Remembering Kobe Bryant – A College Athlete Tribute
By Andrew Cooper
Kobe died: Two words I never expected to hear. It was absolutely the last thing I expected to hear from the toll booth operator on my way to the airport. “Yup, we just confirmed it inside. You know who Kobe is?” Confused, I responded, “Of Course I know who Kobe is.” Regardless of your sport, it was a sentence every athlete feared to hear.
The news defeated me. I was confused and sick, but I didn’t understand why. The last time I felt this way was a few months after my freshman year of college when I lost my dad. Then, a year later when we lost Tyler Hilinski. Now, many of us are experiencing grief for the first time. For me, old wounds are reopening because the gamut of grief hits like a sledgehammer.
I wasn’t even a Kobe fan growing up, but losing Kobe felt like I lost a brother/father/mentor. As a college athlete at Cal, Berkeley, it’s obvious to me that our college athlete community lost someone who held a deeply special place in our hearts. Even though I’m a distance runner from Seattle, Kobe still had a powerful impact on me. Growing up, as the son of a Russian immigrant, I was never a ‘basketball guy’. If I’m being honest, I never even watched Kobe play. The first time I heard someone say “KOBE” was in elementary school because they were throwing a ball of paper in the trash. It didn’t matter that I was a first-generation american; I still felt his presence.
Kobe changed our lives by inspiring us to chase our dreams. He touched our heart in ways no one else could by lighting that fire for us. And he did it all with nothing more than a basketball and a platform. I am writing this in hopes that this brings comfort, clarity, and guidance to our community. We are incredible people, and sometimes viewed as superheros, but life is hard right now.
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Fully committing yourself to your sport is an oddly isolating process. My dream was to become an Olympian, so I made sacrifices other people weren’t willing to make. I would wake up at 5:00, do my first run, go to class, and then go to practice. That was my life. I loved pursuing my sport, but it was hard. When I struggled to get out of bed in the morning for practice, I scavenged YouTube on a quest for inspirational videos. That’s when I met Kobe.
Searching for inspiration, I found it in Kobe’s voice. As a young athlete, hearing him describe his passion for sacrifice, grit, and hard work lit a fire I didn’t know existed. He inspired me with every word. I never cared about basketball, but Kobe inspired me to chase my dreams. Now, I realize he inspired generations to chase their dreams. Kobe was selfish with the ball — but this was the first gift he gave to generations of young athletes: a blueprint for success built on work-ethic.
You always want to outwork your potential. As hard as you believe you can work, you can work harder than that.Kobe
With this gift, we did what Kobe wanted us to do. We put our heads down. We worked. We worked. We worked. We worked. And for me, it worked. I achieved goals I never thought I would. I became a Division I athlete in the Pac-12. Nothing could stop me. Then, my Dad had a stroke and passed away.
I tried to rationalize it: “Why did this happen? My dad doesn’t deserve this. Why me?” I coped the way any athlete copes: work. I ran 15 miles as fast as possible. I thought that if I suffered enough on the run, I could alleviate some of his suffering. Unfortunately, I couldn’t run hard enough to save my dad. He wouldn’t recover, I was lucky to have one last opportunity to hold his hand before we lost him.
Eventually, Kobe’s gift came back. He helped me discover that I could achieve any dream I believed in if I was willing to work for it. Now, the work looked a little different. Instead of hitting 4:45 miles in practice, the goal was to show up to practice and not cry. The work was going to therapy. The work was having the courage to be vulnerable. The work was asking for help.
When the toll operator broke the news, I relived that grief. It didn’t seem real. Kobe was the superhero of my generation. Across the country, athletes were suffering as they tried to make sense of it. NBA players had games. College athletes had games. Then I realized my friends who played basketball at Cal had a game in a few hours. This wasn’t a typical basketball game though. It was at home against our biggest rival — Stanford . Of all the games throughout the year, this is the game no one misses. With a season high-attendance of 9,168 fans (including Jon Gruden) the stakes were as high as possible.
I tried to imagine how those guys felt. For many of them, Kobe was their Michael Jordan. Kobe was the person they grew up watching, studying, idolizing. Imagine telling someone, “I know you just lost your idol, but you need to perform right now.”
The moment was bigger than sports though. They honored Kobe by playing their hearts out. It was inspiring. Whatever Kobe gave them, they gave it back to this game. With 3.2 seconds left and the score tied, Paris Austin, a senior from Oakland was fouled on his way to the rim. All 9,000 people stood waiting for him to take his shots. He stepped to the line. Calm. Collected. He makes the free-throws cold-blooded to win the game. He embraced his mamba.
