Kobe Bryant: Stunning Through the Very End

It’s been more than a week since the tragic helicopter crash that took the lives of nine individuals — pilot Ara Zobayan; Sarah and Payton Chester; Christina Mauser; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and of course, Gianna and Kobe Bryant — and it still feels as surreal as it did on that last Sunday in January.

In a word, the crash that took those lives was nothing short of stunning, which in a way is oddly fitting for the man known as Mamba.

Kobe Bryant spent his abbreviated lifetime stunning the masses — from his days in high school through his NBA journey and beyond.

He was so stunningly famous as a teenager that he not only made the jump straight from high school in the Philadelphia suburbs to the NBA, but he did so after taking R&B superstar Brandy to the prom. Even before that, he put on a stunning display in a 1995 dunk contest as a 15-year-old and did it again a year later at the McDonald’s All-American Game:

It was stunning when, at age 17, he refused to sign with the Charlotte Hornets, the team that drafted in 13th overall, and found his way to Tinseltown, the next great hope to restore the dominance of the Showtime Lakers. While he didn’t see the court as often as some may have expected as a rookie, Bryant certainly didn’t fail to impress as a teenager in the Association.

He put on yet another stunning display in a dunk contest, taking home the title of NBA Slam Dunk champion as a rookie, earned All-Rookie status and flashed the brilliance that was to come.

The meteoric rise from there was stunning as well. From his Sprite commercials to the hilarious Nike spots and even his K.O.B.E. foray into music, Kobe’s celebrity continued to skyrocket as his on-court game came around.

He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to form the most dominant duo in the NBA, two alpha dogs willing their way to the top. The Lakers were a juggernaut unlike any other, to the point it was stunning to think they could even lose a game in the postseason, let alone a series. It was stunning to hear a man who grew up watching his father play for the Philadelphia 76ers say he wanted to rip the hearts out of the fans he spent much of his childhood around during the Lakers’ three-peat and stunning to see the mostly starless Detroit Pistons dethrone Bryant, O’Neal and the Lakers.

Bryant’s work ethic was stunning in and of itself, a drive and desire that put him in the discussion with the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan. The stunning resemblance of his game to M.J.’s was there for all to see: the athleticism, the fundamentals, the craftsmanship, the asshole personality, the drive, the shots, the passes, the defense — it was there as if looking at a carbon copy in stunning clarity. It was also stunning to see Kobe play spoiler to Jordan’s All-Star send-off, something Jordan himself would have delighted in doing.

Yet that drive and that passion are also what began to undo all the good. After three titles and increasing tension, Kobe’s ego would not let him coexist any longer with Shaq, and the stunning breakup of the most unstoppable partnership in the sport came at the hands of Kobe.

At the same time his relationship with Shaq was deteriorating, the stunning news of a Colorado hotel worker accusing Bryant of rape shook the NBA world. Here was a formerly exceedingly private man having his personal matters laid out for all the world the view. The entire situation — from the disturbing evidence to the disturbing trial and the fallout since — was stunning to the core. It was unfathomable that, facing rape charges, Bryant shuffled his time between games and court appearances. It was stunning to hear the details and accusations, along with the stunning evidence that was overshadowed by the attacks on the victim’s character.

In what felt like the blink of an eye, Kobe went from the marketable wunderkind on top of the world to public enemy No. 1, and it was stunning to see his transformation from hero to heel.

It was also stunning, as Bryant saw what life was like without Shaq, to see him turn on lesser teammates, bickering with Smush Parker, telling some random folks with a video phone to ship Andrew Bynum’s ass out.

It was stunning hearing the trade rumors to Chicago, stunning to see him win two NBA Finals without Shaq, stunning to see the player who most closely resembled Jordan win his one and only league MVP in his 12th season in the NBA.

There were, of course, the stunning performances and accomplishments along the way: 81 points. 18 All-Star games. Five rings. 12 All-Defensive team nods. Four All-Star Game MVPs. Two Finals MVPs. Two scoring titles. 15 All-NBA nods.

Perhaps most stunning of all was his transformation from an obsessed, workaholic asshole into a gatekeeper of the game, from a man accused of rape to a family man dedicated to his wife and daughters. By the time Bryant was on his final NBA legs, he was no longer the player he was, but he provided a stunning display of wisdom and quite the stunning finale, putting up 60 points on 50 shots, exiting stage left in the most Kobe way possible.

No matter how you feel about Kobe Bryant, it’s hard to deny just how stunning his life was, even before — living all over the world, learning different languages — and after his remarkable NBA career. Following retirement, he became an ambassador for the game, promoting the league and the WNBA every chance he could. He repaired his rocky relationship with the fans in Philadelphia, going from the native son who turned his back on his city to No. 1 Eagles superfan. Hell, he even put his longstanding feud with Shaq to rest.

Kobe Bryant was far from perfect. In fact, his flaws were on full display, flaws that have left many questioning just what type of legacy he ultimately leaves. You are welcome to judge Kobe in whatever manner you see fit, and you are certainly in the right for harping on his transgressions.

I’ll choose to remember him for the stunning ups and downs in his life, the stunning drive, the stunning determination to not let anything stand in his way, and the way he took life’s lessons to improve as a basketball player and a person, no matter how difficult it was to learn them along the way.

And of course, I’ll always remember his stunning ending, an ending that took far more away than a complicated NBA superstar — but also the lives of eight other individuals who deserve their own stunning tributes for the lives they lived and lost.

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