Some sporting individuals are remembered in a single snapshot. Tommie Smith’s black-clad fist in Mexico, Francois Pienaar’s handshake with Mandela in Johannesburg, Ben Stokes’ tribalistic roar at Leeds. Some are immortalised through totemic achievements. Ronnie O’Sullivan’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it maximum in Sheffield, Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile in Oxford, Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 in Montreal. Some remain etched in memory on account of utter dominance. Tiger Woods’ 281 consecutive weeks at world number one, Don Bradman’s astronomical batting average of 99.94, Heather McKay’s 19 year unbeaten streak on the squash court. And some are examples of seemingly everlasting greatness. Carl Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive MLB games, Marta’s five consecutive World Cups with at least one goal, Martina Navratilova’s headline-grabbing comeback in 2000.
It is a testimony to Kobe Bryant that he is a member of all four categories. There is an iconic photo of him taken from above, mouth wide, stretching every sinew to collect the ball, ability combined with sheer drive, his black-gloved power salute. His famous 81-point game in a Kobe-led demolition of the Raptors was his entry into the second category, a staggering achievement unseen in the modern era, his four-minute mile. Just a year later, he went on an extraordinary week-long scoring rampage, scoring over 50 points in four consecutive games, one man above the rest, his 99.94. And when in his final game, in front of a crowd feverish with expectation, a 37 year-old Bryant scored 60 points to lead the Lakers to victory, his enduring quality was confirmed in one solitary match, his 2,632 consecutive matches.
Yet weighing up Kobe Bryant’s career in this manner is not a sufficiently fitting tribute to an athlete whose death has caused such a monumental outpouring of grief and recollection. There is a fifth category, and it is this category which Bryant fits into most seamlessly; to be remembered by an unerring and unobstructed inner desire to reach the highest level of achievement, a determination to overcome adversity, to lace those boots again, and again, and again.
There are two moments in Kobe Bryant’s career which encapsulate this. The first came in 2013, in the twilight of his career. An on-court tumble in the fourth quarter resulted in a torn Achilles tendon, leaving him prostrate, seemingly in excruciating pain, surely out of the game. Not Kobe. Dragging himself onto his feet, he collected the ball and limped towards the basket, before sinking two perfect free throws, drawing his beloved Lakers level in the process, and providing clear evidence of his unique willingness to succeed.
The second was recalled by ex-NBA athlete Jay Williams in an emotional live tribute, who played against Bryant’s Lakers at the nascence of his career. He had decided to travel to the venue several hours early to put in some extra work ahead of such an important game, but to his surprise he arrived to see Kobe Bryant practising intensely on court. After he had completed an hour-long workout himself, Williams returned to the sidelines and watched Bryant continue to train furiously. At the end of the game, he asked Bryant why he was working so unusually hard, to which Bryant remarked: “I saw you come in and I wanted you to know that it doesn’t matter how hard you work. I’m willing to work harder than you.” If ever a single isolated quote was to sum up an individual so perfectly, it is this one.
Kobe Bryant was not only a basketball player of freakish ability, but also an individual burning with an innate will to better himself, to break new boundaries, to be better than the Kobe Bryant of yesterday. He and his daughter Gianna, also tragically killed alongside her father, leave behind a wife, a family, and friends, but also a collection of adoring fans and admirers across the world.
From the moment
I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary
In the Great Western Forum
I knew one thing was real:
I fell in love with you.
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1
Image credit: Tyson Beck