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Dear Basketball

Dear Basketball.

That’s the title of the short film Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for. An Oscar! His 5 championship rings weren’t enough; Kobe also won an Oscar.

Since his untimely passing more than a week ago, I’ve found myself consumed by Kobe content, including but certainly not limited to watching Kobe’s short Oscar-winning film.  I’ve been reading articles. Listening to podcasts. Watching old highlights.

Through all the reading, listening, and watching, I started to wonder why I was so interested.  I’ve known for a long time that Kobe was an imperfect person – with reason to think he did something horrible to a young woman in 2003. And I grew up watching Michael Jordan in his prime, so I’ve also known that Kobe is an imperfect player.  Why, then, is it so hard for me to stop thinking about him?

For a few days, I thought it was because Kobe is the basketball star whom I’ve got the most in common with.  I was a freshman at Penn in Philadelphia when Kobe was a high school senior – and a phenom – at a local high school.  He played a game on Penn’s campus, and sold out the arena. Years after that, when he was at the peak of his powers, I found myself living in LA for a year, and went to a Lakers game.  I grew up as a Knicks fan, so attending that game while living in LA was the closest I had ever come to being a home fan cheering on an all-time great superstar.  As such, Kobe, simply by being right around my age and overlapping with me in both Philadelphia and then LA, was the closest thing I ever had to a “peer” in the NBA.

But, that explanation for why I couldn’t stop reading, watching, and listening to people talk about their memories of Kobe felt insufficient.  Kobe had 5 championship rings, which he won as one of the most dynamic players our sport has ever seen.  He also won an Oscar.  Me?  I’ve got a basketball blog that only 3 people read, and 1 championship ring which I won in high school by riding the coat-tails of 11 guys who were much better at basketball than I was. Plus, I proudly think of myself as someone who would never do anything so terrible as the best possible explanation of what Kobe did with that young woman in 2003.  No, Kobe and I don’t really have much in common.

There are other easy explanations.  Kobe’s death shows all of us the need to appreciate every moment and take nothing for granted.  His death touches all of us who are parents – especially those of us who are #girldads, because of his explicitly expressed gratitude for being blessed with multiple girls. But those don’t explain it, either. My father died when I was 19, and I already live my days fully aware that tomorrow is promised to none of us. I was already quite mindful of the need to spend as much time as possible with my kids.  Plus, I love my son as much as my daughter, so while I’m a #girldad I’m also just a dad.

As I’ve tried to make sense of why I feel such a need to consume yet more content about Kobe’s legacy, what I keep coming back to is basketball.  Dear Basketball.

Dear basketball has brought me multiple friends whom I wouldn’t have met had we not met playing basketball together, and has fortified multiple other friendships that otherwise would have probably only have been casual acquaintances. Since Kobe died, I’ve been in touch with many old friends whom I only speak to occasionally.

Of all the superstars we’ve seen, Kobe stands alone as the one who was most consumed by basketball, and was the most transparent about his love for basketball. Kobe gave his soul to the game, and he embodied the soul of the game, in a way that almost makes it hard to separate one from the other. Kobe never left his team to take an easier path to a title, like a few modern superstars did. In fact, Kobe all but pushed Shaq away so he could come closer to fulfilling his own basketball potential.  He never took less than his market value to give himself a competitive advantage like many modern superstars have – in Kobe’s mind, he was the competitive advantage.  He never engaged in “load management,” like many modern superstars do.  Rather, Kobe engaged in pain management, so he could most effectively play through the pain of multiple injuries.

At the same time, Kobe reached outward.  The stories we’ve heard since his death tell us that he used his platform both to teach and to learn; reaching out to people whom he thought could be helped by the wisdom he had acquired, while also reaching out to people whom he thought had something to teach him.  We’ve learned that Kobe reached out to countless women basketball players, and came to be viewed by many of them as an influential voice pushing for gender equality – even after having been credibly accused of rape.

In sum, Kobe Bryant, more than any other player we’ve seen, represented both the competitive spirit and camaraderie that are the ying and the yang comprising the soul of basketball. The more work he put into kicking ass on the court, the closer it brought him to his teammates, fans, and even opponents.  It was Kobe’s unique form of work-life balance; be so ruthlessly dominant on the court as to create a platform for building meaningful relationships off the court.

