A year later, the loss of Kobe Bryant is still hard for many of us to deal with

Michael Rueda
kobe bryant michael reuda
Jan 26, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Fans gather at a mural of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna painted on the wall of Hardcore Fitness Bootcamp gym in downtown Los Angeles. Bryant and his daughter and seven other persons died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. on Jan. 26, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The day was January 26, 2020, when basketball fans and people worldwide heard the tragic news of the loss of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, Payton and Sarah Chester, Christina Mauser, Alyssa, John, and Keri Altobelli, and Ara Zabayan.

It was early morning on the West Coast, and everyone that heard the news could remember where they were the moment they heard. For those fans, the loss was like losing a good friend, someone you felt you understood, and he would understand you. Kobe Bryant was larger than life – he was the Black Mamba. He was beloved, a hero to so many. We may not know the loss like his family does, but we are still here thinking about him a year and a half later. 

In 1996, I can say I can really remember, with clarity, the games I watched. I can remember clearly when I was four and five years old and how I understood the game by seven. I rooted for Michael Jordan (my favorite player), but I was a Laker fan – drawn in by the purple and gold majesty that has become legendary.

When Kobe Bryant was drafted and entered the league as a wide-eyed 18-year old, he reminded me of Jordan. I told my older brother (he probably thought I was crazy at the time), who dismissed my comparison.

Kobe Bryant was my hero as a kid

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Kobe Bryant

I watched Kobe Bryant and was in awe when I saw him win the dunk contest his rookie year. I was excited I was happy. In 1998, I was sad when he shot two airballs and they lost to the Jazz. I remember the look on Kobe’s face, and it hurt me as a fan. In the 1998-99 season, there was a lockout. I was young, and I didn’t understand what it meant; all I knew was that no games were being played. It was a short season, and the Spurs swept the Lakers in round two, but the opening of the new Staples Center was coming. Not only that, there was Kobe. There was always Kobe Bryant.

From 2000-2002, the Lakers won three straight NBA championships, and it was Kobe Bryant and Shaq O’Neal or Shaq and Kobe; however, you looked at it. In 2000 they beat the Pacers in a series that went 4-2, but I remember game four with the Lakers up late and Shaq fouling out. It seemed as though all roads led to the Pacers tying up the series. It was at this moment that we realized that we had a superstar in the making. Kobe stepped up and grew up that night. He put the game away and the first person to congratulate him and recognize the feat was Shaq.

In 2001, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers won another title with a gentleman’s sweep over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Kobe Bryant was young, an all-star legend in the making and a three-time champion. In 2002 he was part of the team with some hard playoff wins. It didn’t come easy but a legendary series with the Sacramento Kings, and then a beating of the then-New Jersey Nets, led back to another Lakers ring. 

The years that followed the three straight crowns were tough. In 2003 the Lakers were beaten by the Spurs, and I can be honest. I shed tears as a young Lakers fan. I was 14 and was hurt watching it. The following year the Lakers defeated the Spurs, and it had a memorable shot made with 0.4 seconds left. I remember that moment the family was over for my mother’s birthday, and they were making fun of me because the Lakers were losing and then I ran outside going crazy when the shot went in. That team was built for a championship, so when they arrived in the Finals against the Pistons, it seemed like a foregone conclusion it would be the Lakers’ fourth championship in five seasons. That did not happen. The Lakers were ravaged through this series losing 4 to 1 and the Kobe Bryant and Shaq era ended. 

The next few seasons for Kobe Bryant were tough as well. There was a missed playoff season and two eliminations to the Phoenix Suns. Then came 2008, where the was a trade request, but Kobe stayed, and the Lakers were a threat and a mid-season trade for All-Star Pau Gasol that made the team championship level yet again. The Lakers made it through that season, and Kobe was the MVP, but the Celtics beat Kobe and the Lakers.

That series loss to the Celtics still hurts.

During that playoff run that would end in disaster, Kobe had the “eye of the tiger” once again; a snarl, an angry face, and the talk of the Mamba Mentality was evident. Kobe Bryant was a Laker diehard so he understood how hard it was as tears came down his face. The pain was eased a bit later as Kobe helped Team USA get back its Olympic gold medal that summer and in 2009, Kobe won another NBA championship. Kobe earned that title, and it was a moment I won’t forget. I jumped up as Kobe did and ran around, I was now 20 years old, and Kobe was still important to me.

The following season in 2010, the revenge manifested against the hated Boston Celtics. It was an epic seven-game series that ended in a defensive battle. Kobe Bryant did not have his best shooting performance, but he did pick up 13 rebounds and had the assist to lock the door on the game. As the time counted down, Kobe ran across the court. The game was over title number five and so sweet against the Celtics.

