My first memory of watching Lakers basketball was with my dad on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in 1973. I was six. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would be interested in basketball. I said something like, “Dad, this is boring. All they do is run back and forth.”
I watched the rest of the game only because I wanted to be with my dad, not because I was interested in the game. That would change. By the mid- to late-seventies I was not only a fan, I loved basketball, and I absolutely loved the Lakers.
By the time my favorite athlete of all time, Magic Johnson, joined the Lakers, I was obsessed! My bedroom walls and school books were covered with clippings, most of which came from newspapers and Sports Illustrated magazines.
“Showtime” — as many of you know — was high-speed, hi-octane, fleet-footed, no-look Lakers basketball! Magic and company were champions in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988.
When Johnson abruptly retired in 1991, having tested positive for HIV, it was a sad and somber day for Laker fans. The November 7 news conference was difficult to watch because, at the time, most people thought testing positive was a death sentence. Of course, Magic is alive, healthy, and thriving today.
I didn’t think Laker Nation would experience a day like that ever again.
I was wrong.
By now you’ve heard that Kobe and his middle child, Gianna, along with seven other people, died in a helicopter accident early Sunday. It’s a tragedy that’s hard to process.
Here are some of the reactions to the passing of Kobe Bryant:
Magic tweeted, “The greatest Laker of all-time is gone. It’s hard to accept. Kobe was a leader of our game, a mentor to both male and female players.”
Shaq tweeted, “There’s no words to express the pain I’m going through with this tragedy of losing my niece Gigi and my brother Kobe Bryant.”
Michael Jordan said, “Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling.”
And Barack Obama called this “an unthinkable day.”
That’s exactly what it feels like: an unthinkable day. My wife and I have been watching reports all day long. And we’ve been repeating what so many others are saying, “It’s unbelievably sad.” We’ve also been thinking about Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, who in the midst of all of this, has to summon the strength for her three surviving daughters, one of whom is just six months old.
Kobe, like many former professional athletes, enter the second act of life in their prime. And in Bryant’s case, bigger things were on the horizon, including an induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. As an Oscar winner, it was clear that he had high ambitions beyond the sport of basketball.
Sadly, the final bell has sounded. We won’t get to witness what was to come; Natalia, Bianka, and Capri will not have their father to walk them down the aisle, and a grieving wife is left to mend a home that just one day ago was filled with so much promise and hope.
I had the pleasure of watching Kobe play live a number of times, none more memorable than at the game pictured here — courtside — at Staples Center in 2012.
Like Magic, Kobe won five titles, champion in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010.
One of the things I love about basketball is watching jerseys change over time. When I was a kid, everyone wanted to wear number 6 because of Dr. J; then it was 32 or 23 to represent Magic or Michael; then 34, 8 and 24 for Shaq or Kobe; today it’s 32 or 30 for Lebron and Steph.
While fans can represent their teams with hats, jackets, and the like, there is nothing like a jersey. In fact, jerseys are what teams use to honor the best players from their organizations. Kobe Bryant is the only Laker to have two jerseys high up in the rafters at Staples.
And if you believe in heaven like I do, Bryant’s jerseys will also hang a little higher up.
Go with God, Kobe.