Mourning the Boogeyman

“We need everything to go right, and we need Kobe to miss shots.” For two decades, before and after the rise of social media, this is how we spoke about our favorite teams visiting Staples Center to face a Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers team.

Millennials grew up with Kobe Bryant’s dominance. We watched him on mute when our parents wouldn’t let us stay up to watch the late games on TNT and ESPN. We watched his highlights the next morning on the 10am SportsCenter. We waiting incomprehensibly long times for videos to buffer of highlights of the night before on dial-up internet.

We gathered around small dorm room televisions and watched him climb the mountain again alongside Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. When the social media era came around we had access to Kobe’s last fine moments even as we began our own careers. We watched him get abandoned at the end of his career to play beside the Smush Parker’s, Jeremy Lin’s, and Ronny Turiaf’s of the world. We reached an age where we were falling asleep to Bryant’s last stands. Half-alert but fully-engrossed in generational greatness.

For twenty years, Bryant was the ultimate villain. He poured in thousands of points against your favorite team. He seemed to revel in the misery he caused of franchises. Kobe embodied the quote, “It is not enough to succeed, others must fail.”

In an era of basketball where everyone is friends and super teams pop up amongst friend groups, Bryant was basketball’s last true adversary. He wanted to beat you, and he frequently did. He didn’t want defeating you to be easy, he wanted to fight and struggle for his greatness. With stars entering an era of “load management,” Bryant emphasized difficult practices. When his Achilles tendon tore, he tried to force it back into place and strode to the free throw line. When he broke his finger he just learned how to play left-handed.

This is the best summation of Kobe’s relishing in the big villain moments I could find.

Kobe Bryant went to the gym every day to be great and to hurt your favorite team, and we hated him for it until we grew to love him. He went from villain to hero on those bad Lakers teams. We watched him try to go it alone with a cast of run-offs and castaways. We watched him transition into an Academy Award winning director.

We watched him evolve into the family man who took great pride in teaching his daughter the game of basketball. The exuberance in which he discussed her being the heir to the Black Mamba basketball fame. We started to connect with Bryant the person in a way we hadn’t before. The smart and insightful person behind the assassin we knew growing up.

It is difficult to imagine a world without Kobe Bryant because we have never had to experience it. He has always been a part of our sports fandom. He ripped our hearts out and we still learned to love and appreciate what he brought to basketball.

Moving forward without Kobe Bryant is going to be difficult, but black mambas can’t slither backwards and neither should we.