who battled, fought, clawed and competed every second of his life. He would have fought to the death to win a game and brought everything he had every night. Bryant also had an incredible tolerance for pain and routinely played through injuries that would have sidelined lesser mortals for weeks or months. I'd have to break down how he seemed invincible even into his mid-30s...until one night and one moment when he wasn't, and his career came crashing down.

An Achilles tendon injury robbed us of the true "Mamba" and led to three depressing years where he tried to return to his former greatness but his body just wouldn't let him. It was sad, and a struggle for everyone watching. But then he went out the only way he knew how, by dropping 60 and winning his final game, giving us one final "Kobe moment."

If I was going to write about his life I'd have to plug in a long section about his immaturity as a young player and person. His brash attitude and troubles on and off the court. His falling out with Shaquille O'Neal and demanding a trade from the Lakers before rescinding that request. His feud with Phil Jackson. His fights with teammates and his personal struggles. But that would be balanced by his redemptive arc as he matured, became a better teammate, a better husband, a wonderful, involved father and a mentor to a new generation of young players. And his rise as basketball's most-effective worldwide ambassador.

Of course, I'd have to exhaustively go on about his second act. How after basketball he didn't take the safe route of sitting back, relaxing, playing golf or even taking a simple path towards something like coaching. No, he chose to strike out on a new avenue. He started several growing businesses -- including a venture capital firm -- wrote a book, won an Academy Award, did incredible analysis on Detail for ESPN, and managed to fit in a lot of charity work. All the while he was coaching and mentoring his daughter Gianna in basketball and being an advocate for social issues and women's hoops. He took all of those roles seriously and by all accounts attacked them with the same ferocity as he attacked the rim as a player.

If I was going to attempt to write this thing, I'd have to wrap up by finding a way to connect myself to the subject and tell you all about how Bryant's life and mine intersected. That part of this kind of piece is always a stretch. Sure, Bryant was just two years older than me, but that's not a connection and it would be too simple to tell you that I felt a kinship with him because we both loved basketball. He was from outside of Philadelphia, while I was a kid from San Diego, we had almost nothing in common. The only real reason I have any real connection to the guy is completely one-sided. It's because everyone I knew and played with wanted to emulate Kobe.

When I was 15, Bryant jumped to the NBA. The day he announced he was entering the draft, I learned about it in the locker room before a basketball game. I watched him play during the 1996 McDonald's All-American Game during a break between two games at an AAU Tournament my team wound up winning. I was in awe of what he could do on the court. Because of what I saw from him, I wanted to work harder, run farther and shoot longer. I wore out the rim in front of my house practicing his turnaround, perfecting his fadeaway and modeling the way he squared his shoulders, tucked his elbow and feathered the ball off his fingertips every time he shot.

If I was dumb enough to attempt this feature, I'd go into exhausting detail of how I didn't make it thanks to my physical limitations, how my knees lagged far behind my desire to play the way Kobe did. How I still managed to watch every game as he joined my beloved Los Angeles Lakers, and wowed me on a near-nightly basis for two decades. How no matter what was going on in my life, I could always tune in knowing Bryant would do something special. I remember sitting in my college apartment on a freezing night in Bloomington, Indiana, as he dropped 81 points on the Raptors and thinking I'd never seen anything like it. No matter what was going on in my life, I could turn on a Lakers game and watch Bryant. And he would wow me.

I've never rooted as hard for someone to continually be better on and off the court than I have for Bryant. Seeing him become a mentor to teammates and younger players after years of being a man on an island was so fulfilling as a fan and as a person. Then seeing him share his passion and love for the game with his daughters made things even better. My generation felt like we knew Kobe because so many of us idolized him. We watched him grow up in front of us. We knew he was flawed and maybe that made him easier to identify with. No matter how great he was, we knew he was human.

I can't write about Bryant because I simply can't bring myself to tell you how I felt when I heard the news he died. I don't want to explain that it was like someone took a baseball bat to my chest. And then tell you that hours later when I learned Gianna had been with him and didn't survive, the horror sunk in all over again. I can count the number of times I've cried in the past decade on one hand, but it was hard to hold back hearing the news. When I watched all the videos of the two of them together, with Kobe sharing his love of the game with her, I lost it. I've had a significantly large lump in my throat ever since.

I'd have to finish the piece off with some kind of look forward to give the reader some hope. Let's be honest, I'm not talented enough to do that. I simply can't explain how this incredible tragedy serves a greater purpose. Though I don't want to believe it and have prayed it isn't true, Kobe Bryant is gone forever at just 41 years old. I can say confidently that there will never be another player or person like him.

I just have to apologize to my readers for not being up to the task. Bryant's presence, his meaning and his existence were far too large to be fully contained on this page. Summing up his life with words would be an impossible task that I won't even attempt.

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