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Billy Reed: Kobe Bryant owned the air; he soared — until a helicopter crash brought him down

It is ironic that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash because the air was his second home. In every game he played with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe didn’t just jump. He flew. He soared. And, yes, he could execute the 360-degree helicopter dunk when he wanted to give the fans a show.

Like his hero, Michael Jordan, he complemented his talent by playing with a fierceness that enabled him to take over a game and make it his own. Whatever the Lakers needed, Kobe would provide, usually with a style and flair that Laker fans loved and rival fans loathed. Even as a callow rookie, Kobe knew who and what he was.

He was so mesmerizing, so often, that his teammates were only his supporting cast, even great ones such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. At times, this led to internal conflicts. But Kobe was a skilled diplomat who knew when to take a stand and when to compromise. His success may be measured by the five championship trophies the Lakers won during his 20-year career.

Naturally, he had his own sneaker line. His shoes weren’t called Air Kobes, but they could have been. Like Jordan and Julius Erving and current Laker Lebron James, his game, at its best, approached a kind of athletic ballet. He leaped and twirled and defied gravity as beautifully as a human being ever has.

Kobe Bryant (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

A son of pro basketball journeyman named Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe Bean Bryant was named after a city in Japan and a play on his dad’s nickname. He grew up in Italy, where his dad played after his American pro career was done. The family eventually relocated near Philadelphia so Kobe could play American high school ball.

He went into the NBA draft right out of high school and was the 13th overall pick in 1996. Although he never got a college degree, nobody ever accused him of being uneducated. He could speak three languages and learned much about the world growing up in Italy. But he knew he was unique, so he always encouraged youngsters to get their degrees.

His career numbers are other-worldly. He averaged 25 points for his career, once scored 81 in a single game, and won a plethora of All-Star and Most Valuable Player awards. But Kobe never could be measured by mere numbers, impressive though they may be. Every time he stepped on the floor, he was a force, a presence, a Picasso painting masterpieces.

The world has adopted basketball more than any other American team sport, including baseball. The NBA is big in Europe and China, where many games are on TV. So an NBA star literally has an international audience that buys his sneakers and jerseys. When Kobe switched from No. 8 to No. 24, sales were particularly high in China.

That’s one reason Kobe’s death was mourned around the world. Another was that he was only two seasons removed from his retirement, meaning his fans still have vivid memories. It wasn’t as if Kobe was an old superstar who played in the days of Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. He still was an active part of the NBA community, and he was burnishing his legacy by becoming active in philanthropy, education, and women’s basketball.

About the only stain on Kobe’s reputation came from a confrontation early in his career. He had sex with a woman at a Colorado resort. He said it was consensual; she said it was rape. The case was eventually settled out of court, but Kobe’s brand took a hit. A couple of major sponsors dropped him. He was pilloried by many in the media.

When he met his future wife, Vanessa, she was still in high school and working as a professional dancer. His parents refused to attend his wedding because Vanessa was not African-American and because they felt she was too young. But the hostility evaporated when Kobe and Vanessa had the first of their four daughters.

His second daughter, Gianna, 13, was with him, along with six family friends and his trusted pilot, when the Sikorsky S-76B went down on Sunday, Jan. 26, at around 12:45 p.m. EST near Calabasas, CA. The Bryant party apparently was going to Kobe’s basketball academy, where Giana was to play in a game.

The weather was so foggy that the Los Angeles Police Department had grounded its helicopters due to lack of visibility. The main question for investigators is why the Bryant helicopter continued to fly instead of turning back.

Predictably, the tragedy inspired shock, grief, and mourning around the world, and Kobe became an instant martyr. He was 41 years old, and seemingly invincible, as if he were a real Superhero. His heir as the Lakers’ resident icon, James, made a touching statement that was read by millions around the world.

For his most ardent fans, the sense of loss will not soon go away. One can imagine he and Gianna hugging each other as the helicopter whirled out of control and dropped toward the earth. For once, Kobe didn’t have an answer. For once, the air was not his friend.

There will never be another exactly like him, but there will a precious few who may electrify crowds the way he did. Maybe a precocious talent now mourning his loss will be the one who succeeds him, just as he succeeded Jordan. They don’t come along often, these transcendent stars. They fly. They soar. They inspire dreams.

R.I.P., Kobe Bean Bryant.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book, Last of a BReed, is available on Amazon.

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