As fun as it was to win, there was still a dark shadow over the arena. It was hard to celebrate on a day when we lost an icon. Not just any icon, either. An athlete’s icon. Kobe’s gift to us was the belief that if we worked hard, we could achieve our dreams. On behalf of college athletes: Thank you, Kobe.
My next dream is to be honored one day for inspiring the next generation of athletes: to have a dream, sacrifice for it, and never ever rest in the middle.Kobe
With this platform, Kobe never stopped. By championing reform in women’s sports, mentoring anyone he could, and supporting our communities— he became an activist that transcended sports. He supported athletes unconditionally. He was committed to helping them realize their limitless potential in everything he did from his camps to his coaching to his writing.
Kobe defied and banished every single doubt anyone ever had of him, and he plowed through obstacles as if they were invisible. That there was something he couldn’t beat — the unpredictability of life — is something I will never fully comprehend.Jemele Hill
When I first heard the news from the toll-operator, the first person I thought about was Gianna. I’ve lost my father, but I was 18. I couldn’t imagine how painful that would be for her. I tried to imagine the kind of impact that trauma would have, thinking, “Now she’s destined to be the greatest female basketball player ever.” Then, the unimaginable happened. I started seeing “Rip Gi”.
Kobe, a strong right hook. Gianna, a stab in the heart. She was just sitting courtside with her Dad, having fun and talking game. It was one of the most beautiful displays of a father-daughter relationship imaginable. Gianna’s smile and passion for the game was already inspiring. Her fade away was already looking nice.
Kobe inspired Gianna and she inspired me. Gianna inspired me to be a better Big Brother for my little sister — to inspire her the way Kobe inspired Gianna. Kobe inspired generations. His achievements on the court will always be remembered, and rightly so, but it was the things he did with that platform that transcended his legacy. It was his relationship with his daughter. Losing both hurt my soul. Gianna won’t have the opportunity to fulfill her destiny of being an inspiration for all women.
When my Dad passed away, I went to school the next day wondering what would happen. What would I say when someone asked me how I was doing? Would I tell them about my dad? Someone asked and all I had to say was: “Good.”
I learned that you never know what someone is going through. I’d keep trying to rationalize it, but eventually, I learned that the only thing I could control was how I reacted to the situation. (Ryan Holiday, thank you for teaching me that). I seized the opportunity by trying to grow and be a better friend, son, and brother.
I always believed that my dad’s greatest gift to me was helping me believe my dreams were possible. After losing Kobe, it’s clear that my Dad gave me his greatest gift after he died. He gave me the gift of growing through death. As painful as it is to admit, I am the person I am because I endured and grew through the pain of losing him. Even though he’s gone, he’s still one of my greatest sources of strength.
Kobe left, but he gave us one last gift: An endless source of strength. To love and empathize unconditionally; To support others in their dreams; To be a great parent; To be a great mentor; To champion the change you want to see in this world. That’s how Kobe lived. That’s how we should honor his legacy. He gave us the gift to become mambas. Now — we have 24 hours everyday to make it happen. Mamba Mentality, Always.
This has been absolutely beautiful you guys. I can’t believe it’s come to an end. You guys will always be in my heart. What can I say? Mamba OutKobe
This one hurts. Do not cover up your emotions with your sport.
Please, I beg you, open up. Share your struggles. Let your support system support you. Family. Teammates. Friends. Coaches. Other athletes. Therapists and Psychologists. Please, I beg you, ask for help. Sports are hard. It’s okay to acknowledge how hard we suffer. Tell your teammates you love them. Please consider seeing a therapist for support even if you don’t think you need it. Grief is hard.
Here’s Kobe’s advice (from his letter to Gordon Hayward after his injury)
“Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk. When you wake up you will think it was just a nightmare only to realize it’s all too real. You will be angry and wish for the day back, the game back THAT play back. But reality gives nothing back and nor should you. Time to move on and focus on doing everything in your power to prepare…. Then focus on the recovery process day by day by day. It’s a long journey but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury were taken for granted. This will also mean that when you return you will have a new perspective. You will be so appreciative of being able to stand, walk, run that you will train harder than you ever have. You see the belief within you grow with each mini milestone and you will come back a better player for it. Best of luck to you on this journey my brother #mambamentality always. — Kobe”
About Andrew Cooper —
A current Division I athlete at Cal Berkeley, Andrew is a long distance runner on the track/cross country teams. An alumnus of Washington State University, he is currently a Master’s student studying the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education. He is also the founder and host of D1on1, a platform that empowers college athletes to share their stories.