December 21, 2001- The day my relationship not only began with the Memphis Grizzlies, but also with Kobe Bryant.
My father walked into the kitchen of my 2nd childhood home and, in his hands, sat a pair of tickets to the Pyramid. A pair of tickets to see Shaq, Kobe, and the Los Angeles Lakers take on our, at the time, months-old Memphis Grizzlies. Miraculously, despite Kobe dropping 36, the Grizzlies won, sparking the fire and passion for basketball in the heart of 5-year old me. Little did I know, I had fallen in love with a team and discovered the basketball "villain" who would help drive my fandom for years to come.
My relationship with Kobe Bryant is a long and complicated one. For years, he tortured the Grizzlies and ripped out my heart- showing it to me, all while smiling. I feared and hated Kobe. My early years of fandom have a consistent through line...rooting against Kobe Bryant. Rooting against him every time he stepped in Memphis. Rooting against him in the Finals against the Pistons, Spurs, and Celtics. Rooting against him in MVP races with LeBron. Rooting against him in free agency. However, as time went on and Lakers' dominance faded, my relationship with Kobe changed. Hate turned into admiration. I'm thankful for this. I'm thankful I was able to watch Kobe at his peak, without a lens of animosity, but with one of respect. I was able to appreciate what Kobe meant not only to the NBA, but to the world in the last decade of his career. He was larger than life and mythical, in a sense. A hero to players and fans around the world not only for his on court heroics, but also for the way he carried himself off the court. The players we idolize, idolized Kobe.
It's not hyperbolic to say this is the saddest day in the NBA's history. Kobe was more than a basketball player. To his family, he was a son, husband, and father. To fans, he was a symbol and hero. To players, he was a mentor and friend. Kobe was a thousand different things at once, excelling at each in an almost impossible way-The Mamba Mentality.
Kobe's life/career is one filled with controversy, flaws, redemption, and triumph. Those much more wise and nuanced than me have written beautifully about his life since his tragic passing. So, I won't repeat that here. I would not do Kobe or those involved in his complicated story/legacy justice. Instead, I want to honor Kobe and his beautiful daughter, Gigi, with a list of moments. Moments that help define the life and legacy of an icon, paint the picture of a man who set the blueprint of professionalism and success for an entire generation, and explain why everyone yells, "KOBE" every time we throw away trash.