We were just finishing up Sunday morning yoga in the park when Michael showed me the headline on his phone, and the words that instinctively came out of my mouths were “that can’t be real.” But then people around us were buzzing and I could make out whispers of “Kobe” in their conversations, so I look at my own phone: all my chat groups were blowing up too. It was a strange feeling to actively not wanting to go on Twitter or Instagram for the next few hours, because maybe this was some weird dream. That’s what the rest of the day felt like.
It’s hard to put into words how I feel right now. I guess the most immediate ones that come to mind are just that I’m absolutely stunned and devastated. That, and the hollow feeling of numbness like my mind is detached from reality.
On top of that, I’m also really confused about why I feel so much sadness and loss for a complete stranger who passed away today, someone who I’ve never even been close to interacting with. I certainly didn’t think I’d ever shed a tear for such a stranger’s death, but today was that day. I hate that I learned that about myself today. I wish I didn’t. I know how absurd it probably is to read those words, it’s absurd for me to think about and write them, too. I wish I didn’t have to.
But that’s what happened. I was driving home from pick-up basketball later in the day and I, inexplicably, just could not stop the slow and steady stream of tears as I was floating through the highway. It’s weird, I woke up this morning not even wanting to play ball today, and I literally go every single Sunday that I’m in San Diego. But I was so sore and dehydrated from Friday’s games that I thought, maybe old age is showing and that I should take a day off.
But after the news broke, playing felt like the only right thing to do, the only thing I could do, because that’s what Kobe Bryant would have done no matter how beat up he was. Then I realized that, it’s not even that I wanted to play, I just needed to be around a basketball and people playing basketball.
Nobody said anything about it at the courts, but people were wearing Laker shorts and backpacks with Mamba logos everywhere, and it could’ve been just any other Sunday. But it wasn’t. At some point, I go to dab my friend Joe sitting on the bleachers. I call him my friend because I see him once a week when we hoop. But I know close to nothing about him, I don’t know if he’s even a student at UCSD. I just know he respects my game on the court, and I feel the same, so we’d shake hands when we see each other, and talk a little shit when we get on opposing teams. Today, we shake hands, and I hold on for just a moment longer. All I could muster up was… “I’m sad man”, and all he did in response was a few slow and silent nods. I get choked up, all over again.
I have a lot of such friends, people who I’ve played basketball with for 3 or 4 years on a weekly basis but don’t know much else about, some not even their first names. But that didn’t really matter, at least not to me, and basketball was a reprieve from the constant chatters of everyday life. I think most of them felt what I felt today. I think that’s what the entire basketball community across the world felt today, not just the NBA. Anybody who’s airballed a fade-away while screaming “Kobe!” unironically felt it today. It’s weird how it took something like this for me to realize the presence of such a community, what it meant to me, and what basketball meant to me throughout my life. I wish that it didn’t happen like this. I wanted to hug everyone on the court today a little closer, and just appreciate the fact that all of this exists, because any of them could be gone tomorrow.
Today was one of those days that makes you want to hug all your friends and family a little closer.
I am truly grateful for everyone that took the time to message me about Kobe’s passing, as if he was a family member of mine. That added to the brief absurdity of the moment. It didn’t make any of this less sad, but it made me feel more normal that I had all these emotions. I rarely talk about Kobe, it’s just not a conversation that comes up. And if you had asked me yesterday who my favorite player was, I wouldn’t have said Kobe Bryant. But somehow my friends sensed that it was important, in a way that I didn’t really understand myself. Even my parents talked to me about it when I called home.
