The only time I remember crying over a basketball game was back in 2004.
It was sometime in June, and the Los Angeles Lakers had just been defeated by the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, four games to one, in one of the greatest upsets in Finals history. I was 11 years old and in my parents' room, watching the dying seconds of Game 5.
I remember going outside the house to adjust the television antenna and fix the bad reception, just so I can watch uninterrupted. It was a pain, but it didn’t matter.
Every time I fixed the antenna, every time the picture on the small screen became clear, the Pistons’ lead swelled to 10 or 15 points. I waited for the Lakers to mount a comeback, but it never came. I don’t exactly remember when the tears started to fall, but they did.
The loss didn’t really sink in until the television showed Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, my favourite NBA player, sitting on the bench as the Pistons’ celebrations began. I had seen the Lakers lose before, but never in this manner. That was my first brush with the idea of basketball mortality. That Kobe, no matter how good he was, can still lose. Then my father saw me weeping and he said that none of it made any sense to him. That I was crying not because I failed a test, or that I skinned a knee, or got into a fight with a classmate. I was crying over a basketball game.
“Why are you crying over him? He doesn’t even know you,” I remember him saying, and he was right.
Kobe didn’t know who I was. I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles and had never seen the Lakers play live. I was a student in far-flung Cavite, a province in the Philippines, and was about to enter the sixth grade. How can a guy who shoots a ball through a hoop have such a profound impact on the life of a kid thousands of miles away?
Today was a painful reminder not just of basketball mortality, but mortality itself. Now living in Manila, I was getting ready for work as a sportswriter when I found out that Kobe was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
While the whole world is mourning the loss, I’m sure it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Filipinos are one of the most affected by the tragedy. The devastation we feel may even be on par with the Angelenos who paid tribute to Kobe outside Staples Center as the Grammy Awards were taking place. Local TV and radio stations have been talking about the basketball legend’s death the whole day, Filipino athletes paid tribute to him, and social media is filled with regular people sharing their own memories of Kobe, who visited our basketball-crazed nation six times. Most of them are millennials, like me, who grew up watching Kobe play during his 20 years with the Lakers. We are the generation of Kobe, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki. All of those names are now retired, and now one of them is gone forever.
Growing up in the late 1990s, conversations about the NBA mostly centred on Michael Jordan, and rightfully so: he would go on to win six titles and elevate the league to unprecedented heights. But when Jordan announced his second retirement, a void for who the face of the league will be had to be filled. Every young player who could score in bunches, dunk, and stick their tongue out while doing it was branded as “The Next Jordan,” including Kobe. Some players shied from the comparison, but he never did.
Kobe always seemed to know who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do: he was going to the NBA straight from high school, play for the Lakers, and win championships. And he did, while doing so much more. As a short, bespectacled kid who struggled with his own confidence, I gravitated toward him because of his lack of fear and failure — traits others might say I lacked.
It also helped that Kobe embraced Filipinos and our culture whenever he visited the country. There was even that time he danced the tinikling and wore a Barong Tagalog (traditional Filipino men’s shirt). And it wasn’t mere obligation to the league or his sneaker deal that made him come back to the country — it was love.
“I enjoy sharing the game of basketball and you know, Manila, of all the places that I've travelled, this has so much passion and enthusiasm for the game. That's why I love coming back because I enjoy being around kids. I enjoy being around people who have the same passion," he said during his 2011 visit to Manila.
But more than basketball, it’s Kobe’s work ethic that will stay with me forever. The Mamba Mentality, he called it. For him, the hard work that results in success is part of the dream, and his preparation for the games, the long hours at the gym and in film rooms studying games, is something he relished.
During his jersey retirement in 2017, he said, “those times when you get up early and you work hard. Those times you stay up late and you work hard. Those times when you don't feel like working. You're too tired. You don't want to push yourself, but you do it anyway... That is actually the dream.”
As a Filipino who commutes daily and works in a demanding industry, it hit home. Seeing Kobe embrace not just his success, but every aspect of his craft, even the less glamorous ones, was inspiring. He enjoyed not just the result, but the process and journey of getting there. Doing the same thing over and over can get tedious. “A dream job is still a job,” a character from one of my favourite comic books once said. But for Kobe, it never seemed like it.
Towards the end of his 20-year career, when Father Time had robbed him of most of his athletic abilities, he said that he still saw the beauty in the pain of losing. And during his retirement speech, he singled out the fans who supported the Lakers during their difficult years. Kobe enjoyed success, but he understood that failure and the journey are just as important in building character.
The only time I saw Kobe was back in 2013 when he was in Manila for promotional events. I was one of many fans hoping to see a glimpse of him. He had recently torn his Achilles, so I was never going to see him play. He was followed closely by security but still managed to smile and wave to us as he walked past and fulfilled one media obligation after another. It turned out to be the only time I would ever see him. But that was enough. Seeing his successes and failures, his hard work, and how much he enjoyed every aspect of it, resonated with me and the millions of Filipinos who grew up watching him. We never met Kobe, but his death was like losing a dear friend.
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