Column: Away from basketball, Kobe Bryant’s future seemed limitless

Kobe Bryant
In this Dec. 1, 2015, file photo Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant smiles as he jogs to the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia. The retired NBA superstar died in helicopter crash in Southern California, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

We are stuck in a cul-de-sac of disbelief. There is no way Kobe Bryant is gone. This is not how his story was supposed to end.

I was in a hotel lobby in Atlanta on Sunday, talking with Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks. The conversation paused, and he took a call from his wife in California. She heard Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash.

Our conversation was over.

An afternoon of incomplete sentences was just beginning. “What? “How?” Player after player asked them as they stared at their phones and boarded the bus for the game Sunday night in Atlanta against the Hawks.

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The Wizards and Hawks did play a game. There was a moment of silence before the opening tip. The Hawks then started the game by taking an eight-second violation, and the Wizards responded by holding the ball for a 24-second violation. Eight and 24 were Bryant’s jersey numbers.

It didn’t feel right to be in an NBA arena just a couple of hours after learning of Bryant’s death.

But then, where else should we be but near a basketball court and Bryant’s game? The evening was both confusing and cathartic.

From loud music to T-shirt tosses, it was just like any other game — only it was not. We kept score and followed the play, but our Wizards radio broadcast drifted to memories of Bryant.

In December 2006, Bryant scored 45 points against the Wizards in Los Angeles, but the Wizards won the game 147-141 in overtime, led by Gilbert Arenas’ 60-point performance. It was the most heated and intense individual competition I have ever witnessed in more than two decades of broadcasting the team game of basketball.

After the exhausting game, I walked by the Lakers exercise room on the way out of the Staples Center. Bryant was lifting weights.

I could barely speak, and Bryant was pumping iron. Fueled by anger at the loss or the desire to get better, it struck me then that Bryant, even at the top, was always reaching to go higher.

More often than not, Bryant always came out on top against the Wizards. In his final game in D.C. in December 2015, Bryant made all the key shots and scored 31 points to help the Lakers escape with a 108-104 win.

Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The next time I saw Bryant was at NBA broadcasting meetings after his retirement in 2016.

Bryant flashed that winning-shot smile that will forever be etched in our memory, and he dominated the room. Bryant talked excitedly of retirement and all its possibilities.

To be clear, “retirement” for Bryant was just from the work of an NBA player. It seemed Bryant was about to be busier than ever.

He talked of movies. Bryant later won an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball.”

He talked of business. Just last week, Bryant helped announce BodyArmor as the official sports drink of Major League Soccer.

The possibilities for Bryant away from basketball seemed limitless, but it was also clear at that NBA broadcaster get-together that he would not be far from the game. You could hear it as he talked about being a basketball parent.

Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, died with her father in Sunday’s helicopter crash. According to several reports, they were on their way to Bryant’s training complex (the Mamba Sports Academy) and a youth basketball tournament (the Mamba Cup).

Gianna Bryant wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. We imagined her winning over Los Angeles as a WNBA player with the Sparks, just as her father did with the Lakers. She shared her father’s love for basketball and, by all accounts, his competitive fire.

With that combination, we are deeply saddened over Gianna Bryant’s lost future — a future with father Kobe Bryant smiling by her side.

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NBA News | Sports | Sports Columns

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