I didn’t really play basketball before my family moved to Canada, I don’t even really remember seeing basketball hoops when I was in China. As a 6th grader fresh off the boat who knew a lot of math and not a lot of English, running back and forth on the concrete courts at lunchtime was one of the only ways that made me a normal kid. The funny thing was that I actually hated Kobe Bryant when I first started playing and watching basketball. I’m not really sure why. Part of it was because I happened to like KG and T-Mac, but the Lakers were the ones that constantly made it out of the Western Conference. I also hated how dominant the Lakers were, because it felt too easy. I’ve never seen Michael Jordan play a single game, but I knew he was the greatest of all time and this Kobe Bryant kid wasn’t about to take that, no matter how cocky he was. I liked an underdog story, and I was ecstatic when the Pistons beat the Lakers in the 2004 Finals because they didn’t have a true superstar. The point is, it’s weird that this person has had real estate in my mind basically since the day my second life started, after we immigrated to Canada.
You can only hate Kobe for so long, though, before you resign to respecting and being in awe of what he does, and the work he put in to make that happen. As somebody from Toronto, obviously I remember the 81-point game. That’s a moment of complete and utter dominance that even if it was against your own city, you just have to acknowledge the greatness. I also remember going wild in my living room when they went up 3-1 against the Suns that year, when he hit the overtime game winner and did the fist pump celebration. We had this comically large projection TV that my dad got for cheap because he was moving for someone, and the living room in this small apartment wasn’t really big enough to have the couch at a proper distance, so everything already seemed larger than life, even more so when you’re on your feet. On that same TV, I remember seeing the Celtics beat the Lakers in June 2008, especially that game when they came back from down 30 in the fourth quarter. I was so happy that KG and Paul and Ray finally got their first rings, but I was also happy that Kobe got his 4th and 5th without Shaq those two years after, because god knows Smush Parker and Kwame Brown took a few years off of his life. I remember the game when he tore his ACL and came back to shoot those two free throws with a grimace and disappointment on his face, the Kobe-Nash-Dwight superteam that never got close, and the farewell tour punctuated by a 60-point finale against a Utah team that he shot airballs against as a rookie in the playoffs. I loved that his last All-Star game was in Toronto, and I happened to be home for the weekend, breathing the same frigid February air while the whole city was lit because Toronto was finally on the verge of becoming a respectable basketball city.
Why do I remember any of this? I’m not sure, but those memories are vivid as life even to this day. Maybe that’s why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. Maybe after 15 years of hearing somebody’s name on TV, and even more often in my own mind, that it would feel a little strange to know that they’re gone from this world. Basketball brought me a lot of joy, peace, shelter, frustration, and pride throughout my life, and only in hindsight now did I realize that Kobe was there every step of the way. It’s not in a cheesy way like feeling Obi-Wan Kenobi’s force spirit standing over Luke every time I shot a freethrow. It was just that basketball was near-synonymous with Kobe Bryant and picking up a ball meant referencing almost everything you did to something he would do, or had done, whether it was good or bad, bucket or brick, nifty layup or bullheaded turn-around fadeaway. Kobe would’ve shot that.
People close to me know that I love and play a lot of basketball, obviously. But I don’t think a lot of people know that one of the only things I had ever truly wanted to accomplish for myself was to make my high school basketball team. It’s so dumb when I think about it. I don’t really know why I wanted it so badly, but I just did, and I failed over and over. I never made my middle school team. I wasn’t any good, obviously, because I started playing 2 years prior and I was a chubby kid. My mom came to parent-teacher night once and asked my gym teacher how I got a B in gym when I liked basketball so much, and he said “well, not everyone can be Michael Jordan.” That’s what people told Kobe too.
I think making my stupid school team was something that I knew that if I had accomplished, it would not be for my genetics or upbringing, but because I alone had willed it, because the only thing I had going for me was that I was a little tall, though incredibly unathletic and inflexible. I tried out every single year, and didn’t even make the first cut in grade 9 and 10. In grade 11, I figured having better conditioning would help, and running season was before basketball season, so I joined the cross-country team and ran 5k twice a week at 7 in the morning. Eventually I did make the ball team that year, the only Asian kid on the team. I am certain to this day that it was because I ran one of the best beep test and suicide times during tryout and my coach Lincoln just took me as a bullheaded kid. I was Ronnie in the 2017 remake of Baywatch. And through all those grueling cardio sessions, one thing stands out to me now, especially those moments when I’m near throwing up, and it’s this mental image of Kobe Bryant doing the underbite growling face. You know the face I’m talking about if you’ve ever seen it. That face pops up in my head every time I want to skip the last rep, or walk up the hill on that run, or give up on writing that paper late into the night, even to this day.
The real punchline, of course, is that basketball is more than just a game between two hoops, and what Kobe Bryant meant was way more than basketball. When I was younger, it was easy to be competitive, and it was straightforward: just study more to get better grades and run harder to fight for the loose ball. Being competitive and fearing losing was a easier motivation than figuring out and doing what I truly enjoyed. I have a very distinct memory of walking past Fairview Library one day thinking to myself that I don’t want to be like Kobe. I don’t want the rest of my life to be driven by competition, avoiding loss, and negativity, and he was supposedly a difficult person to be around because of the standards he held for himself and his teammates. Instead, I wanted to be happy doing what I did, whatever that is, and let the joy and passion drive my work ethic. As I got a little older, and as he got a little older too, I saw more of the person Kobe was off the court, I realized that’s exactly what he did. Except he was just insanely dedicated at doing it that nothing else mattered. Seeing the Kobe after his retirement, watching his ESPN Detail segments breaking down the details of the game, seeing him coaching his daughter Gianna and being a dad on Instagram, and sharing his joy sitting courtside cheering for Lebron passing him as an all-time great (or whoever it was tearing up Staples Center that night), that was a whole other side to this demanding and competitive freak. Barely two months ago, I was watching the Knuckleheads Podcast episode with Kobe, and once again not only learning basketball, but feeling incredibly inspired by someone who was so passionate about what he did that he dedicated every minute and every ounce of mental energy to studying it, and he somehow lived life to the fullest doing it, whatever that means. It was a well that never ran dry.
I guess that’s why it feels so devastating. This person who has - unbeknownst to me - been a continued teacher and inspiration for not only basketball, but my own craft, and even life itself. Gone, just like that. No more Kobe wisdoms. And that’s not how it was suppose to be. We feel that the presence of someone who was so much larger than life should not only extend far, but for a long, long time. Especially someone who felt literally and physically invincible, even through the injuries and rehabs. I don’t really know how to end this, and there’s so much more I have to say and have said, for a stranger who I never knew but influenced me so much as a kid and as an adult, like he did many other kids and adults across the world.
I just want to hold onto the sadness and grief for a little longer.
Jan 28, 2020 Two thoughts after talking to many people about this in the last two days:
First, it’s incredible to see people across the world sharing the same grief over the loss of this icon. Many of the tributes directly touch on that weird feeling of being affected by the passing of someone who you never knew personally (like here and here), and to not to try rationalizing it, and just let it be. Another related sentiment that hits close to home is the feeling of being surprised by how much the passing of someone that’s only on the fringe of your consciousness can affect you (a succinct quote from BA, of all places: “Sometimes you don’t know you care until you do”). Lastly, and most beautifully, how this tragedy inspired many to take no days for granted moving forward, and express the love you have for the people that are important to you, lest it be too late.
Second, many tributes similarly (and briefly) touch on the sexual assault case against Kobe Bryant, which you can read about here. There’s really no good way of navigating this difficult aspect of his life as a commentator and fan, much less a victim or family member, which I think is reflected in the brevity of this topic when it is mentioned. This happened shortly before my own basketball career, but of course I’d heard all about it. In fact, when I first started hating Kobe, his lack of character was one of the reasons I’d cite. I also thought Vanessa should’ve dumped his ass right there and then. Maybe to pay proper tribute to an imperfect and evolving man, I should’ve mentioned it above as well. I hope the lack thereof does not come across as insensitive or unaware to the situation and victims of abuse in general. Selfishly, I hope he’s remembered for the positive impacts he’s had, the people he inspired, and the family he dedicated himself to in the later part of his life. But I think the right thing to do is that every bit of his story - be it inspirational, complex, unsavory, or downright hurtful - be recorded so that we can learn, not only from his greatness, but also his mistakes.