DAN BICKLEY

Kobe Bryant’s passing rare instance of Phoenix sports feeling empathy for LA

Jan 26, 2020, 7:00 PM

We often revel in the misery of Los Angeles sports franchises. We rarely feel empathy for Lakers fans.

This time is different.

The sudden death of Kobe Bryant, 41, changes the narrative. The Lakers have lost one of their true icons. Stunned and hollowed, they gathered in mourning outside the Staples Center on Sunday, bonded in communal grief. They no longer seem like the luckiest basketball franchise on the planet.

This is shocking. Nine people in a helicopter? In an aircraft Bryant utilized to circumvent gnarly Los Angeles traffic?

It’s impossible to fathom. Just like when guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash, his pilot flying straight into the fog, into the face of an unyielding mountain.

It’s a reminder that the rich and the famous are not immune to tragic accidents. We all know that. And yet it still seems unbelievable.

To wit:

Who would’ve guessed in Nov. 1991, when Earvin “Magic” announced that he was diagnosed with the HIV virus and retiring immediately, that Johnson would outlive the next great Lakers legend.

Kobe Bryant was a great basketball player. Obviously. He was a one-man show, the most compelling scorer to emerge following the retirement of Michael Jordan. He was a great villain, especially for fans in Phoenix.

And how strange that Planet Orange has lost two of its sporting nemeses in one month – Bryant and former NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Of all the contenders, Bryant was the closest thing to an Heir Apparent that Jordan ever had. Bryant paid homage to Jordan by studying and mimicking every facet of his game, right down to the speech patterns and the wagging tongue.

While writing a book on the 2008 Redeem Team, I grew to know Bryant just a little bit. And the more I talked to him, the more I liked him.

Once, before boarding Team USA’s plane following a publicity tour in New York, I asked him for a private interview. I told him he could find me in the back row of the aircraft.

Hours later, nearing the end of the cross-country flight, with the cabin lights dimmed and most everyone asleep, Kobe appeared out of nowhere.

He sat down. He answered every question. Even when I pestered him about all his Jordan habits.

That night, he denied parroting Jordan’s every move. He said the tongue wagging was just an innate family habit. And that if I watched his young daughter do any kind of physical activity, you would see that she wagged her tongue, as well.

Gulp.

RIP, Kobe. Peace to your family. And to Lakers fans everywhere:

We feel your pain.

Dan Bickley

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