Mike Terry, a veteran Los Angeles sportswriter has covered teams in that city for three decades, but one of the most unique people he has ever seen was Kobe Bryant, who came to the L.A. Lakers as a teenage basketball phenom when others his age still dreamed of taking to a pro court. Now, a year since we lost the Black Mamba, he gives his reflection on what he meant to basketball and L.A. sports culture.
Not only have I been a sportswriter in Los Angeles, witnessing and covering high school, college, and professional athletics for both men and women, I am born and raised in the city — a lifelong Angeleno.
As a kid I was here when the Dodgers arrived and the Angels were born. I have seen the Rams come and go and come back. I saw the Raiders play here for 14 years. I was here when the Lakers arrived from Minneapolis; my dad took me to a couple of games in the early 1960s when their home was the Sports Arena. I can remember when Jack Kent Cooke bought the Lakers, created the NHL franchise Los Angeles Kings and built his own arena for them that became known as the Forum. (Both teams and the Forum were sold to Jerry Buss in 1979, and moved into their current home, Staples Center in downtown L.A., in 1999.)
As a reporter (and a fan), I have been blessed to view up close and connect with an amazing tapestry of athletic icons and Hall of Famers including Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Sandy Koufax, Reggie Jackson, Kirk Gibson, Rod Carew, Wayne Gretzky, Lisa Leslie, Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson … the list goes on and on.
I also got to see the phenomenon that was Kobe Bryant from his beginnings as a teenage wunderkind with the Lakers to his tragic death last January 26 in a helicopter crash that also took the lives of his second oldest daughter Gianna, 13, and seven others. It was a jolt to the order of the universe that seemed to create a portal for everything else bad that happened in 2020, and felt like one of the worst years ever worldwide for those of us who survived it.
The loss of Kobe Bryant at age 41 felt like an especially cruel blow for hoops aficionados whether they were Laker fans or not. He was a transcendent, generational talent; a lithe 6-6, 212-pound shooting guard and small forward who played 20 seasons and scored more than 33,000 career points. He was a 15-time All-Star, a regular season MVP, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and a member of five NBA championship teams, the last one in 2010. He wore two different Laker uniform numbers, 8 and 24; both are retired.
For Lakers fans, it was like losing a family member — the older brother, the fun cousin, the uncle who listens to your music. We felt he cared not only about being part of us but being one of us.
Kobe had a variety of sobriquets — B24, Vino, Showboat, Little Flying Warrior, The Eighth Man. The one that truly stuck was Black Mamba, a nickname fashioned from a character in the Quentin Tarantino “Kill Bill” films who was an assassin. It is also a highly venomous, deadly snake. Bryant considered himself a deadly assassin on the court, always ready to take the game-winning shot or defensively shut down the opponent’s best player.
There were nights he was unstoppable, like the one in 2006 when he scored 81 points against Toronto — the second highest single game total ever by an NBA player. But Kobe also cultivated an identity of toughness and relentlessness rarely considered when Southern California sports are mentioned on the national scene.
That endeared him to his adopted hometown. L.A. is often culturally mocked as “La-La Land,” an epicenter for pretty, plastic people, a location where the primary industries are entertainment and self-indulgence. Nothing gritty about the City of the Angels; style was its substance. As for sports, you couldn’t just win — you had to look good doing it.
Bryant had no problem with looking good. But he also wanted to be the best player ever — or at least the equal of Michael Jordan, considered by many the best ever. That takes work; hard and continuous work, countless hours of dedicated practice and preparation, which Kobe was willing to do every year he played.
Bryant didn’t simply extend or revamp the image of those 1980s “Showtime Lakers” of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy and Michael Cooper into a 2.0 version he envisioned. He couldn’t win all by himself even when he thought so. But as he got older, Bryant learned how to be a good (if still demanding) teammate. He embraced the role of being the face of the Lakers franchise when the team slid into a sustained period of mediocrity.
He certainly wasn’t perfect. Early in his career Kobe could be prickly with beat writers and teammates, and had famous feuds with fellow NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone. In 2003, a 19-year-old woman working in an Eagle, Colorado hotel accused Bryant — who was in Colorado to have knee surgery — of rape. Bryant, who had married Vanessa Laine in 2001, was charged with felony sexual assault. He eventually admitted to the “mistake” of adultery while saying the sex was consensual. Two years later he reached an out-of-court settlement on the civil suit filed by the woman, who decided not to testify and dropped the criminal case (especially after DNA evidence indicated the woman had sex with another person within 15 hours of the reported assault).
(Vanessa did file for divorce in 2010, but the couple eventually reconciled.)
Maybe that’s why fate made him the father of (four) daughters rather than sons. And Kobe evolved into a visible supporter of girls and womens sports. He and Vanessa established a foundation, and supported other charity groups like Make-a-Wish and Stand Up to Cancer.
Gianna’s death also remains deeply felt. Like her father, she was multilingual, already fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. She had an affinity for basketball and a similar desire to become as good as she could be. Gianna kept Kobe connected to the sport after he retired; he coached her travel teams at the Mamba Sports Academy (the name was changed to Sports Academy after Kobe's passing), and both were consistent spectators at women’s college and pro basketball games.
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Gianna’s dream was to eventually play for the University of Connecticut and in the WNBA, places where her name or reputation wouldn’t matter. She would have to prove she was good enough. Those who saw her in games played at the under-10 through under-15 levels were describing Gianna as “prodigiously talented.” Kobe himself told a newspaper columnist that his family name was “in good hands” with his daughter.
The vast sense of unfulfilled potential, in part, makes Gianna’s death hard to assimilate. The same could be said of Kobe. With all he accomplished, there’s the nagging notion he would be doing more to reshape ideas and perspectives. But now we’ll never know.
It’s been a year since they’ve been gone and it still feels like a fleeting moment. It’s the open wound that will not heal, one of those times everyone will remember where they were when they first heard the news.
Kobe may have been born in Philly. But he was an LA guy. It is why the Lakers drew on his Mamba identity for inspiration in winning a 17th NBA title in 2019-20. It is why Staples Center was covered in jerseys, tributes and makeshift alters for days after his death was confirmed.
Because, when it was all said and done about Kobe Bean Bryant, there was a substance to the style.
Mike Terry has written about sports since 1985 for the San Bernardino Sun, USA Today, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, and continues to contribute to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper in San Fernando, CA. He and his wife Gayle live in Los Angeles.
Read more of BET.com's tribute to Kobe Bryant on the third anniversary of his passing: