Remembering Kobe Bryant: Relentless, curious and infinitely complicated

Article Date(s): Monday 27 January, 2020
We were visiting relatives on a brisk Thanksgiving afternoon on Cape Cod in 2007, and I was balancing a piece of piping-hot apple pie in my hand when my phone pinged to let me know I had a text message.

It was from Kobe Bryant.

"Hey Jackie, wishing you and your family a very happy Thanksgiving," he wrote.

While this was mildly surprising, as Kobe and I weren't exactly regular social correspondents, we had been emailing on and off for years for various professional reasons. This text felt a bit like an olive branch. Bryant had initially emerged from his bruising sexual assault case both angry and defiant, fully embracing his black hat and the Black Mamba mantel; but as time passed, he began repairing his relationships within the basketball community.

It felt as though his Thanksgiving salutation warranted a response, but there was only one problem: Back in 2007, I was new to texting and not terribly adept at it. My daughter Aly, who was 15 at the time and a passionate basketball fan, gleefully offered to reply to me.

I can't remember what she texted, but it included just enough of the edgy social slangs -- u instead of you, which old fogies like me hadn't quite caught onto yet -- to prompt Kobe to immediately shoot back, "Hey, you didn't write this!"

"You're right," I admitted. "My daughter answered for me."

"I knew it!" he responded triumphantly.

Naturally, I couldn't put anything past Kobe Bryant. He was far too insightful and intuitive for that. He was the most intelligent professional athlete I had ever encountered, curious and demanding and savvy and competitive and relentless and infinitely complicated.

Aly and I were atop Breckenridge Mountain on Sunday afternoon enjoying a glorious day of skiing when a stranger recognized me and approached with a look that I know all too well. Horrific news travels at Mach speed, even when you have no cell service.

Kobe. Gone. In a most unspeakable and horrible accident that also claimed the lives of several others, including his beautiful and accomplished young daughter Gianna.

The shock swiftly reverberated throughout the NBA, Hollywood and across the globe. For those of us who knew him well, it was, simply, incomprehensible. Bryant was a man with limitless possibility, a man whose trophy case included MVPs, an Oscar, and a best-selling novel.

When I heard the news, I thought immediately of Michael Jordan, who Bryant told me on several occasions was the player he aspired to be. Certainly, Bryant came closer than anyone else to matching the talent, the intensity -- and the aura -- of His Airness. I reached out to Jordan via text, knowing the news would be overwhelming and deeply personal.

"I'm devastated!!!!" Jordan wrote to me. "Too emotional to respond. I can't find the words to make sentences!!!!

"I just started crying," added a teary-eyed Charles Barkley. "That's all I've been doing, is crying."

Barkley had gone to an early showing of the movie "The Gentlemen" and had left his phone at home. He emerged from the theater and immediately sensed something was terribly wrong.

"I just feel tremendous sadness," Barkley said.

Hall of Famer Jerry West traded for a teenage Bryant in the 1996 draft, shipping well-established and highly regarded center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to the young phenom, who declared for the draft right out of high school. It was a bold move that literally altered the landscape of NBA history.

It was West who guided a young Bryant through the pitfalls of an NBA climate that was often unkind to a gifted, yet impetuous young talent. Bryant would later credit West as the first of many mentors who helped him shape his career as an unforgettable NBA icon.

"I haven't come to grips with this," said an audibly distraught West. "First you have a feeling of shock, then a feeling of horrible sorrow, and then you start having all these recollections of the times I shared with him. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

"I feel like I've lost a son."

Bryant maintained a high profile in the game during retirement, breaking down current NBA players for ESPN+ in a segment called Detail and appearing at Lakers games, often with one of his treasured daughters in tow. But, Barkley said, Bryant made a conscious effort to keep his distance.

"I don't think anyone knew Kobe well -- I ain't gonna lie about that," Barkley said. "Every time I saw him, he was courteous, he'd come by and say hello, but then he'd keep it moving."

Perhaps that's because that is how Bryant decided he wanted it. From the time he was an 8-year-old competing against players three years older than him, Bryant wasn't satisfied with winning -- he was gunning for total domination. He attacked the game with a fierceness that was both admirable and, at times, unsettling to his peers. Like his idol Jordan, who famously reduced teammate Steve Kerr to tears, Bryant once felled teammate Sasha Vujacic with an elbow in practice that left him weeping.

"I could never understand," Bryant once told me, "why winning wasn't the most important thing to everyone. Why are you here then?"

While he was playing, Kobe would sometimes sit down with me during the Los Angeles Lakers' annual trip to Boston. We would eat lunch in the Four Seasons dining room and dissect his complicated relationships with Shaquille O'Neal, Phil Jackson, and Dwight Howard, among others.

In his final NBA season, Kobe agreed to sit down at the Four Seasons with me again, this time to reflect on a career that, he said, was built from advice and counsel from some incredible influences -- from Bill Russell to Dr. J to Michael Jordan.

Many of those mentors shared their grief and dismay on Sunday over a meteoric life gone too soon. One of them, Bill Russell, who talked with Kobe after Bryant devoured Russell's book "Second Wind," said on Twitter: "[My wife] Jeannine and I are absolutely shocked to hear of the loss of one of my favorite people and one of the best basketball minds in the history of the game! Our hearts and prayers to [Bryant's wife] Vanessa and his girls. @kobebryant who was my biggest fan, but I was yours."

My final correspondence with Kobe came just a couple of weeks ago. I was working on a story regarding a legendary play that Jackson had run for him while he was with the Lakers, and I asked if he could share some memories about how it worked.

"Can't right now," Kobe texted back. "My girls are keeping me busy. Hit me up in a couple of weeks."

If only I could.
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