It’s not irony, it’s harmony.

Explaining how his Mamba Mentality applies to all of us, Kobe said “You have to dance beautifully in the box that you’re comfortable dancing in. My box was to be extremely ambitious within the sport of basketball. Your box is different than mine. Everybody has their own. It’s your job to try to perfect it and make it as beautiful of a canvas as you can make it. And if you have done that, then you have lived a successful life. You have lived with Mamba Mentality.”

That, I think, was Kobe’s greatest gift: making millions of people think they each had something in common with him.  It turns out that my initial instinct when he died – that I was upset because Kobe was the NBA star whom I had so much “in common with” – wasn’t incorrect.  In fact, it was widely held, by millions of people.  And that’s the point.

By showing us so much of himself, Kobe gave millions of people something they felt connected to; whether as a competitor, a fan, a #girldad, a teacher, a student, or simply as a human on a continual journey of self-improvement. In turn, his death has made us appreciate how much we have in common with each other.  During this time of extreme divisiveness, while we’ve got a leader who says “I alone can fix it,” and whose every impulse is to turn us against each other for his own personal benefit, Kobe told us that the thing which made him different – the Mamba Mentality – was available to each of us. Kobe took what made him distinctively different, and he shared it with us. The ying and the yang of basketball, extending far beyond basketball.

At the end of the day, I think that’s why this death resonates so deeply; it has given a divided nation an opportunity to focus on how much we have in common.  For starters, we’ve got shared memories of watching Kobe Bryant play basketball.  Plus, we’ve got injuries to overcome, mistakes to put behind us, and dreams we want to fulfill, all while building the most meaningful relationships with our friends and families as we are able to.

For helping us see, even if just for a short while, our commonality, I send a salute up to the Mamba In The Sky, and, with the deepest of gratitude, I say…

Dear Basketball,

Thank you.

 

 

 

1 Comment:

  • Anonymous

    I’ve read a lot on Kobe the last week and a half. No one nailed it better than that. Great work Rosie.

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For reasons I didn’t understand, as time has moved closer to the Draft Lottery on May 14th, I’ve found myself caring deeply about the Knicks, regularly hoping they land Zion Williamson, and thinking about how I want them to approach the offseason. This invisible gravitational pull to the Knicks is unfamiliar, because, after spending many years of my life as a passionate Knicks fan, I’ve been disinterested for just about 20 years, with a brief interruption when Carmelo Anthony made them relevant for a short while. I’ve been too busy for too long to find time to watch a team that brings me no joy. And the Knicks, for a long time, have brought me no joy. Yet, as the Draft Lottery has gotten closer, I’ve found myself caring. And May 12th helped me understand why.

The appropriate place to start this story is in 1984. I was seven.  And the Knicks were terrible.  I mean terr-a-bull. But, I loved them.

One of the quirky features of the house I grew up in was that my closet connected to my parents’ closet.  So, if you opened my closet door, you could take two steps and be in their closet, and then take two steps more and be in their room.  This quirk allowed me to get from my room to theirs without walking across the top of the staircase. This meant that if they put me to bed and went downstairs, I could walk into their room and turn on the TV.

I had some kind of strange inclination to inflict pain upon myself, so I would take advantage of this opportunity to sneak into their room and watch the Knicks, during a time when the Knicks were terrible.

And, in case I wasn’t clear the first time, I mean they were terr-a-bull.  Have you heard of Pat Cummings? Rory Sparrow?  Ken “The Animal” Bannister?  You haven’t?  That’s my point.

Terrible.

This intentional infliction of pain upon myself was destined to end badly, and end badly it did.  One night when I was watching, the Knicks got beaten so convincingly that I couldn’t help but cry hysterically.  It’s my earliest memory.  Literally.  The first clear memory that I have of my childhood is of a night when I snuck into my parents’ room to watch the Knicks, and the Knicks lost so badly that I couldn’t help but blow my own cover crying so loudly that my parents heard me and learned what I had done. I remember watching.  And I remember crying.  And I remember thinking “If I keep crying, they’re gonna hear me.  And if they hear me, they’re gonna know I’ve been sneaking in to watch TV. But I don’t care. The Knicks are just so terrible, and it isn’t fair. They need to know that it just isn’t fair.”

