‘Nothing in Sports Hit Me Harder Than Kobe’s Death’

José Mallabo, Morehouse College Chief Marketing Officer & VP of Marketing and Communications

Growing up as a rabid sports fan in Los Angeles in the ’70s, Magic Johnson was my generation’s Bill Russell. Or in a more modern context, Magic was my Michael Jordan and my Kobe Bryant.

By 1991, Magic had helped raise the NBA to sports prominence and claimed a stake in the argument about the greatest player of all time. Then barely into the new season, I got a call from my father to turn on the TV. Magic was retiring – as it turns out, because of HIV.  

We knew so little about HIV and AIDS back then so this felt like a death sentence. The jolt was like a car hitting your house. The guy who reinvented the point guard position, created Showtime, slayed the Celtics, and brought five titles to my beloved childhood hometown was saying goodbye. 

Every sports fan I knew was talking about it – this symbol of basketball was in fact mortal, flawed and on path to a certain death. Unlike with Kobe’s death on Sunday, we passed judgment, which only blurred or muted the sadness of the loss.

The mechanics of hearing about Kobe’s death were eerily similar to how I found out about Magic. Instead of a call, a text from a friend simply read “Kobe died.” But the jolt was more jarring, more deep-seeded and the loss more  overwhelming because of how much broader Kobe’s impact has been on the world over the last 20+ years.

It may sound sacrilegious to say it, but the pattern of emotions was closer to how I felt when the plane hit the second tower on 9/11. Shock, incredulousness followed by anger, and a soaking sadness that comes with the feeling of “Now what?”

After Kobe’s Achilles injury, his game slowly deteriorated while his legend grew. He became this symbol of excellence and achievement that was driven by a warrior work ethic that no one had seen before. It’s awe-inspiring to breathe it in and suffocating to lose it. 

Maybe it took Kobe’s death for me to see it, but somewhere along the line – probably with the 2009-10 championship – Kobe became my Magic.

Only fans my age or older would know it, but Magic was already a national figure when he got drafted. Meanwhile, I may have been one of a few people in Laker nation who knew of Kobe when Jerry West traded Vlade Divac to get him in 1996. 

Joe Bryant, Kobe’s father, was not a well-known NBA player, but he’s a fellow alum of my alma mater – La Salle University in Philadelphia – and was an assistant coach of our basketball team in the early ’90s. My ties to the school brought whispers of this local phenom named Kobe who might actually enroll at the university.

When Divac – a legitimate double-double guy who was drafted to play center after Kareem retired – was traded for Kobe, I scratched my head slightly less than the rest of the purple and gold nation but still wondered: “Who the hell is going to play center?” 

Shaq signed a month after the Kobe acquisition, saving me the trouble of driving up the 405 Highway to throttle general manager Jerry West. 

There was no way anyone could have imagined that this teenager would cast a shadow large enough to dwarf the legend of Magic, become the greatest Laker, and be a legitimate counterpoint to Michael Jordan being the greatest player of all time.

Let’s just set the record straight – the greatest player of all time is Abdul-Jabbar. Period. His body of work and accomplishments in college and the NBA, where he is the all-time leading scorer, are unmatched. His sky hook was the only truly unstoppable shot in history and the NCAA outlawed dunking because of him from 1967-76. In his prime, he could defend most forwards or centers from 15 feet in and score on anyone.

The banter over Michael or Kobe is about who is the greatest player not named Kareem. While Kobe emulated Michael in high school and the early years, he developed parts of his game that were far superior to Jordan’s.  Kobe’s footwork was better than anyone who set foot on the court before him. He was a better perimeter defender. (Imagine what would happen if Jordan tried to guard Kevin Johnson or Steph Curry?) His ballhandling was superior.  He could make a wider variety of shots – including left-handed jumpers in traffic – that Jordan never had to develop because more of his game was down on the post.

The argument will never be settled, and sadly, Kobe can no longer make a case for himself.