I Became a Kobe Fan Too Late

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant wearing #8

Sports creates divisions.  Maybe not quite like politics, thank heavens, but it still divides. It pulls families apart.  It is amazing what a silly game can do to cause rioting in the streets. 

I’m a Jazz fan.  You’re a Lakers fan.  Them’s fighting words!

I never liked Kobe Bryant.  I know that is terrible to say given the recent tragedy.  But I’m a sports fan and sports creates divisions. 

Before there was even a team in Utah I needed an NBA team to cheer for.  I chose the Boston Celtics.  Don’t ask me why.  Maybe it is because of the similar Revolutionary War history we share here in Utah. 

If you loved the Celtics back then you couldn’t do anything but loathe the Lakers.  It was the law.  The epic battles between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were some of the all-time great NBA games.  Parish. Abdul-Jabbar.  McHale.  Rambis.  Ainge.  Worthy.  Those were the days.

After the greats from the Lakers retired their success waned until two players I could not stand joined the team…Shaq and Kobe.  Oh, how I hated watching them!  Oh, how I hated when the would win!  Oh, how I hated when they would beat my Jazz.  By then my Utah Jazz were becoming a thing.  And Shaq and Kobe were so hard to watch.

I dismissed Kobe as a spoiled son of a former professional player who had all the breaks.  I knew he was intelligent..spoke a few languages.  I knew he was a talented athlete…figured he inherited that from dad.  Any negative press on him I agreed with, because I didn’t like the Lakers, so I naturally didn’t like him. 

In recent years I’ve enjoyed listening to Shaq broadcasting and saw a whole different side to the player I loathed on the court.  And I ran across a video on social media where Shaq showed up in a neighborhood unannounced and shot some hoop with some kids.  A cool thing to do.  He gave them all some money for making a free throw.  A cool thing to do.  He taught them more than how to shoot a basketball.  Let’s be honest.  Shaq could never shoot a free throw.  He made them repeat after him the importance of respecting others and their parents and becoming whatever they want to be.  My respect for Shaq skyrocketed!

I never thought much about Kobe.  I knew he dropped 60 points on my Jazz in his final game and I couldn’t believe it.  Of all things.  My Jazz let him go for 60?!  Oh well.  He was retired and I wouldn’t have to watch Kobe anymore.

Then comes the tragic news of his helicopter crash.  It is compounded when we learn his daughter was also on board.  Suddenly thousands of fans start showing up at the Staples Center, near the crash site, and near his home in Newport.  I started hearing so many interviews from so many people who were so torn up over the loss of a man who I didn’t like.  I wondered what I was missing.

I started seeing picture after picture of Kobe, but not in a basketball uniform.  They were post-basketball pictures.  In almost every picture he was smiling.  And they weren’t posed pictures.  They were candid shots taken while Kobe was just out doing whatever.  But it seemed he always had a smile plastered on his face. 

I heard so many people giving incredible tributes.  That’s something that happens when people die.  Even the worst of us get some sort of nice send-off, but you can tell when it is sincere.  These were sincere. 

Among the many pictures and videos that played on the various news outlets were many of Kobe with his family, specifically with his daughters.  There was so much talk about how proud he was of his daughters and how much he loved being a “girl dad.”  I can relate.  I also have four daughters and it is the best thing in the world. 

I saw Kobe coaching his daughter and suddenly it was like the Shaq moment with the boys playing basketball.  My respect for Kobe skyrocketed! 

I decided to research what Kobe was doing after basketball.  The foundation he started with his wife.  The Oscar he won.  His daughter’s team he coached.

I learned that his success on the court wasn’t just because he was the son of a former NBA player.  That might have had a little to do with it, but Kobe was the kind of player who knew he wasn’t simply blessed with enough talent, so he planned to make up for it with work.  He would be drenched in sweat having already started his workout at least two hours before anyone else got to practice.  He would stay late.  Make other players stay late.  He was dedicated to his craft.

There is a lot we can learn from Kobe Bryant.  Was he perfect?  No.  No one is.  But he was relentless in his passion for the game and his pursuit of excellence. 

One of the last things Kobe did the night before he died was send a tweet to LeBron James congratulating him for passing him on the all-time scoring list.  “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.” 

I have incredible respect for that statement from Kobe.  He watched one of his records fall, but instead of being petty, making a joke, or simply ignoring it, he congratulated the man who surpassed him.  Kobe earns respect by showing respect.  How many people can say that what they post on social media shows respect?  The last thing Kobe ever posted was a positive message of respect.  We should all be so fortunate.  We should all be such an example! Maybe that should make us think about what we post. 

Sports unites.  Someone on one of the news channels the day Kobe died said, “Today everyone is a Lakers fan.”  While I would have never imagined agreeing with that statement before I would agree now.  We all feel devastated for his family and pray that they have the strength to get through losing a father and daughter. 

I’m the guy who says on my TV show and in countless speeches that we should never judge anyone.  We need to get to know them and we’ll maybe understand why they do what they do, act the way they act, say what they say.  But I never got to know Kobe Bryant.  I never cared to know anything about him.  And I judged him. 

I became a Kobe fan too late.