• Kyle OConnor

Kobe Bryant & The Meaning Of Sports

I love basketball.



Ok, that's probably an understatement. I love basketball. I love football and baseball, too. But basketball means something more to me. I grew the son of a basketball coach and played the game for years. And I still consume it in one way or another on a daily basis.


I fell in love with basketball when I was eight years old. And shortly after, I'd spend the school years playing in open gyms every day and the summers playing every weekend, over 100+ games each summer. Then school ball started and it became a year round thing until I graduated from college.


I love sports. I love what it can to a group of people. I love what it can do for a young man or womans confidence.


And I love what Kobe Bryant meant to the game that means so much to me.


I first became a fan of Kobe when I was nine years old, shortly after I became obsessed with the game of basketball. Kobe was a rookie and just hitting the national spotlight, jumping straight from High School to the NBA.


He won the NBA Dunk Contest as a rookie with a between-the-legs dunk that at the time, was jaw dropping for nine year old Kyle. And led to a multitude of injuries trying to pull off on the neighborhood crank goal. But that's not when my love for Kobe started to blossom. It was a few months later.


The Lakers had advanced to the second round of the playoffs and in Game 5, things didn't go so well for Kobe. He wanted the ball down the stretch, as you can imagine. But he shot four airballs, eliminating the Lakers. I've always gone against the grain. I moved to Kansas young, where everyone was obsessed with Kansas basketball. What did I do? I adopted Duke as my team of choice. Why? I don't know. I wanted to be different. It felt natural that when the Kobe bandwagon would lighten its load, I'd reserve more seats.


I remember my dads team at Brewster High School getting the Adidas Kobe KB8's. I was so jealous I didn't get a pair. I ended up with every Kobe shoe after that until his run with Nike. Yes, even the moon boots. I saved up money in 8th Grade to try and nab a piece of memorabilia with my two favorite players - Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. And to this day, I remember sitting in the computer lab in Sharon Springs over my lunch break, obsessively watching an eBay auction count down. It was a photo of the two of them standing next to each other during a free throw, signed by both. I ended up the highest bidder and that photo hangs in my office to this day.


Whether you loved or hated Kobe, you couldn't help but be drawn to the TV when he was playing. Kobe played with an intensity we hadn't seen since Michael Jordan. The same goes for his competitive nature. He didn't want to just win, he wanted to win emphatically. This resonated with me and carried through my playing days. Even today, playing pickup basketball, I often toe the line between competitive and obnoxiously competitive. I'll just blame Kobe.


Kobe dominated basketball nationally as I was spending my years playing the game I had fallen in love with. I remember his 40 point streak and running around in disbelief with each passing game. I remember waking up on a school morning to turn on SportsCenter and see that he scored 81 points the night before. And sitting in awe for 10 minutes watching highlights, not able to believe it without seeing it for myself. I even remember skipping my Senior Prom so I could watch the Lakers and Suns Game 7 in the playoffs.


So yesterday, the news shook me.


It's a funny thing isn't it? The death of an athlete, celebrity or politician we admired? We didn't know them personally. In many cases, it's not likely that we would ever meet them. If someone told me on Saturday, "Kobe Bryant is going to die in a helicopter accident tomorrow" - I probably would've assumed I'd be bummed but would largely let it go pretty quickly. That just wasn't the case and I didn't know how to feel about that.


I wasn't able to check my phone much yesterday because I was driving back from Indianapolis to see family. About halfway through the drive, I was feeling a little groggy so I decided to let Tina drive the rest of the way. Then the phone call came from my dad.


"Did you hear about Kobe?"


"No, what?"


Pause here.


My immediate reaction was that he died. I think that's pretty normal, no? And I just held out hope the next words out of his mouth were not going to include died or dead.


I was wrong.


"Died. Helicopter crash."


It was a gut punch. I didn't even know what to think. I immediately hung up and went to Twitter to try and get details and just hope that it was another false celebrity death story.


I didn't know how to process it. I remember during Kobe's 40 point game streak, watching him in a game against the Nuggets. He hit an unreal shot at the top of the key and I ran around the house and looked at my mom and said "He is immortal." My mom looked at me and just said, "No one is immortal."


How right she was. But he seemed about as close as you could get, in the basketball sense. Nothing phased him. If he would fall or fail, he would come right back at you. He shot those four airballs, eliminating his team, as an 18 year-old kid. Do you know how many careers that would end? Kobe went on to win titles, MVPs, Finals MVPs and appear in 18(!) All-Star games. Give him your best shot, he'd give you his best shot back. And his was usually better.


