The strangest thing about watching an athlete’s entire playing career is the inability to comprehend, when it’s over, just how young he or she still is. We treat retiring athletes like our grandparents, like their life’s work is behind them, and they will now spend the rest of their lives on a farm sitting in a rocking chair on their front porch, sipping tea and telling stories of the old days. But an athlete’s professional lifespan is much more compressed than that. We meet them as teenagers, enjoy their prime in their 20s, and say good-bye to them in their 30s. Then they retire to memory. Yet their lives are just getting started.
One of the many shocking things about learning of the death of Kobe Bryant, killed Sunday afternoon along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, and seven other people in a helicopter crash in California, is that he was only 41 years old. Kobe Bryant, in all his many permutations, has been a part of American life for more than 25 years. He was the raw, explosive, impossibly talented kid out of Philadelphia who leapt straight from high school to the cauldron of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most storied and visible sports franchises on the planet.
He was the burgeoning superstar, the champion, who teamed with (and constantly feuded with) Shaquille O’Neal to produce one of sports’ most iconic and combustible partnerships. He was the accused in a shocking sexual assault trial involving a hotel employee in Colorado that nearly (and very well should have) derailed his entire career and remains one of the most disturbing examples of the power celebrity and wealth can rain down upon rape victims. And an example today of how, even in a Me Too and Time’s Up age, fans are willing to move on from truly horrific allegations if enough time passes and they like the athlete enough. He dubbed himself Black Mamba, somehow ascending beyond his previous heights, his infamous competitiveness leading his team to another two championships and to a status in Los Angeles and in the NBA that arguably exceeds anyone who has played the sport since. He was, finally, the last of the heroball gunners in basketball, a man so single-minded and focused on scoring and winning that he poured in 60 points in his final game before retirement.
And after all that, after being a central figure in American sports for perhaps two decades … he was still only 37 years old. Achievement and notoriety fit for two lifetimes, a legend that still loomed large over his entire sport (one who even cast a shadow over the game’s greatest player, LeBron James), and he was just 37. Think about how many people you know who are 37 years old. Does it feel like all their life’s achievements are over? Does it feel like yours are? But that is the life cycle of a professional athlete, even the great ones. Especially the great ones.
The biggest sucker punch of all in Kobe’s death is that, after his retirement from basketball, the world he had dedicated his entire life to, Kobe flourished. His prickly persona may have softened, but his competitive drive remained undiminished. Since retiring from the NBA, Kobe had laid down a framework for an athlete’s post-retirement life that was as groundbreaking a template as his Hall of Fame on-court career was for active players. He founded and ran a company, Kobe Inc., that worked in sports branding and ended up earning him more than $200 million when Coca-Cola bought one of the companies he’d invested in. He started a venture capital firm. He hosted his own streaming television show for ESPN. He partnered with a multi-sport training academy for young athletes. He became an outspoken critic of the president during a time when players were finding their political voices more and more. He published a number of books. An outreach program in China made him the most popular player in the country still, five years after he left the game. He retained one of the best-selling shoe brands for Nike. He won a freaking Oscar.
Kobe fit more into his four-year post-basketball career than most humans could stuff into several lifetimes. And he’d only been out for a few years. He was still, somehow, only 41.
And Kobe wasn’t just thriving and evolving with his businesses. In recent years, his four daughters (including a baby born just last June), and his place in their life, began to take center stage. His daughter Gigi had become an up-and-coming basketball player herself, and Kobe was her coach; a clip of Kobe explaining a basketball concept to her daughters was his last viral moment in a lifetime of them.
Kobe Bryant had finished a legendary basketball career, one we will be talking about as long as we talk about basketball. But that career was already over long before Sunday afternoon. The tragedy of Sunday was that we lost what he had evolved into after his career ended: a man, a father, an entrepreneur, an international figure whose power was only growing in just about every possible field of American culture, who knows what else. Kobe Bryant was a basketball legend. But he was well on his way to becoming something else, something more. Kobe Bryant, at 41, was just getting started.