To hear most people tell it, Kobe Bryant waited until after his NBA career to stop being a bit of an ass. Only after he let go of his relentless drive to impose his superiority over everyone—coach, opponent, teammate, official and whoever wrote the checks—did he become, as a father and the creator of inspirational children's books, someone not just to respect but admire. The respect part came easy; how could it not for a five-time champion, top five all-time scorer and one of the league's best defenders for the better part of his 20-year career?
But thoughtful, compassionate human being? That's not a description that always immediately came to mind with The Black Mamba, the moniker that so perfectly captured his on-court mindset.
As with so many aspects of Kobe, not exposing his tender side was mostly by design.
I'm still not over the shock of hearing that he and his 13-year-old daughter Gigi died in a helicopter crash Sunday, on the short trip from their home in Costa Mesa, California, to the home of his youth basketball program, the Mamba Sports Academy just north of Los Angeles. Strange as it sounds, the mythos of Kobe makes it difficult to believe he could physically perish, just like that. Kobe wouldn't get on a helicopter destined to crash, or if he did he would somehow find a way to avert the disaster or escape it. Hadn't he proved that over and over again?
Bryant wowed NBA talent scouts in his predraft workouts despite two badly sprained ankles. He led the Lakers to the 2008 Finals with a torn ligament in his little finger. He "jumped" over a speeding Aston Martin. He tore his Achilles tendon but still hobbled to the line to make two free throws. He scored 60 points, for God's sake, in his final game after scoring more than 40 only one other time in his last three seasons. The notion that Kobe, physically, was not susceptible to the same frailty as most of us was firmly planted in all of our brains. How could it not be?
The truth is, he wasn't invincible. He was never the same after the torn Achilles. He wasn't a mentor to the young Lakers teams in his career's final years because his body couldn't handle both practice and games. He reached those 2008 Finals but then fell to the Celtics. Before that, he was part of the Lakers team that lost to the no-name Pistons in 2004. But he always came back. He always lived to fight another day, or at least pursue another dream. That's what makes him no longer being here so hard to comprehend.
As we followed his comebacks from physical challenges, we also were watching someone struggle to overcome equally major emotional setbacks.
When I first met Kobe, at Long Beach State's sunken arena, The Pyramid, it was a different time. There were no metal detectors to get into the building, just a sign saying: "No firearms allowed." There was no security guard at the locker room door, either, leaving me to walk in and find a smiling future five-time champion stuffing his shoes and old-school athletic jock into a standard high-school student backpack, clearly thrilled that he had just been wearing an NBA jersey.
First impression: Man, is he young. Followed soon by: Man, does he believe in himself. The veteran-laden Lakers team he joined had a healthy desire to keep the young up-and-comer in his place or, at the very least, make him earn his stripes. If Kobe felt everybody in this new NBA world was out to stop him, teammates included, he wasn't completely wrong. Whether it was growing up as a foreigner in Italy while his father finished his playing career, or navigating being black and affluent in Philadelphia's rough-and-tumble basketball circles, Bryant became proficient at reading auras. "I've always been aware of the positive and negative energy coming off people," he told me at the time. "I just didn't know other people did, or that there were names for it."
Our relationship evolved thanks to a spark of positive energy in the midst of a torrential negative downpour. In his second season, he shot four consecutive airballs at crunch time in a playoff game against the Utah Jazz. The criticism from every corner was unrelenting and, I thought, unfair. I ran into him outside the locker room and offered a word of encouragement. He smiled. "I'd shoot every one of them again," he said defiantly.
He might not have needed a kind word, but he certainly remembered it. A year later, the Lakers were in Houston to play the Rockets on a Sunday. After practice, he invited me over to his hotel to watch the NBA Saturday doubleheader on NBC. We watched nearly the entirety of both games, waiting for his sister to come back from shopping to go to dinner with him. It dawned on me that Bryant was, if not lonely, certainly not close off the court with anyone on the team. His penchant for trying to embarrass teammates in practice if he thought they were mocking him probably didn't help.
His decision, at 21, to marry an 18-year-old Vanessa Laine earned him considerable criticism from friends and outsiders alike, especially when he refused to have her sign a prenuptial agreement. "I hear you're getting married and you're still wet behind the ears," said then-coach Phil Jackson, pretending to find proof with his finger.
