I grew up loving basketball and hating Kobe Bryant.
Some of my best and earliest childhood memories involve sitting with my dad, pizza boxes on the coffee table and basketball on the TV - "Honey, don't repeat this around your mother, but fuck the Lakers" - and Kobe Bryant was seemingly always in the background, lurking like some kind of mythical, shadowy, demigod super-villain who could drop sixty points and go ten for ten from the foul line and barely look like he was trying. He was casual. He was excellent. He was infuriating.
Smirk, shoot, swish.
I was born and raised in Southern California. That Lakers three-peat in the early 2000's was generation defining. Kobe Bryant. Shaquille O'Neill. Pau Gasol. All the big, shiny soccer mom SUV's in the pick-up lane at my elementary school had little purple and gold flags clipped onto the windows. Game days were game days, and it didn't matter that there were eighty-two of them in the regular season. Kobe Bryant was playing; it was a special event. Clear your schedule. Buy a jersey. Record the highlights.
My father was a Spurs fan. A Tim Duncan truther. "Word of God" meant something really specific in our house, and it usually coincided with Gregg Popovich opening his mouth to speak. The Spurs-Lakers rivalry of the mid-2000's was so good. It was electric. It was explosive. It was all the best parts of basketball, of sports, condensed and combined. I was a teenager in a Mexican restaurant in San Clemente, and I can still taste the salt from the tortilla chips and the lime from the guacamole and the spike of sheer adrenaline, of exhilaration, of jumping to my beach-sandy feet and flinging my sunburned arms around my dad and yelling at the TV mounted above the bar because we were watching history, we were watching Manu Ginobili euro-step around the entirety of Los Angeles County, the ball almost tenderly, almost reverently rolling off the very tips of his fingers, and that was euphoria.
Layup. Flop. Three-point play. Let's fucking go.
Kobe was there.
Kobe was always there.
That's the thing I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around. I didn't like Kobe Bryant. He wasn't a player whose attitude or playing style I particularly admired, even begrudgingly, and it's impossible to truly separate who he was as an athlete with who he was as a person. They're entwined. Inextricable.
Watching him play basketball, though - that was always a privilege.
And virtually nothing about a full decade of my life would be the same - would feel the same, with the benefit of hindsight, with the understanding that's accompanied all the years between then and now - without him and his stupid, aggravating, legendary mid-range jumper.
I'm really sad today.
I think that's okay.