Two Years Later, Kobe Bryant’s Death Still Doesn’t Feel Real

A Los Angeles magazine writer reminisces about covering Bryant during his final seasons and how the Mamba Mentality lives

In 2015, I wrote a story for Los Angeles that predicted the 2015-2016 season would be Kobe Bryant’s final. I felt confident in my belief because I attended Lakers media day in El Segundo and stood arm’s distance from the shooting guard as he spoke to radio personalities. “Slumped in a folding chair in the team’s El Segundo practice facility, he read radio spots with all the enthusiasm of a DMV employee and was the only player to leave his jersey untucked,” I wrote.

Bryant might have been one of the greatest basketball players ever, but, in that moment as I watched his radio interview, No. 24’s body language suggested he didn’t want to be there. Then the hosts mentioned his daughters and he came alive.

“When asked about his recent appearance at a Taylor Swift concert with his daughters,” I reported in 2015, “Kobe’s blasé attitude vanished and his face lit up with a smile. He had agreed to come on stage with the pop diva, he said, because she had been so nice to his girls. After discovering Swift’s people wanted him to walk a runway, though, Bryant said his first thought was, ‘Mamba don’t catwalk.’ But for his daughters, it seems, Mamba do catwalk—even if his girls were disappointed to discover that the show’s special guest was their father.”

Maybe he hadn’t yet made the decision to retire or maybe it was one of those moments when we don’t know things about ourselves that are so obvious even freelance reporters such as myself can see them. Either way, that moment was when I knew Bryant was retiring. He had found something else to do with his life. I don’t have or want children, but his enthusiasm for being a girl dad was apparent to me. He was done with basketball.

I was born a Lakers fan and didn’t want to be correct, but I was. A few weeks after media day, Bryant told the world he was retiring from the National Basketball Association at the end of the season, his twentieth.

Almost immediately after his final game (in which he scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz), I began watching Bryant highlights on YouTube — “NBA stars reflect on the first game against Kobe Bryant,” “Dear Kobe, Thank You” and “Kobe Bryant’s best moments wearing the No. 8 jersey.” According to my browsing history, this sort of thing happens often. These clips helped my mind relax when the texts, calls and emails cease. Perhaps more importantly, these clips became my bedtime story, a reminder of days when Bryant was dominating the court and I was outdrinking everyone at this bar not named Chip, Jeremy, Ron or Josh.

These clips have new meaning since Bryant’s Jan. 26, 2020, passing. Now, YouTube is where Bryant is still alive, still hitting two buzzer beaters against the Portland Trail Blazers, leaping for late-game tip-ins against the Indiana Pacers, pulling up from 18 feet to defeat the Phoenix Suns, lobbing the ball to Shaquille O’Neal in the Western Conference Finals. To me, a fan, Bryant’s not dead. He’s right there, one click away from the excitement, one click after long days grading papers, lecturing on Zoom, exercising, (hopefully) finishing a manuscript, and, if I’m lucky, going to sleep before 2 a.m.

My interest in Bryant highlights has nothing to do with nostalgia or reminiscing about days when I was younger and definitely dumber or about my favorite team—the Lakers—having a roster that didn’t change drastically each season. Nostalgia doesn’t work for me because it suggests the present will never be as good as the past and I don’t want to live my life with that mentality, but in the case of the three-point shooting contest masquerading as the current National Basketball Association, perhaps that’s true.

Or maybe it does and this is the first time in my life when I’m old enough to look back and wonder how I got to be 42 when I was 22 just yesterday.
At 22, I believed someone who died at 42 had lived a long, full life, that they could look back and say had accomplished enough. I don’t think that way anymore. Bryant died at 41. Today, I am older than Kobe Bryant will ever be. That’s a hard one to understand.

Bryant was beginning his second act and will never see his triumphant third. Neither will the eight other people aboard that helicopter. Everyone who died that day had so much life to live. I try to stay positive, remember the good, laugh, be still, all that bumper sticker mumbo jumbo, but two years later and none of it makes sense.

Robert Smith says boys don’t cry, but my brothers Kevin and Sean and I have a Facebook Messenger group chat with Prem and Vinay, a pair of siblings we consider family. I don’t have the app on my phone, so I don’t say as much as the others, my contributions limited to finding Onion headlines Kevin will find funny (the answer is no) and late-night ramblings about how good Bryant was. I’m the night owl, so I send these messages when the others are asleep. Almost inevitably, I wake the next morning and see their responses, always a variation on a theme: this sucks, why, it’s still not real.

We’re not the only ones. Two years after his untimely death, I still can’t believe Kobe Bryant is dead. No one can.

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