My brother Brad wasn’t always my best friend. Growing up, as the two in the middle of the Four Downs Boys, we never really had much in common. He was always cool, I never was. He was a great athlete, I was awful. It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school, Brad’s senior year, that we began to get along. I had mostly grown out of my pre-teen awkwardness, we’d begun to interact with some of the same people, and he had to drive me to school every day in his 1979 Chevy Malibu. By the time he moved to Colorado for college and I moved to Wisconsin for my dad’s new job, we had become friendly.
We became best friends when he moved back into our house during my junior year of high school. I was the only person that he knew in the whole damn state, so he was forced to hang out with me. And hanging out with Brad meant watching basketball. NBA basketball. Lakers basketball. And while many (most?) Lakers fans gravitated towards Shaq; the Downs Brothers fell in love with Kobe Bryant.
Growing up in Iowa you find that you must justify your professional sports fandom. Some teams make sense, geographically, and you’re never questioned. Some people pick one city and adopt every team. But when you’ve got a seemingly random assortment of favorite teams, you better have a good story for why you picked them. Why do I like the Bears? We used to go to Training Camp in Platteville while visiting my grandmas in nearby Potosi. Why do I like the Giants? My dad was a young Willie Mays fan in the 50s and he raised me right. But I never needed a story for my Lakers fandom. I only needed a word: Kobe.
When Brad and I would stay up late at night to watch Lakers games in our parent’s basement in Wisconsin, we were doing more than watching basketball. We were creating a friendship that’s lasted two decades and isn’t slowing down. We’d watch this kid, just a few years older than us, begin to dominate the most elite sports league on the planet, and we were in awe. We’d talk about him, we’d defend his greatness. For years after we both left that basement, no matter how far away life took us from each other, we’d call each other on those nights. Those nights that Kobe did what Kobe did; make the world stop and watch.
We watched Kobe go from a kid to a man, and the fact that we’ve now seen his entire life is a tragedy. I loved him as a cocky kid wearing #8 and apologizing to nobody because I was a cocky kid too. I loved him as a more mature player wearing #24 because I’d matured and appreciated the way he carried himself. I loved him most as a man and father and creator, I couldn’t wait to see what Kobe had left to give the world in his films and interviews and daughters.
It hasn’t always been easy, being a Kobe fan. There were years, many years, where I lost every argument I got in about Kobe. I’d say he’s the greatest of all time, knowing he didn’t have the career of Jordan or the skills of LeBron. He didn’t always make it easy, either. Trade demands, refusal to shoot, that cockiness and brashness; and that’s just on the court.
Then there’s the giant, mile-high elephant in the room. I don’t know what happened in that hotel room in Colorado all those years ago. I can say for sure that how I reacted at the time is different than how I’d react now. The world would react differently today. I can only hope the wounds have healed and peace has been found for the people involved. My love and support for Kobe never wavered; maybe it should have. I didn’t know Kobe or what was in his heart, but it seemed like he grew and became a better man and husband and father, and I’m proud of that.
I was sitting next to Brad watching the Lakers win the 2009 NBA Championship. It felt like we had won something too. I know to most fanbases a 7-year title drought is a ridiculous thing to worry about, but it felt like vindication for Kobe fans everywhere. He’d come through the hard times and was back on top. And this time, for the first time, it felt like he fully appreciated it. I loved watching him celebrate that title, and the one a year later. I felt like I was there with him, on top of that scorer’s table, on top of the world.
The night Kobe played his final game was the last time that Brad and I called each other after a Lakers win. Sure, we’ve talked a lot since then about LeBron and AD and all that’s happened; we’ll always be Lakers fans, but it will never be like it was. Watching Kobe carry the team, one more time, to an unexpected win. Watching him shoot himself out of another first-half slump. Watching him take every shot, wanting him to take every shot, wanting this moment to just continue forever, for him to never leave that floor. The floor in the arena that he built, where his five championship banners are displayed, where two (TWO!) of his jerseys hang from the rafters, where a statue will stand for people like me to make pilgrimage to. It was glorious. And now, fewer than 4 years later, his story has come to an end.
I’m sad today. I’ll be sad for a long time. I’ll be sad when I introduce my kids to Kobe via YouTube highlights and stories, or when we talk about his impact on the game, or the next time the Lakers win a title. More than anything, I’ll be sad every time I think about what else he had to offer the world, what the next 40 years would have brought.
Tonight, I’ll hold my kids a little tighter as I put them to bed. Then I’ll call my best friend to talk one more time about our favorite athlete.