The next thing I remember was a few months later.  I was in my living room, watching TV in the daylight, not getting myself into any trouble.  It was May 12, 1985, and I was nervously watching the NBA Draft Lottery.  I remember when the Knicks were revealed to be the winner, landing the rights to Patrick Ewing.  I remember tossing the couch pillows up to the ceiling.  Remember jumping up and down. Remember screaming and throwing my arms up in the air.  Remember slapping my father five in celebration.

Twelve years later, on May 12, 1997, my father passed away.

Given that I have so few vivid memories from before May 12, 1985 – literally, just that night of watching the Knicks after bedtime and getting myself into trouble, and maybe one or two others – those two days are the bookends of my memories with my dad.  May 12, 1985 and May 12, 1997.

Lots of those memories – I mean lots – involve basketball.  Playing basketball.  Talking about basketball.  Arguing about basketball.  Watching basketball.  Specifically, watching Patrick Ewing and the Knicks.

I remember watching on Christmas Day at my aunt and uncle’s house, when the Knicks were down by 25 points to the Celtics.  I remember my uncle saying “if the Knicks win this game, I’ll eat my hat.” And I remember Patrick Ewing leading them to a victory.  Physically unable to eat his hat, but wanting to be a man of his word, I remember that my uncle said he’d take us to a fun Knicks game.  I remember going with him and my dad (and maybe my brother? He was 6 at the time, and I’m not sure whether he joined us) the night they retired Earl Monroe’s jersey. I remember watching with my dad during the crazy night of the OJ car chase. (My dad was the only person I knew who, as the OJ trial was happening, was regularly talking about the holes in the prosecution’s case.  But I digress.)

For the rest of my life, I’ll have exactly twelve years of memories with my dad: May 12, 1985 – May 12, 1997 (putting aside that one memory of my night spent crying about the Knicks).  Patrick Ewing is right in the middle of many of those memories.  I’d like to think I’d have great memories with my dad even if that draft lottery had gone a different way.  But, thankfully, we’ll never know.  What we know is that one moment on May 12, 1985 changed my beloved Knicks from terrible to competitive, and gifted me twelve years of good times watching with my dad.

Now, as we move on from May 12, 2019, the Knicks are as terrible as they’ve ever been.  My kids are aware of their existence, but they’ve shown almost no interest in watching with me. Starting to develop a skill for manipulation, they’ve very recently figured out that they can avoid going to bed at bedtime by saying “but Daddy, I want to watch basketball with you! Can I stay up for just a few more minutes watching basketball?”  (I don’t know whether to be proud, or angry.) But, in terms of real interest in watching basketball, there have been hardly any genuine signs. And any interest in the Knicks specifically has been almost non-existent. Until a few days ago, that is… when there were highlights of Zion Williamson on TV… and I asked them to come watch… and I told them that he might be a Knick one day soon.

And they said “That would be cool! He looks like he’s good, and it would be cool for him to be on the Knicks!”

Yeah.  That would be cool.

So, I’ll put on my Patrick Ewing shirt for good luck.  And I’ll cheer for the Knicks to get Zion.  And I’ll actually be disappointed if they don’t.  But, either way, I’ll eagerly wait for July 1st, caring about what the Knicks do with their cap space in a way that I haven’t cared about what the Knicks do for a very long time. And I’ll be disappointed if they don’t land two quality players who are capable of making them competitive.

I’m quite sure that I’ll find plenty of things to enjoy doing with my kids over the years, regardless of whether the Knicks win the Draft Lottery, or sign a superstar.  I don’t want to be overdramatic about it. The future of my relationship with my kids does not depend on the Knicks catching a break at the Draft Lottery, or being able to use their cap space on two stud players.

But, a competitive Knicks team to watch with my kids as they grow up?  Yeah.  That would be cool.

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