A Life Defined by One Word

Only a select few can be identified by one word.

Kobe.

Nothing else was needed. One word meant so much to a generation of young athletes, and sports fans around the world.

For two plus decades he mesmerized fans on the hardwood, bridging the gap between MJ and Lebron, two of the other few of the one-name brethren.

As he began his career at age 17, one word comes to mind.

Courage.

  1. Let that sink in. At an age where most of us are cowering in our seats hoping not to be called on to answer a question in English class or come up to the board to execute a math problem, this dude was entering the premier basketball league in the world.

He came into a league to clash with established legends like Jordan, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone.

He came to the league not long after the Dream team had opened up the game to the world, and he led the globalization of basketball into the next century.

He came to resurrect the league’s most prestigious franchise, forced to carry the mantle and play in the shadows of Kareem, and Magic.

Yet by the year 2000, a new word would define him.

Champion.

He took the torch and blazed a new trail of Laker dominance throughout the 2000s. Two decades and five championships later, his face was chiseled along with those past Laker greats of the Lakers’ Mount Rushmore.

And while he became a legend on the West Coast and his name became synonymous with greatness around the world, he always had another word that was a part of him.

Philly.

It was the legacy he left as a prep standout at Lower Merion High School. It was the out-of-this-world acrobatic shots he hit in the 2001 finals that ripped out the hearts of his hometown fans. It was the video of him and his daughter celebrating as the Eagles won the Super Bowl. And finally, on Kobe’s final night on this earth, it was Lebron honoring Kobe as he surpassed him for third place on the league’s all-time scoring list….in Philly!

Sadly, the cynicism and skepticism in me led for years to focus on his faults, on his one major mistake. Yes, this seemingly invincible icon faced a reality we must all encounter. One word to describe all of us as well as him:

Flawed.

Yes, like all of us, Kobe was flawed. He made a mistake. Unlike most of us, Kobe had to face his mistake in front of the world. Since his 2003 sexual assault charge was dismissed, Kobe has publicly apologized and used his platform on and off the court to inspire a generation of basketball players, and sports fans around the world. As a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan, I especially loved Joel Embiid’s comments that he had started playing basketball after watching Kobe’s performance in the 2010 NBA finals, a moment he described as the “turning point” in his life.

Needless to say, there are countless other lives who were impacted by Kobe’s relentless pursuit of perfection, a pursuit that came to be known as the Mamba mentality. It is a pursuit that was now being poured into other passions, including film-making and mentoring young basketball players, especially his daughter Gianna, who also tragically died in the helicopter accident. Even as the courtside cheers had faded away, Kobe clearly had visions of greatness, visions that were taken away far too soon.

In his famous poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young,” A.E. Housman writes:

 

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

 

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

 

Indeed, Kobe crossed the threshold, transcending the world of basketball, and becoming a global icon.

Still, as I read and listen to the tributes being paid to Kobe, as Kobe indeed is brought home to rest, the reality is that Kobe’s greatest gift was not played out on video cameras for the world to see. I can’t help but both smile and cry at the fact that Kobe had obviously embraced the most important one-word title any man can have during his time on earth:

Dad.