The legendary moment after Kobe stood up on the scorer’s table and he stretched his arms out and let out a yell. It was truly his moment, and he soaked it in. The next few years were tough as playoff exits and an attempt with a loaded team to run through the season, which didn’t happen. In 2012-2013 it was hard. The season was tough and when it seemed like the team hit their stride, Kobe tore his Achilles, and many wondered if he would return.

2013 was also a tough year for me, and that’s why I connected with Kobe at a different level.

Personal demons and how Kobe Bryant saved me from myself

One day I was fed up. I was 24 years old and had mental health issues, and it had gotten to the point of suicide. I had gone to a doctor’s appointment as I had issues and was informed that they had found lumps in my colon. I cried. I thought I was going to die. So one day, driving home, I said that was it I was going to end it and go away. While driving, I stopped at the light and knew it’s now; I was about to end it. At the light, my phone buzzed as I received an alert that Kobe was returning to play that weekend. He had overcome his injury. I’d be able to see him play again. That changed my outlook, I felt relieved and excited and my own problems seemed to take a back seat to the news. I no longer thought about ending my own life. There was Lakers basketball – and Kobe – to watch.

kobe bryant
Jan 26, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Caesar Mendoza takes a snapshot of a mural of Kobe Bryant in an alley near Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Bryant and his daughter Gianna and seven other persons died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the Lakers lost that game, but my favorite player was back. The guy I imitated growing up was back. This was the beginning of his last few seasons, but it helped change me. I had surgery a couple of months later. I was fine, and my personal life began to change. I got out of a terrible relationship. Later that year, I met the woman who eventually would become my fiancé and in October of 2015, I became a father. I had a little girl; I was now a girl dad. I looked back to that moment in 2013 and thought if I don’t get that alert, who knows what would’ve happened. 

The 2015-2016 season was Kobe’s last he penned a poem named Dear Basketball – A Love Letter to Basketball. A couple of years later, he would Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for it as he turned it into an animated film. At this point, Kobe was no longer the prime killer he had been, but he had moments that reminded you of how great he was. The closer his final career game drew near, the more it hit me that I had watched Kobe play for more than half of my life. I was now 27, and I remembered the days watching when I was 7 and 8 years old and now, as a grown man, he was retiring. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, man, I’m getting old.

I watched that last game holding my sixth-month-old daughter. I was jumping up and down, and, through those last few minutes, I felt like I was watching 2010 Kobe. When he made the shot to put the Lakers in the lead one last time in his career, tears came down and I jumped. My daughter was in her little seat with a smile. I picked her up and held her in my arms and pointed to the TV and said, that’s Kobe Bryant. I held her as the clock ran out and Kobe gave his speech. She fell asleep in my arms, and I held her close. I know she didn’t understand what we were watching at the time, but it meant the world to me to share that moment with my young child.

I have the picture of me holding her, and it’s one of my favorite pictures of her and me. In the years following his retirement, I saw all the things he was doing and how much he loved his daughters and I always thought if I met him that I would thank him, as I feel like he saved my life. I know it sounds a bit dramatic, but Kobe Bryant coming back changed my mood and from that day forward, my life changed for the better.

The day Kobe Bryant died was surreal and felt like only a recent shock to the system.

I was leaving the grocery store, having secured the necessary items to give my family a great barbecue that night. I put the groceries in the car, got in, started it, and backed out of the space when my phone rang. It was a call from my Dad.

“Did you hear about Kobe,” has asked.

“What do you mean,” I responded.

He responded, “He died.”

“No, it’s a lie. They do stuff like this a lot,” I said, chalking it up to one of these ridiculous social media hoaxes.

He told me it was on the Spanish-language channels, and I turned off the car stayed park and it popped up on my phone. Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash.

Tears streamed down my face and, a second later, a car hit me. The car hit the back of my car and drove off. I didn’t even feel it; I was heartbroken. I drove home crying and went inside and did not know what to do. As more news came in, the news was getting worse and I heard about his daughter Gianna being lost in the crash with him. I broke down again. I picked up my daughter and held her tight and just told her I loved her over and over again. It was one of those moments where life’s fragility is thrust upon you and you realize nothing is ever guaranteed. The loss of a father and daughter was a crushing thought. I prayed and cried for his wife and three other daughters and couldn’t fathom the pain and the loss they were feeling at that moment.

It’s been over a year and a half and the pain for me isn’t any easier. It still hurts. When my mind wanders to it, I get choked up. I don’t really have idols or people like that, but Kobe Bryant was one of the few I will call an idol. I tattooed the Mamba symbol on my left arm as that’s what he really meant to me. Kobe was a legend, and legends never die.

Rest in Peace, Kobe “Bean” Bryant, and Gianna Bryant Mamba Forever, and thank you for giving me so many memorable moments growing up. Thank you for having a positive impact on so many in this world.

And, thank you for saving my life.

Kobe Bryant Forever