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Kobe will be immortalized by fans and haters alike after his death

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

There’s never been an NBA superstar with a career arc as complicated as Kobe Bryant’s.

As reports and confirmations of a helicopter crash killing the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Lakers star, his daughter and others spread on Sunday afternoon, it left the basketball world — those who loved him and hated him — stunned.

For a Phoenix kid who grew up watching Kobe become Public Enemy No. 1, just writing this with shaking hands feels shocking.

That’s probably because Bryant’s aura always seemed so immortal, maybe a reminder that we’re all that vulnerable to terrible accidents.

Bryant’s basketball career started normally enough. He was drafted out of high school 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets and traded immediately. He struggled his rookie year with the Lakers.

As he grew in fame, it became clear his failures and successes would all come with their drama. Kobe shared a locker room with maybe the most dominant physical presence the NBA has ever seen in Shaquille O’Neal. They won three titles together (2000-02) despite the locker room being much too small for both of their egos. Somehow, Bryant won in the end — the Lakers traded Shaq to Miami.

Kobe’s villainism grew and evolved.

The 2003 arrest on sexual assault charges against Bryant — he claimed he was guilty of adultery — gave his detractors ammunition.

On the court, Bryant tried to take Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to the promised land in the mid-2000s, running into Phoenix twice during that span. Suns guard Raja Bell’s clothesline of Bryant in the 2006 playoffs spoke to fans here, probably elsewhere, too. Bell said he really did hate Kobe.

By 2010, Phil Jackson had been coerced back to coach the Lakers. They were locked up with the Suns, 2-2, in the Western Conference Finals. Seconds were left to inbound the ball with Game 5 tied, 101-all, when Bryant threw up a hero shot.

It was an airball. Metta World Peace grabbed the offensive rebound and tossed it in for a game-winner that defined what became a 4-2 series loss for Phoenix, its last chance to make an NBA Finals series in the Steve Nash era. Of course Kobe’s failures worked out so perfectly for Kobe, who won his fifth and final title that year.

The Black Mamba’s image, even in the eyes of Suns fans, evolved late in his career.

After that 2010 finals run, Bryant openly recruited Bell to join him in Los Angeles.

Kobe and Shaq admitted their differences could have been dealt with better. They made up.

During his farewell tour in 2016, Bryant opened up about his rivalry with Phoenix, something he described as a “love-hate” relationship. He shared a moment with Devin Booker, the upstart shooting guard who plays in Bryant’s Mamba Mentality mid-range image.

“Be legendary,” Bryant wrote on a pair of shoes that he gave to Booker after that game.

Bryant’s off-the-court persona changed over time, too. It was still god-like.

Who else could get away with filming a commercial with egomaniac Kanye West and telling Kanye that he can do better?

Who else could go from being accused of crimes against a woman to becoming one of the most avid fans of women’s hoops, coaching up his own young daughters and championing the WNBA?

Bryant, an obsessive basketball player in his prime, took his goodbye tour by smiling at opponents and handing the next generation messages of support.

He somehow looked just fine stepping away from the game in 2016, putting his focus toward projects like ESPN+’s “The Detail,” a show meant to teach the intricacies of the game with a little artistic splash.

There are too many complexities to tell you how to feel about Bryant.

He was hated by none inside Los Angeles and many outside of it. He was loved by all in L.A. but many abroad. He was a rock-star globally, especially in China, where he couldn’t walk without an entire entourage.

There are references of him everywhere. Just Saturday night, Rush Hour 2 was rolling on my TV (“Move aside, Kobe,” a woman yells at Chris Tucker as he climbs a staircase in China).

It’s here where we get to Kobe as a basketball player.

He was unabashed in his desire to dominate. In the pre-analytics era, it drew debate. If he’d come around now, there’s no doubt he would play the same exact way. Or would the older Bryant think the younger Bryant have changed?

I don’t think Mamba’s legacy is about the numbers or the titles or the fights with Shaq or his rape case.

It’s how he was a legend and hero and a failure and a villain and a person who tried to be better and hopefully best.

Bryant always tried to be better — as a player and human being — and I think that’s the most important part of his story.

The worst part of the news is what his family is going through. Bryant lost his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in the helicopter crash. There are other families involved, too.

What’s left is a heartbreaking reminder about life and death. I think that’s what my wife, also named Gianna, told me as I stared at this laptop confused about why tears were welling up.

Bryant’s immortality will be remembered.

It will be remembered by fans watching every cocky post-up fadeaway taken henceforth, or every time their friends go down the rabbit hole about whether Kobe or Michael or LeBron is the greatest ever.

It will be remembered in guys like LeBron James, who surpassed Kobe to become the third all-time leading scorer in the NBA just hours before Bryant’s death.

“I think the most important thing about my career is being able to pass it on and have the next generation of athletes embody the same spirit and learn some of the same techniques and have that same mindset,” Bryant said in his last visit to Phoenix. “That’s the coolest thing to me. Playing against Booker tonight, I mean, he went straight to my move the first time he caught it. ‘You don’t have to beat me on my move, man!’ But it was great to see, it was absolutely great to see because I remember I did the same thing with MJ.”

Be legendary: Bryant is and will always be.


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