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A few days before Christmas, it occurred to me that so much about Kobe Bryant’s post-basketball life was not unfolding the way we might have expected.
For somebody who had been quite comfortable as the NBA’s most famous and polarizing player for a long period of his career, he was not clinging to the spotlight or using his status as a global basketball icon to stay relevant. He wasn’t on TV talking about the NBA, he was making movies. He wasn’t hanging around arenas trying to get noticed, he was bringing his daughter to see her favorite players.
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Which is where I noticed Kobe sitting courtside in Brooklyn on Dec. 21 with 13-year old Gianna, whom he brought so that she could watch Atlanta’s Trae Young, one of her favorite players. The camera, of course, was frequently drawn to Bryant and Gianna during the game because Kobe showing up courtside was always going to be an event
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It was so noticeable how happy he was that day, being able to share something like that with his daughter given his place in the history of the sport. But it was also clear he had moved on to a different and completely comfortable phase of his basketball life, one that was no longer about what he could do in basketball but what he knew.
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Kobe Bryant sitting courtside at the Atlanta Hawks/Brooklyn Nets game explaining something to his daughter reaction video memepic.twitter.com/8EthycbqQG
— all reaction videos (@allreactionvidz)January 3, 2020
Sadly, those images are going to be shown today for all the wrong reasons. Both Kobe and Gianna died on Sunday in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles as they were traveling to one of her games, an event so shocking and surreal that it’s impossible to respond in a way that feels appropriate.
To lose someone as important as Bryant in the basketball pantheon so suddenly before his 42nd birthday means we are entirely unprepared to talk about his loss, even though it’s our responsibility to chronicle who he was and what he meant.
MISSING KOBE:NBA world reacts to Kobe Bryant's shocking death after helicopter crash
CRASH DETAILS:Investigation underway to determine cause of helicopter crash in Calabasas, California
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In that sense, there are two things that stand out: The clarity about what his job was on the basketball court and the ease with which he left it behind.
Every great NBA superstar has a trait that defines them, and Bryant’s was the certainty with which he played the game. He was there to score, he was committed to rise to the stakes of the game, and he was willing to live with the results no matter what they were as long as he had some control of the outcome.
While Bryant’s single-mindedness as a competitor late in games might have been a weakness from time to time, he knew exactly who he was and what he was supposed to do when it mattered. And more often than not, he came out on the right end of it. He was the Mamba every time he took the floor.
Harvey Mason Jr., Recording Academy Chair of the Board and Interim President/CEO observes a moment of silence for Kobe Bryant at the start of the 62nd annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony on Jan. 26, 2020 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Calif.
From left to right, Houston Rockets center Tyson Chandler, guard Austin Rivers and forward P.J. Tucker react during a tribute to Kobe Bryant before an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Denver. Bryant died in a California helicopter crash Sunday.
Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry holds his head down as players stop the action of a basketball game during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs to honor former NBA player Kobe Bryant in San Antonio, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.
Bryant will not be remembered as a better player than either Michael Jordan or LeBron James, but he was the bridge between them, carving out a legacy of five NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, an 81-point game and an incredible 60 points the final time he took the floor in 2016.
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What was so remarkable, though, was that Bryant’s farewell tour really was goodbye. His skills had certainly declined in his final years, and injuries had taken away much of his explosiveness, but you can imagine someone who thrived on competition the way Bryant did might have struggled with the transition to a new life.
Bryant, from all accounts did not. He wasn’t showing up at NBA games trying to hog attention. There was never any talk of a vanity comeback. Instead, he wrote books and won an Academy Award for an animated short film he had written. He coached his daughter’s travel basketball team. There was talk that he worked out with a few NBA players behind the scenes in the offseason.
It was so cool to think that Bryant, unlike many superstars who struggle being out of the game, seemed totally content with how everything had worked out in his life. Now, it’s hard to believe that it has ended.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Kobe Bryant was one of a kind even in retirement
Related slideshow: Kobe Bryant life in pictures (provided by photo services)
Bryant was born on Aug. 23, 1978, to former NBA player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant and Pamela Cox in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Bryant lived in Italy for eight years while his father played in the Italian Professional Basketball League. He spoke Italian fluently.
He became one of the top shooting guards in the league after Phil Jackson took over the Lakers in 1999. His partnership with Shaquille O'Neal powered the franchise to three consecutive NBA championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
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Marketers had queued up to sign him from an early age. In 1996-97, he signed a six-year contract with Adidas, but switched over to Nike during the 2002-03 season. He has also been associated with Coca Cola and McDonand's.
In his 19th season with the Lakers, he was on the cusp of becoming the first NBA player to spend 20 seasons with the same franchise. He tied for that record with John Stockton, who spent 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz.
Off the court, Bryant was an ambassador for the non-profit After-School All-Stars, which provides after-school programs to children in 13 U.S. cities. He's also started his own charity in partnership with the Chinese government-backed Soong Ching Ling Foundation.
Late in 2014, he surpassed Michael Jordan on the all-time NBA scorer's list. He also became one of only four players in the league's history to score 32,000 points. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Jordan are the other three.
Kobe walked into the basketball court for the final time on April 13, 2016. He got the fairy tale ending that he deserved as he scored 60 points in his final game, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 victory against the Utah Jazz.