ByJ ohn Feinstein
Photo by Harry How
When Arnold Palmer died in September 2016, it struck right at the heart of the golf world. When the Ryder Cup teams gathered the next day at Hazeltine National Golf Club to begin preparing for the competition, there was a pall in the air.
But the sadness stretched well beyond the world of golf. The president of the United States, Barack Obama, sent out a tweet of Palmer giving him a putting lesson in the Oval Office and wrote: “Here’s to the King who was as extraordinary on the links as he was generous to others. Thanks for the memories, Arnold.”
Tributes to Palmer poured in from around the world: from athletes in other sports, politicians, entertainers. Arnie’s Army couldn’t be contained by the narrow confines of one sport.
The same thing happened Sunday when word spread that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles. The sadness was even more palpable this time because Bryant was just 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was one of eight others killed in the crash. Palmer was 87 when he passed away.
But the common thread between the two of them was that both transcended their sport. Only a handful of athletes fall into that category. In golf, there are three: Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. In basketball, the list includes Bryant, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Baseball had Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. Football has had Jim Brown, Vince Lombardi and Peyton Manning. Tom Brady might be the greatest quarterback of all time, but the next time he says or does something memorable outside of football will be the first. Tennis had Arthur Ashe, hockey Wayne Gretzky. Muhammad Ali was more important worldwide than perhaps any athlete in history.
Until Sunday, the only ones on the list to die young were Clemente (in a plane crash in 1972 at age 38 while trying to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua), Gehrig (in 1941 at 37, of ALS) and Ashe, who died of AIDS after being given infected blood while in a hospital after a heart attack. He was 49 when he died in 1993. Ruth was 53 when he died of cancer in 1948.
On Sunday, the shock spread quickly when the world learned that Bryant had died. Once again, Obama tweeted. The current president, Donald Trump, also tweeted a tribute to Bryant.
It was no surprise when players, coaches and fans at all eight NBA games that were played paid tribute to Bryant. There were moments of silence, but there were also intentional 24 second violations—Bryant’s last NBA number was 24—to start games by both teams.
But the tributes went way beyond the basketball world.
In France, soccer star Neymar celebrated a goal by holding up two fingers on one hand and four on the other, then putting his hands together in prayer, before looking up and pointing to the sky.
At the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, one performer after another talked about Bryant and the tragedy of his sudden death. Bryant’s place in the entertainment world is real: In 2018, he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for a six-minute film he did called “Dear Basketball,” from a poem he wrote during the last of his 20 seasons in the NBA.
Like most players on the golf course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Classic at Torrey Pines, Tiger Woods was unaware of what had happened. Joe LaCava, his caddie, had heard the news but opted not to tell him until the round was over. Woods assumed the quiet that seemed to have fallen over Torrey Pines South had more to do with his inability to make any kind of final-round charge than anything else.
“I couldn’t understand why people kept saying, ‘Do it for Mamba,’ [Bryant’s nickname] Woods said after he finished his round and heard the news. “It’s unbelievable. The reality that he’s no longer here … it’s just shocking.”
Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant. Photo by Getty Images
Woods, who rarely talks at length on nongolf topics, went on for a while about his friendship with Bryant and how much he admired his work ethic.
Other golfers weighed in. Brooks Koepka tweeted that Bryant had been his “HERO” growing up and then posted a lengthy quote from Bryant that he keeps in his phone and said he looks at every day.
Harold Varner III posted a more pithy quote from Bryant: “We can always kind of be average and just do what’s normal. I’m not in this to do what’s normal.” Varner then added: “You were far from average. You set the standard for all athletes.”
There was never anything average or normal about Bryant. His father, Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, was the 14th pick in the 1975 NBA draft, 21 years before his son would be the 13th pick. Joe played in the NBA for eight seasons before playing in Europe for eight more years.
Kobe was born in 1978 and learned to speak Italian as a kid. He gave part of his Academy Award acceptance speech in Italian. He fell in love with soccer and basketball but found his niche in basketball when his family moved back to the Philadelphia area when he was 14. He was recruited by every college power before opting to go straight to the NBA. He was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets but forced a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers by threatening to go to Italy to play.
With the Lakers, he became a superstar: playing on five NBA championship teams, being selected as an All-NBA player in 18 of his 20 seasons and retiring as the league’s third-leading scorer, all time. On Saturday night, LeBron James passed him on the scoring list, and Bryant tweeted a tribute to his longtime rival.
“Continuing to move the game forward @King James. Much respect my brother.”
It was his last tweet.
Bryant’s life wasn’t without controversy. Most notably, he was charged with sexual assault in 2003—a fact that has been brought up since the crash and will continue to be mentioned as part of his legacy. The charges were later dropped, and Bryant later reached an out-of-court settlement with his accuser in a civil suit.
That story certainly damaged Bryant’s image. He worked hard to rebuild it: He and his wife, Vanessa, had four girls. Beyond that, though, Bryant became very involved in promoting women’s basketball—both at the WNBA level and the kids level, where Gianna was an emerging star.
Bryant was revered and reviled for his intensity and take-no-prisoner approach to basketball—again, much like the young Woods. Shaquille O’Neal, who would later become Gianna’s godfather, was traded from the Lakers because he and Bryant squabbled publicly and privately over Bryant’s frustration that (in his mind) O’Neal didn’t play hard enough. Bryant adopted the nickname Black Mamba after seeing a film called “Kill Bill” that included a character by that name—who was an assassin. Bryant always wanted to be thought of as an assassin on the court.
On Sunday, though, there was little talk about that side of Bryant. Most who knew him or met him remembered his charm and warmth, which seemed almost uniquely genuine.
Because I have rarely covered the NBA, I met Bryant only once. It was in Philadelphia during the 2001 NBA Finals. I was there doing several interviews for a book on the NBA’s most infamous moment, a 1977 in-game fight between Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich that almost killed Tomjanovich.
The Lakers had just arrived, and I passed the players in a hallway near their locker room. Bryant gave me the kind of polite nod you give someone who appears familiar but who you don’t know.
I was about three steps past him when I heard a voice. “John. Hey, John.”
I turned and saw Bryant walking toward me with a big smile on his face, hand extended. “Kobe Bryant,” he said—as if I might not know who he was. “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed The Last Amateurs. Finished it on our last trip.”
To say I was stunned is a vast understatement. The Last Amateurs was a book I’d written that had come out in the fall on basketball in the Patriot League, which included no players at the time who would ever play in the NBA. To this day, I promise you the number of professional athletes who have read it can be counted on one hand.
Kobe Bryant was one of them.
But the story I heard Sunday—among hundreds—that said the most about Bryant came in a text from Robert J. Geoghan, who has run the McDonald’s High School All-Star game for 43 years—a game which almost every great basketball player played in as a high school senior. In all, more than a thousand players have taken part.
“In all the years I’ve run the game,” Geoghan wrote, “I’ve had one player come up afterward to thank me for inviting him—Kobe Bryant.”