(from Kobe Bryant's Twitter profile)
My grief today is not simply for a basketball star. My grief is for an icon, inspiration to innumerable young people, and for the absent father he will be now to his surviving daughters, and for Vanessa, his wife, who has stood by this man through so much and will now have to live in that shadow world of "widow of...." Mostly, though, my grief is for my son, because I feel his own grief so deeply, I cannot help but weep for him.
My youngest son was a freshman in high school when Kobe was a senior. To my surprise, Sam decided, upon entering high school, to play basketball instead of football. From the time he was a young toddler, Sam had been my companion in watching pro football every Sunday. By junior high, he was reading the sports section of the Los Angeles Times and had far surpassed me in his knowledge of sports.
He wanted to play Pop Warner football. I wouldn't let him. We still argue about that.
Kobe was his inspiration in high school, and Sam launched into playing hoops like he did when he played soccer, learning all he could as fast as he could and practicing constantly. I credit Kobe Bryant's work ethic for that.
And I remember a discussion I had with Sam that went on for a long time, one we returned to over a period of weeks. I can still see my young son standing in the doorway of my bedroom while I sprawled on my bed, trying desperately to catch a quick nap.
"Kobe might sign with the NBA."
"I hope he does not do that."
"Because he needs to go to college first--as all young men need to do."
"But if he has that opportunity, shouldn't he take it? I mean, he can always go to college. But the NBA? Right outa high school? C'mon. He's gotta take that shot."
I said no. I was wrong. Sam was right.
Thus began the era of basketball watching for Sam and I (and my daughter, when she wasn't working or attending school or chasing her own toddlers). I knew enough about football to call plays from the couch, but I knew nothing about basketball. I quickly learned that asking Sam questions during a game was a faux pas; so intent was he on every move of the players, he didn't have time for trivial distractions. At times, his intensity was... epic, for lack of a more fitting word. He was known to frighten the dogs with his sudden outbursts about fouls or bad calls by the referees.
And we loved Chick Hearn, with all his quirky yet knowledgeable passion for the Lakers and the game of hoops.
I lost my voice screaming at Sam's final basketball game in high school--that his team won--beating their biggest rivals--in overtime--by one point--from a free throw--shot by my son. My son. A member of our school board, Sam Knight, was there that evening, sitting behind my family in the stands. I turned around--I had to, with more parental pride than I knew what to do with--and said, "Mr. Knight, that is my son about to make that shot, and his name is Sam."
"It's a good name," he said, smiling. "Let's hope he makes it."
I will never forget that moment. My son looked back at the bench, at the man who had coached him for four years, then turned back to the basket and sunk the shot. I laughed, I wept, I screamed, and then couldn't speak for the next week.
Thank you, Kobe, for that moment. And for all those car rides to and from games when my son and I talked about nothing but basketball--not his homework or his behavior or why he was grounded again, but just his passion for the game. And for the times when I became the silent chauffeur to Sam and a handful of his teammates, rolling through McDonald's countless times to try to fill the bottomless pit stomachs of these teen boys who chattered and laughed and made fun of each other while eating Big Macs and fries and sipping sodas. For all those precious moments with my son, I thank you, Kobe. And, oh yes, for all the many, many similar moments I know you inspired between other parents and their sons and daughters--because you said you didn't have to have a son to continue your legacy in basketball, your daughter could do that just fine. Bravo.
(This image was taken from pbs.org.)