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Kobe Bryant: “The Black Mamba” Of Los Angeles Recoils

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Los Angeles, and the African Community, in particular, woke up on Sunday to the tragic death of basketball legend, Kobe Bryant who was killed alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna and other seven victims in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Southern California. Since the news broke, there has been a collective sense of grief around the famously vibrant city of angels. Staples Centre—the iconic building where Kobe established his immortal legacy as a basketball great for 20 years which coincidentally played host to the GRAMMY awards the same day—has been embarrassed with tributes from fans as yellow and purple flowers to match the Los Angeles Lakers’ famous jersey colours have flooded the arena.

As tributes continue to pour in from all sports and entertainment units the world over, what has stayed more entrenched amid this unfathomable tragedy is what Kobe’s life—and death—meant and still means respectively to the city of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Lakers legend, Kobe Bryant. Photo: Jason Miller/ Getty Images

On the basketball court, Kobe was not only the finest player of his generation, he transcended the abilities of such plays, heightened the emotional attachments to what it meant to hoop, and relentlessly sought a deeper drive to become the greatest his talents could allow. He won 5 NBA Championship titles, clinched the NBA Finals MVP twice, won the Olympic gold medal with the United States, was an 18-time All-Star, 15-time member of the All-NBA Team, finished as a 12-time All-Defense Team member, and to showcase his scoring prowess, won the season’s scoring accolades twice. For the Lakers, Kobe’s story was more profound: per Statmuse, he remains the numero uno in “points, games, wins in Lakers history (regular season & playoffs)” and equally remains the only player to have his two jersey numbers retired for the same team. He currently sits fourth—surpassed just a day prior to his untimely death by LeBron James—as the highest scorer in NBA history with 33,643. Juxtaposed with legends who donned the Lakers jersey such as Kareem Abdul-Jabba, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, James Worthy, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and others, shows how truly magical Kobe was.

Off it, he was equally obsessed with the knack for dedication, grit and perfection—as could be seen through his Mamba Sports Academy—and a passionate humanitarian much sold to the African experiences and needs. His foundation, The Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, has donated over $1 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He has been lauded for empowering younger players, becoming a mentor and an inspirational figure. Same way his endless stretches of brilliance would earn him an Academy Awards as well.

“Kobe was the king of Los Angeles,” my dad, Mr. Eleanya Ndukwe—himself—a decades-long fan of the Los Angeles Lakers told me tonight as I worked on this piece. “He went straight to the NBA from high school and connected different generations as he battled for basketball supremacy. So, the outpour of emotions is normal. The older generation went into retirement watching Kobe do magic every night in their homes. He dedicated his entire life to the Lakers and he won multiple championships for this city. He was truly the king and just the eeriness about today says everything about how much he meant to Los Angeles.”

A personalised account of just what Kobe’s life meant to Los Angeles has long excited and intrigued me. I needed to know more. So, I probed further. “Kobe went straight to the NBA from high school. He was drafted when he was just 17 and for 20 years, he represented the Lakers,” my dad told me. He mentioned how the Lakers got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 1998-1999 season, yet Kobe never backed down. “Kobe fought to become the best, he missed many game-winning shots that veterans on his team were shy to take, refused to stop taking them and he ultimately became the king of LA,” he observed with sincere anguish in his voice, narrating how much Kobe grew right before the fans and the entire city he was eternally betrothed to. “More than anything though, he connected different generations and continued the legacy of the Lakers being a championship-winning team with five rings.”

Earlier in the day, I had made the uncharacteristic error of breaking the tragic news of Kobe’s death to an older African woman most likely in her late 70s—albeit unintentionally, as I had assumed she would have heard it—and she literally went into shock.

“Kobe?” she asked as her hands went straight to cover her mouth, perhaps reflexively aiming to stifle the groanings bound to escape through.

“Yes, ma’am, Kobe” I replied. Most people out here rarely call Kobe by his last name—Bryant—even though it was the most iconic name emblazoned across the back of his two retired Los Angeles Lakers jerseys. As her fingers wouldn’t stop fidgeting and hot tears endlessly ran down her frail face, I could see how much Kobe meant not only to Los Angeles, but also to the Black community and perhaps, most importantly, to the older generation.

Kobe Bryant’s jerseys retirement ceremony in 2017. Photo: Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG

This idea is thus: there is the older generation eternally passionate to see the successes of those within the Black community as a portrayal of progress over the ages-long forces of systemic racism intertwined with social and economic impediments. They adore that certain innate ability to rise above these monstrous obstacles to attain generational prominence. Thus, the death of anyone in the Black community—timely or untimely, whatever such is defined by one to be—resonates far too deeply as a direct correlation to our humanity; our consciousness to hold each other up as one; to cry and wail over tragedy when it beckons; and ultimately, the power we wield as spiritual beings to continue to fight through these deaths.

Kobe Bryant was tragically killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Maria. Photo: Getty Images

Asked what Kobe’s death means to Los Angeles, a source told me she felt that the death of a prominent figure in the black community like Kobe Bryant should “bring us together.” She stressed that his death had connected us to the emotional pull of tragedy just as much as it united us in such an unfortunate turn of human event but also, she lamented how transient those feelings of solidarity and unity lasted. “I recently lost my aunt and she was 108. I couldn’t even cry because she lived a good life and also because of how good she was to me. Her death brought us all together: cousins calling each other, comforting each other, coming together from around the country for her burial. But just for a minute or two, and everything ended,” she said. “just like the death of the other kid from South Central.”

The person being referred to here was Ermias Joseph Asghedom known professionally and more prominently as Nipsey Hussle, the famed rap artiste, self-identified “gangbanger” and activist who was tragically gunned down barely ten months ago. His death would end up leading to a sense of collective national mourning and even a personalised letter from the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. While Nipsey’s death momentarily united both The Crips and The Bloods—the two most prominent gangs based in Southern California—it hasn’t solved the animosities and senseless deaths associated with their infamous acts.

“Many people knew Nipsey, at least within South Central LA, but this is different,” another source told me, noting that Kobe was already a global phenomenon before his tragic killing. “What we need now more than ever is to unite and be strong for each other during this time,” she concluded.

This idea about uniting with each other during tragedy is important but, somehow, I sense it does not—and should not—completely hold off the significances of what else we must do either. For the African community—just like it was with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, and in recent memory, Nipsey Hussle and now Kobe Bryant—death cannot be the barometer to measure our collective solidarity. The death of a public figure in the African community—or anyone of us for that matter—must stop being our sole unifying factor, like an adhesive for our socio-cultural fabrics. The need to have a conscious, active community eager to fight for our spiritual, political, economic, financial and social plights, must begin to be the yardstick to measure our renaissance.

Regardless, Los Angeles is in mourning. Los Angeles has lost its spiritual leader. The shock of his demise will reverberate for ages. Los Angeles will never be the same. For the very symbol of its sporting greatness, the soul of its most prestigious basketball side has been snatched by the claws of death. Continue to Rest in Power, Kobe. Your Mamba Mentality lives on. Forever.

Eleanya Ndukwe Jr. writes from Los Angeles. To engage me on Facebook, follow @Eleanya Ndukwe Jr.


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