Dear Kobe: A tribute to the Black Mamba from a die-hard Lakers fan

A man wearing a basketball jersey and holding a basketball twists pass a second man who is attempting to defend him.
Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on January 26, 2020. (Courtesy: Keith Allison of Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Kobe,

I’ll be completely honest — you were never my favorite player growing up. 

Maybe there was something about your playing style I couldn’t fully embrace. Maybe you reminded me too much of my playground archnemesis who never passed the ball. Maybe I couldn’t get over my love for the role players of the Lakers: Sasha, Farmar, D-Fish.

But from the moment I first saw you take the floor in the 2008 NBA Finals against the Celtics, I fell in love with basketball. 

I didn’t always like how you would shoot over the double team with Sasha wide open for three. I didn’t always like the way you would hold the ball and eat away at the shot clock. But boy, was that midrange jumper pretty. Face up. Jab. Jab. Dribble. Dribble. Elevate. Swish.

I didn’t really know it at the time, but that Celtics team was STACKED: They had Prime Pierce, Ray Allen and KG, a rising star in Rajon Rondo and strong role players in Tony Allen and Big Baby Davis. 

But you fought. And fought. And fought. And though the Celtics’ home court advantage ultimately proved to be too much, your grit and intensity never relented — the Mamba Mentality shined through.

So as a Los Angeles kid, I had no choice but to fall in love with watching the Lakers. I grew up with the voices of Stu Lantz and Joel Meyers (and later, Bill Macdonald) commenting on the spectacle you put on every game from my family’s television. Face up. Jab. Jab. Dribble. Dribble. Elevate. Swish. It never got old.

I would go into my backyard and try to emulate your moves, backing down an invisible defender. Dribble. Dribble. Shoulder fake. Pump fake. Pump fake. Rise. Score. I would copy your free throw routine on the playground. Quick hand wipe on my T-shirt. Deep breath, ball at my side. Dribble. Dribble. Pause. Shoot. Like clockwork.

You led us past Dwight’s Magic in the 2009 Finals — the Lakers 15th championship, your fourth and my first as a fan. A year later, you took down those damn Celtics in a seven-game thriller. Sweet, sweet revenge.

Then, there was the whole CP3 trade fiasco, and then Dwight and a 100-year-old Steve Nash came. From there, everything went downhill — you tore your Achilles at the end of the regular season. But physical pain never stopped you — you made two free throws on that torn Achilles. Cold. Blooded.

And then, of course, there was your final game — Mamba Day. You gave us one of the most memorable performances in sports history and possibly the most late-career Kobe game possible: 60 points on nearly as many shots. It couldn’t have ended any other way. It just couldn’t have. Iconic.

But of all the breathtaking turnaround jumpers, game winners and self-lobs I saw you make, one shot in particular remains vivid in my memory.

Dec. 3, 2009. We’re down by two against Miami. There are 3.2 seconds left. You get the inbounds from Ron Artest on the wing. All-NBA defender Dwyane Wade is hounding you. 

Three dribbles to your left, elevate, shoot off your right shoulder. BANG, off the glass. As soon as the ball left your hands, I knew it was going in. I just knew. You’re Kobe Bryant. When nothing is there, you create something. When something seems impossible, you find a way. Nothing can stop you. Incomprehensible.

And so when I heard the recent news, I didn’t believe it. I was on the third floor of the Honnold-Mudd Library, working on my math problem set, when I started getting a string of texts in a chat with some of my high school buddies. 

“GUYS,” read the first text. “DID KOBE DIE????” read the second. I thought some sort of sick joke was being played on me, so naturally, I went to Google and typed in “Kobe Bryant death.” It was real. You were gone, and I didn’t know what to do. So I left the library, went to my room and cried like a baby.

I can’t really rationalize my disbelief, but I think Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke comes close. 

“Kobe is stronger than any helicopter,” he wrote. “He didn’t even need a helicopter. For 20 years he flew into greatness while carrying a breathless city with him. … Kobe does not die. Not now.”

You weren’t supposed to die. It was the day after LeBron passed you on the all-time scoring list. You honored him, you respected him, you accepted him as the new face of YOUR franchise. 

You were only 41 years old. You were supposed to celebrate all the future Laker championships with the rest of Lakers Nation. You were supposed to watch your daughters grow up and see Gigi become a WNBA star. You were supposed to sit courtside at every Laker game when you became gray and old. The only thing that could defeat you was you. 

But now you’re gone, and I can’t comprehend that.

It’s crazy to think that less than four years ago, you had the whole city of LA in tears when you played your last game and gave us one of the most memorable closing lines in NBA history: “Mamba out.”

We cried tears of sorrow, tears of joy, tears of relief. We were ready for you to start your new life after basketball, and we were forever grateful for everything you did for the Lakers, for the NBA, for the game of basketball. 

Now, you have the whole world in tears for reasons we will never fully understand. Incomprehensible.

Your death still doesn’t feel real, and there are truly no words to describe how any of us have been feeling. So I’ll end by saying this: thank you Kobe. Thank you for all the memories. Thank you for changing the city of LA and the game of basketball forever. Thank you for inspiring us to be the best we can be at anything we do. Thank you for showing us the Mamba Mentality.

You’ve done more for Lakers Nation, the basketball world and everyone in between than you’ll ever know. Rest in power, Mamba.

Love you always,

Matthew Kim

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