My next thought was to hope and pray that none of his daughters were on the helicopter with him. Which led to another devastating gut punch. His daughter Gianna has been in the public eye for awhile, looking like she would be another star on the court in the Bryant family. Below is a clip of Kobe talking about Gianna with Jimmy Kimmel. And you can see him let his infamous guard down and just speak purely and with pride about her.



As yesterdays news got worse, we learned that nine people in total died. This included teammates of Gianna's, those teammates parents, another coach and the pilot. A devastating tragedy that I can't seem to shake. I feel gutted.


In the scope of Kobe, can you imagine those final moments? We have to imagine that it wasn't a mystery as to what was going to happen to them. Kobe, the father, knowing that he's in his final moments with his daughter. He can see how scared she is. He knows he's going to leave behind his wife and three additional daughters, ages 17 to less than one. And I imagine he felt some responsibility, which is additionally devastating. His helicopter. He surely invited the others to join them. Logic goes out the window in those final moments.


I should also add here that Kobe used his helicopter all the time. He didn't really drive, instead opting for the efficiency of a helicopter. It allowed him to get done what he needed to do and still prioritize family time, which you can hear him talk about himself below.




Kobe's second act was sure to be as successful as his first. He had already won an Oscar. He had said no to virtually every opportunity that he was offered in basketball and media to spend time with his family. When Kobe played, basketball consumed him. 4AM - 11PM, it was basketball, basketball, basketball.


He was not shy about saying that retirement allowed him to spend more time with his family. A lot of athletes will say this but cannot stay away from the game that consumed their lives. Kobe lived it. He coached Gianna's team. When he did do interviews, he spoke often and candidly about his wife and daughters. He made mistakes, as we all do, although our mistakes are not as publicly broadcasted as his were. He seemed to have learned from them and was poised to make his next 50 years just as memorable.


There were times growing up where myself and a few teammates would load onto a small plane and head to our tournaments. Besides being extremely fun and convenient, it helped form bonds. Bonds that started on the court, with practices. Bonds that continued on the court, in games. And bonds that were solidified in the hotels, running around town and talking about the games.


Sports, in the grand scheme of things, aren't really important. Vanessa Bryant lost her husband and her daughter. The remaining three daughters lost their father and their sister. In that sense, basketball is meaningless. But what sports can lead to or blossom, it's immensely meaningful.


Sports are supposed to be fun. And in my life, sports has allowed me to form friendships and life long bonds that will never be broken. It started when I was eight years old and continues to this day. Do I remember all the wins and losses? No. Are the championships, records and box scores what I remember most? No.


I remember heading to practice at 6 AM with my friends. I remember getting through conditioning at practice and being so happy, we would dance in the locker room. I remember sweating, battling and crying with my teammates through victory and defeat. I remember each and every nickname. I remember that sports taught me to plan, prepare, battle, not give up and that I can be humbled in a hurry.


It's why it's so important for me to stay involved in the game of basketball today. When we put on camps in different areas of the country, I get to see kids from different schools come together and form friendships. Who won MVP? Who won the scrimmage? Who had the best timed drill? It doesn't really matter.


What matter is that sports, basketball specifically, allowed these kids to form friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime. It taught them that they'll have to work together, not in isolation. And it taught them that if you want to be great at something, it's going to take work. There are no shortcuts in any sport, just as there are no shortcuts in life. You have to work. And it's a lot easier and more enjoyable when you have brothers and sisters on your side working toward the same goal.


At the end of each summer, I make a list of the campers I was most proud of. And I make a list of my Top 5 moments from the summer. Nearly all of my top moments are the looks on a kids face when they hit the big shot at the end of the week. These kids didn't know many of the other campers very well just days ago. And they went into the final day of camp hoping to perform well and honestly, not let their teammates down. It's impossible to watch the below video and not smile.



When that shot goes in, the pure joy on their face is like a drug to me. The other campers, many of which they didn't even know just days ago, are mobbing them and congratulating them as joy and happiness washes over their body - you can see it right on their face. That is what sport means to me.



The game of basketball lost, arguably, their greatest ambassador yesterday. And more importantly, three young girls lost their father. A wife lost her husband. Along with the far-reaching losses felt from the rest of those on the helicopter.


When I go, I hope that my impact reaches the level that Kobe had on so many in some capacity. I'd want my family, friends, former teammates and anyone else I interacted with to tell others that I impacted them in some way. And that I left people a reason or two to smile with fond memories.


And if that's the case, sports will have a lot to do with it. We'll miss you, Kobe. Thank you for everything.