To a young person’s eyes, basketball stirs the imagination with its aerial acrobatics and joyous improvisation.
The jump shots are nice, but what happens above the rim or as a player floats farther than seems humanly possible from jump to landing takes hold and never lets go.
Basketball is free flowing and creative, exciting and dramatic, mesmerizing and entertaining, and its rules are broken only by those who have mastery of the rules.
It’s why the game is so often compared to the arts: ballet, poetry, jazz.
And Kobe Bryant was an artist on the court, entrenched in a lineage of influential high-flyers that includes Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
That’s not the entire list: Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson, David Thompson, George “Iceman” Gervin, Larry Nance, Dominque Wilkins, Vince Carter and Zach LaVine. There’s more, too.
But the list includes, and will always include, Bryant. He is the legendary bridge that connected two of the greatest players of all time – Jordan at one end of Bryant’s career and James at the other end.
Of course, Bryant, a five-time champion, was one of the greatest players of all-time, too, a fierce competitor with a desire that perhaps matched Jordan’s. On the court, they were ruthless destroyers. They shared that but also turnaround, fadeaway jumps shot along the baseline that left defenders helpless.
Bryant captured attention with his ability to leap and dunk, but he held attention with his skillset that included a jump shot and footwork that made him one of the NBA’s most gifted scorers and greatest champions.
When thinking about Sunday’s tragedy, in which Bryant and eight others, including his teen daughter Gianna, died in a helicopter accident, it’s impossible not to think about Saturday night, in the visiting locker room at Philadelphia’s Well Fargo Center where Lakers star James just passed Bryant for No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
James had trouble wrapping his mind around the scenario – recalling the time as a high schooler he met Bryant during the 2002 All-Star Weekend, played against him in the NBA, played alongside him with USA Basketball at two Olympics and now playing for the Lakers and moving ahead of him in scoring.
“The story is just too much,” James said. “It doesn’t make sense. Just to make a long story short, now I’m here in a Lakers’ uniform in Philadelphia where he’s from, where the first time I ever met him. It’s surreal. But the universe just puts things in your life, I guess, when you’re living the right way, or just giving everything to whatever you’re doing. Things happened organically and it’s not supposed to make sense but it just happens.”
Go back to Dec. 14, 2014, the night Bryant passed Jordan.
“He knows how much I’ve learned from him, from the other legends and him in particular,” Bryant said.
They learned from one another, directly and indirectly, passing it along to the next generation of players. James remembered Bryant telling high school players at the prestigious ABCD basketball camp, “If you want to try and be great at it or be one of the greatest, you have to put the work in.”
Even last summer, Bryant invited pros to his Mamba Academy to teach. He still wanted to give back, to impart knowledge. And he still will. Players, young and current, will still watch video, will still learn, and one day a young kid will reach the NBA and thank Bryant. That will happen.
Kobe Bean Bryant remains and will forever remain a vital link to the NBA’s past, present and future.