But Bryant, the chiseled give-no-quarter competitor, didn't feel he needed a contract with someone who offered something more valuable to him than money: faith.
"She still has that innocence," he said to me. "She isn't jaded. She still believes that anything is possible."
That was the yin and yang of Kobe: risking half of his fortune to a marriage if it went bad didn't concern him because he was, one, confident in his ability to read people (Vanessa) and, two, he could always make more money.
Yet with the Lakers, he insisted on being paid every dollar because he understood the economics of what he made the organization in particular and the league in general. The Lakers' other obligation to him was to put winning pieces around him. Bryant was tremendously philanthropic, but he wasn't about to be charitable to someone who he didn't feel needed it.
He had the usual business interests off the court, but if he invested time in a particular pursuit, it was shaped to improve him, first and foremost, as a player. He studied meditation with Deepak Chopra. He studied Eastern European weight-training techniques. He went to Europe to find out their approach to cryotherapy. His study of psychology convinced him he could find a way to mentally wound Michael Jordan if they ever played one-on-one.
Bryant, of course, nearly wrecked his relationship with Vanessa in 2003. A woman who worked at the hotel where Bryant was staying said he raped her in his room. Bryant was charged with one count of felony sexual assault that July. He held a press conference with Vanessa, admitting to adultery and saying he had consensual sex with the woman. The woman decided not to testify, and in September 2004 the charge was dropped. At that time, Bryant issued an apology that said “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” A civil case was settled out of court in 2005.
In his basketball world, he went through turmoil in relationships with both Shaquille O’Neal and Jackson. The common thread between his marriage and his basketball relationships is that he mended them by acknowledging his part and how he needed to grow, evolve, change. There were some relationships that ended, with agents, trainers and teammates, that he never repaired, because they no longer served a purpose in his growth. But there's a pattern if you look closely enough at the relationships that mattered most: Bryant's accomplishments on the court seemed to be consistently preceded by some resolved controversy or conflict off it. He became a better player by becoming a better person.
There's a reason I don't believe fatherhood changed Kobe as much as it allowed him to discover his true self. When he and Vanessa first got together, they had a Pomeranian named Gucci. Seeing tough, doesn't-flinch-with-a-ball-inches-from-his-face Kobe cuddle Gucci in his arms and make cooing baby noises convinced me the dog was a placeholder. He was equally animated whenever the subject of my kids came up. He exchanged selfie videos with them when they were in elementary school, joking about getting out of his "Mamba" outfit—his Lakers uniform—and into something fashionable, while counseling them to keep playing ball but even more important to do well in school.
That he moved into writing inspirational stories for kids and young adults surprised me not a bit. Kobe was never satisfied with just tending to his own circle—if he was going to be a dad, he wanted to be one for everybody. His go-big-or-go-home mentality, on some level, pervaded everything he did—and no doubt would have done.
It is both awful and fitting that my teenage daughter, her attention to social media being more relentless than mine, first delivered the news.
Awful because my daughter felt as if she knew Kobe, even though they never physically met. Aside from the early exchange of video clips, he suggested via text that she and Gigi play one-on-one and that we arrange for their teams to be in the same tournament.
Fitting because my last meaningful conversation with Kobe was about our daughters. After I sent him a clip of a move my daughter was working on, he texted, "Looks like you should move this way and make her a mamba. I work with the girls every day for two hours. That's the plan for the next 5 YEARS."
When he wrote it, five years of coaching teenage girls seemed like a precious, but no less small, stone in the mosaic of all Bryant would ultimately accomplish in his post-playing career. I looked forward to seeing what else he planned to do. If nothing else, I expected him to be a lasting presence for the NBA as Jim Brown has been for the NFL, a legend whose greatness would still be visceral in the glint of his eye and commanding presence at various functions decades from now.
Now all I can think is: That was the plan. That was the small, precious stone. The mosaic will forever stand incomplete. Somehow, the player who willed himself through one physical setback after another, who defied what we thought he could do right to the very last day of his career, leaves us thinking of what he could have become.
Or, more accurately, who.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
Bucher hosts the podcast, Bucher & Friends, with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes