Detroit — In sports, we see plenty of mediocrity and a little bit of goodness on a daily basis.
The elite players come along once in a while; the elite icons are even more rare.
Greatness came wrapped in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey for 20 years in the form of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, that killed all nine passengers aboard, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff representatives.
Bryant, 41, is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and their three other daughters, including the youngest, Capri, who is just six months old.
The tragic news spread around social media and the sports world with disbelief and denial when the initial reports were confirmed.
Kobe Bean Bryant was the gold standard — the purple-and-gold standard — for the Lakers, both as No. 8 for 10 seasons and No. 24 for another decade.
Bryant was one of the most accomplished players in NBA history: a five-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star, league MVP in 2008 and two-time NBA Finals MVP. He impacted the league almost unlike any other player, finishing his career as the third all-time leading scorer, until LeBron James surpassed Bryant on Saturday night.
That elicited Bryant’s final post on Twitter on Saturday night: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644”
Bryant embraced that changing of the guard ushered in by James, just as he was embraced when the NBA was looking for the heir apparent following Michael Jordan’s retirement. One of Bryant’s crowning achievements is that he lived up to the hype and mountain of expectations — and embraced it.
“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing. Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” Jordan said in a statement. “I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much.
“He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply — and took great pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball.”
His spirit and pursuit of excellence became Bryant’s hallmark when was drafted as a 17-year-old and became an NBA All-Star in just his second season. What Bryant was able to accomplish in his 20-year career was nothing short of inspiring and spectacular.
In 2016, he had a show-stopping 60 points against the Utah Jazz in the last game of his career, a worthy finale for one of the greats of his time. That paled in comparison to his career-high 81 points on January 22, 2006, in a win over the Toronto Raptors.
That was vintage Kobe: embracing expectation and exceeding it with excellence.
Bryant became a cultural icon because of his ability to live up to that expectation. He joined the single-name echelon, with the likes of Prince, Madonna and his former teammate, Shaq.
Losing Bryant ranks among the most tragic accidents in sports history, reprising memories of baseball star Roberto Clemente’s plane crash in 1972, golfer Payne Stewart’s plane crash in 1999 and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s car crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
This one hits differently, though.
Kobe’s Black Mamba persona and the Mamba Mentality will be another legacy that he leaves to his fans and the Lakers fan base, many of whom gathered outside the Staples Center on Sunday evening to commiserate.
There was something inherently likable and relatable about Bryant. For all those fans who emulated Jordan and wanted to “be like Mike,” as the Gatorade ad campaign suggested, there was something unattainable about Jordan.
Kobe, especially after his retirement, was passing basketball down to his daughter Gianna. According to reports, they were riding in his helicopter, along with another player and parent, to Gianna’s travel basketball game.
After spending his NBA career focusing on his greatness, he was ready to shift gears to spend it with his daughter. Kobe the Father was on the way to building a legacy like Kobe the Superstar.
He also won an Oscar for his animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” in 2018. As most of the focus over the coming weeks will be on his basketball accomplishments, another loss will be on all that Bryant could have done after his playing career.
It would have been a good bet that it would have been excellent.
Greatness doesn’t come along very often — but when it does, it’s always good to recognize it.