By Derek Lawrence
January 28, 2020 at 08:00 AM EST
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s Kobe.

Each time I’ve tried to express my disbelief over the shocking death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, that’s all I’ve been able to muster — and maybe all that’s needed. There will only ever be one Kobe, and no one seemed as invincible as him. His relentless demeanor, his take-no-prisoners attitude. Hell, he literally nicknamed himself the Black Mamba, after the world’s deadliest snake. And yet somehow he’s gone, leaving the sports world and Hollywood mourning one of the biggest stars in a city full of them.

It was eerie walking around Los Angeles on Sunday, slowly hearing the news spread, person after person expressing that this can’t be right. It’s hard to fathom another celebrity death having that same kind of emotional word-of-mouth. As Ice Cube said Monday, “Kobe is some of the glue that holds L.A. together.” Fans instantly flocked to Staples Center, or as Grammys host Alicia Keys referred to it, “The house that Kobe built.” At first it seemed unfortunate that the Grammys were being held just hours after Bryant’s death, essentially blocking the worshippers from paying tribute at their church. But with Bryant being an artist both on and off the court, it ultimately felt fitting that such an event would be taking place, and honoring him throughout the night, especially at one point alongside another late L.A. icon, Nipsey Hussle.

Bryant always seemed destined to be a star. Before he even stepped on an NBA court, he took R&B sensation Brandy to his senior prom. But it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t always a Laker: He was actually drafted out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia by the Charlotte Hornets, and traded that same night to the Los Angeles Lakers. It will go down as one of the most lopsided trades in history, but it needed to happen. Bryant was meant to be in L.A.

When Bryant entered the league as an 18-year-old, he was already a unique personality. The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the younger Bryant grew up in Italy, learning multiple languages, which set up the trajectory of his global impact, inspiring foreign-born future stars like Luka Dončić, but also adding to his appeal to the residents of one of the world’s most multicultural cities. Immediately thrust into the spotlight, Bryant grew up in front of our eyes and helped restore the glitz and glamour that had faded, albeit temporarily, from the Lakers.

In true Hollywood fashion, he won three NBA championships alongside Shaquille O’Neal, then found a new costar in Pau Gasol and won two more (call it a blockbuster trilogy, followed by a reboot and another sequel). During the heyday of Bryant’s Lakers, Staples Center was where Tinseltown’s A-listers went to be entertained themselves: Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio. Even as a born-and-bred Boston Celtics fan, who was trained from a young age to hate the Lakers, I couldn’t help but be drawn from afar to basketball’s greatest showman.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

For all his success on the court, Bryant could be an abrasive teammate, a headstrong player to coach, and for some fans, a difficult athlete to root for. He didn’t possess the jovial nature of an O’Neal or the outgoing charisma of a Charles Barkley, preferring rather to be the standoffish assassin. But it was an off-court incident that cast the longest shadow over Bryant’s life and legacy: In 2003, he was arrested for allegedly raping a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. The case was dismissed when the accuser refused to testify, and a separate civil lawsuit was settled out of court. Bryant publicly apologized without admitting guilt.

In subsequent years, and in a pre-#MeToo era, Bryant’s reputation largely rebounded as he continued to pile up professional accomplishments and publicly positioned himself as a family man to his wife, Vanessa, and their four daughters.

While other Lakers superstars have been known to pursue onscreen opportunities in the entertainment capital of the world (including Bryant’s teammates Dwight Howard and O’Neal and current Laker LeBron James), Bryant didn’t need to film his own movie in the summer to grow his brand — the championships and game-winning shots did that for him. (Though he did get his own Spike Lee documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, in 2009.) Aside from a few TV cameos and the self-titled rap song “K.O.B.E.” with an assist from Tyra Banks, he mostly kept to basketball, though he could always deploy his dry humor when he needed to, as evidenced in the below scene from an ABC pilot for Jalen vs. Everybody. In the clip, Bryant trolls Jalen Rose, who was one of the Toronto Raptors guarding Bryant when he famously scored 81 points in a 2006 game.

Even in Bryant’s post-playing days, he turned down acting roles, including the opportunity to star alongside Adam Sandler in the indie hit Uncut Gems, opting to stay behind the scenes and continuing to tell stories his own way. In recent years his Granity Studios published YA books and a scripted podcast, and Bryant won an Oscar for his animated short film Dear Basketball. And we can’t help but wonder, with his legendary competitiveness, what else he would have been driven to accomplish in these spaces.

While the gold statue officially put him in the company of movie stars (Monday’s Oscars luncheon opened with a moment of silence for Bryant), it was his final game in 2016 that truly served as the proof of his place in Hollywood. In an ending too good to be scripted, Bryant went out with a electrifying performance, scoring 60 points en route to victory as Kanye West, Jay Z, Adam Levine, the Weeknd, and others looked on in awe.

They chanted one word, over and over: Kobe.

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