When I watched the coverage of Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s death, amidst the primary grief I felt for Kobe’s wife, his surviving children, and the people who knew him and loved him, there were a series of images that brought even more tears to my eyes. It was the kids lined up outside the Staples Center. Some of them were dressed head-to-toe in Lakers gear. Virtually all were wearing Kobe’s jersey. I looked at them and saw my own son.
I was transported back to a magical night on November 11, 2014. We live in Tennessee, not too far from Memphis, and Kobe’s Lakers were coming to Beale Street to play the Grizzlies. We didn’t know how many more opportunities we’d have to see Kobe play, so I splurged and bought tickets the row behind the Grizzlies bench. My son brought a friend, another Kobe fan, and I’ve never seen two kids more excited – or more decked out in Lakers gear. They’d even fashioned Lakers capes out of Lakers flags.
NBA basketball is often a more personal game than the other major American sports. In baseball and football, even the closest seats are some distance from the action. In basketball, you can be sometimes inches away from the world’s greatest athletes. Throughout the night, Grizzlies stars Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph talked to my son and his friend, good-naturedly giving them a hard time for rooting for Kobe. Then, late in the game, Kobe saw them – in all their ridiculous Lakers finery – he broke his game face for just a moment and smiled.
If you’re a parent, chances are you know what it’s like when your kid finds a hero. Channeled properly, it’s a source of true joy. Go to the games together, and you create those moments that bond families. I once read advice that I’ve never forgotten – when spending money with your family, don’t purchase things. Purchase shared experiences. And on that night, we had an experience that will stay with us forever.
But those shared experiences don’t have to cost money. From fall to summer, for year after year, the question that so often started dinner was a simple, “Does Kobe play tonight?”
If the answer was yes, we were spending family time, together. The phones were sidelined. Homework sometimes took a backseat. Those moments were part of the fabric of our lives. When we played basketball, when my son ducked past me to score, or when he hit a fadeaway over my outstretched hand, I’d hear the shout – the same shout heard on asphalt courts across the land – “Kobe!”
There are a lot of good reasons to worry about our celebrity culture. We lavish attention bordering on obsession on our biggest stars. But it’s also true that true excellence can be a gift to a nation and a culture. It’s a privilege to watch a great athlete at the top of his game. It’s a joy to see an artist perform at the peak of her talents.
And, make no mistake, it was a privilege to watch Kobe. To describe him as a good steward of his considerable gifts is to give him far too little credit. He brought a ferocious energy to the court. He carried that ferocious energy into a will to improve, to drive himself to match or possibly even exceed the game’s greats.
To put it another way, Kobe upheld his end of the bargain. The kids in the Kobe jerseys gave him their love, and he gave them everything he had. And as he poured his heart and soul out on the hardwood, the bond was sealed.
As Kobe got older, his growth was unmistakable. He was a leader in the cohort of NBA stars who put their families front and center. Kobe’s fans started to see Kobe as a husband and father. My son knew his daughters’ names. His friends knew their names. And after Kobe retired, the pictures of him on the sideline with Gianna went viral – and not just with sentimental parents.
Kobe’s life was messy and complicated. There were hard questions to ask and hard conversations to have about a terrible night in Colorado. And parents shouldn’t shy away from the tough conversations about the man behind the jersey. But most lives have a direction, and the direction of Kobe’s life was clear. The explosion of grief tells its own story.
And he had so much more to do. While he never quite reached Jordan’s greatness on the court, he was poised to outshine Jordan in his retirement. He won an Oscar. He was an enormous presence in the game. He showcased an intellect that was miles beyond mere “basketball brilliant.” And kids still wore his jersey. He was still their hero, almost four years after his incredible, 60-point final game.
And now he’s gone.
I called my son last night. He’s a freshman at the University of Tennessee. He was numb, still in a state of disbelief. He told me he was wearing Kobe’s jersey and wearing his Lakers jacket. He got both of them this past Christmas. New Kobe gifts, even now. His grief, and the grief of millions of Americans like him is but a pale shadow of the immense pain felt by a suffering wife and daughters, but it is – in its own way – a final tribute to the man who gave them so much joy.
Want a print of TIME’s commemorative Kobe Bryant cover? Find it here.