Kobe Bryant will be remembered as a basketball legend. He’ll go down as one of the best to ever play the game, a five-time NBA title-winner, an 81-point scorer, an iconic figure of a sport that has produced so many.
But Kobe Bryant was so much more. He was so much bigger than basketball and much more than an athlete.
The sporting world lost an icon on Sunday as Bryant died in a helicopter crash near his home in Los Angeles. It was a moment that instantly shocked the sporting world. A man that served as an inspiration for many, a person that so many idolized, was gone in the most tragic and sudden of circumstances. Bryant, a competitor that was more determined than perhaps any we’d ever seen, was no longer here.
Emotions extended beyond Los Angeles and far away from the basketball court. Some of the world’s biggest stars, icons in their own right, were left crushed by Sunday’s tragedy. Such is the shadow cast by the legendary Lakers guard that even some of the biggest names in the world today acknowledged that Bryant was their inspiration.
He was a hero for an entire generation of athletes, a figure that always seemed larger than life no matter where you were from or where you ended up. Whether you grew up dribbling a basketball or a soccer ball, whether you were raised in the U.S., Italy or anywhere else, whether you were a fan of Bryant’s playing career or not, Sunday’s loss was one that resonated. Your path may have been different, but the ideals were the same. Because of that, Bryant transcended.
“It’s the connectivity of the sport itself,” Bryant said on January 16th when asked about what links soccer and basketball together. “You have to use each other. You have to communicate with each other verbally and also through the ball itself. You have to read each other, open space for each other. There are a lot of similarities between basketball and the way that soccer is played.”
Bryant’s love of soccer was well-known. Having spent several years in Italy as a child, Bryant developed a passion for the game. He started playing at six years old and continued on during his brief stay in Europe before basketball took hold.
Yet, it was his start in soccer that Bryant often credited for being the foundation of his basketball skills. If it wasn’t for his time with the ball at his feet, Bryant may never have become the legendary figure he grew into.
“Most of the time, American basketball is only taught in twos: 1-2, pick and roll, or give and go, or something like that,” Bryant explained in 2016. “In playing soccer growing up, you really see the game in a combination of threes, sometimes four – and how you play within triangles.”
“You see things in multiple combinations,” Bryant continued. “And growing up playing [soccer], my eye and my brain became accustomed to seeing those combinations in threes and fours versus one and two.”
He publicly expressed his support for AC Milan on many occasions through the years and became a fan of Barcelona while working closely with the club. He appeared alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Ronaldinho, revealing his admiration for and developing a friendship with some of the greats of the game.
And that admiration was returned tenfold. A whole generation of players grew up with Bryant as a hero. In a similar way to Michael Jordan before him, Bryant became a figure that was much more than the sport he played. “Mamba mentality” translated to life, and many have cited Bryant’s mentality as the benchmark for their own career.
Neymar dedicated his goal on Sunday to Bryant’s memory, holding up his hands indicating the Laker star’s No. 24 before bowing his head in prayer. Romelu Lukaku heralded Bryant as his “biggest sports idol”. Lionel Messi called Bryant a “genius”, adding that he was thankful to have met him. Sergio Ramos kept it a bit simpler, tweeting just one word: “Legend”.
That’s one way to describe Bryant and, in the coming days, months and weeks, plenty more will be used. He’ll be described as a hero, an icon, a future Hall of Famer. But perhaps the most fitting one is “inspiration”.
“Playing basketball, you know, the focus is always on winning, winning championships,” Bryant told CNBC in 2016. “Winning championships comes and goes. It’s going to be another team that wins another championship, another player that wins another MVP award.
“If you really want to create something that lasts generations, you have to help inspire the next generation, right? They create something great, and then that generation will inspire the one behind them. That’s when you create something forever, and that’s what’s the most beautiful.”