At the age of 41 he was awaiting certain induction into the Hall of Fame after a brilliant career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He had already won an Oscar in his post-basketball work as a film producer, written one book and started another, and was a mentor to a number of NBA players.
What really put the sparkle in his eye, though, were a group of girls just entering their teenage years. They were the Mambas, and one of the greatest players in basketball history was one of the coaches.
“The girls are making incredible progress,’’ he told an interviewer last year. ``Just wait until you see us in six years.” Those six years were going to be magical. They had to be, because almost everything Bryant threw himself into turned out that way.
An Oscar for his film, maybe a Pulitzer for his book. And, of course, a lot of wins for his daughter Gianna’s AAU team. Maybe that’s why there was such a big smile on Bryant’s face as he sat courtside last June for season opener of the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces. He talked to an inquiring reporter about being happy in retirement because he could spend more time with his family, and about the things he saw on the court in front of him that day.
``Their skill set, their athleticism,’’ he said. ``It’s really a beautiful game to watch.’’ So, of course, was any game Dad played in. Buy a ticket to watch Bryant on the basketball court and you always got your money’s worth.
He won five NBA titles with a revolving cast of characters in Los Angeles, but it was more than that. He won over the town by being everything he could be every night he laced his sneakers up. A fan told the story on Twitter about going to the florist Sunday to get purple and gold flowers to take to the impromptu memorial that quickly grew at Staples Center. The women behind the counter gave him the flowers but refused to take his money.
``It’s LA,’’ she said. Now he’s gone, before we could witness what was coming next. And Los Angeles and the basketball world will never be the same. There are people in Pittsburgh who still tear up at the memory of the last day of 1972, when Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. There are people around the world who will grieve deeply just as long now that Bryant is no longer with us.
Clemente’s legacy lives on a half-century later, driven both by the memory of his spectacular play and the fact he died while on a humanitarian mission. His name also lives on in his native Puerto Rico, where buildings, parks and baseball fields are named after their hero.
Auto racing fans still talk about Dale Earnhardt nearly two decades after his death at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt’s death was widely credited with safety advances that have helped limit the carnage in auto racing in recent years.
Bryant’s legacy is more complicated, and not just because of the 2003 sexual assault charges in Colorado that some have never forgiven him for. While the basketball stuff is written in the record books, Bryant seemed determined in his second act in life to do more with his life.
He wanted to show the world he was more than just a basketball player. He wanted to erase the stain of what happened in Colorado nearly two decades ago That meant producing films and writing books, something Bryant couldn’t have imagined when drafted as an 18-year-old out of high school by the Lakers. It also meant being on the court with his daughter and her friends and telling anyone who would listen that girls can play basketball, too.
He had no interest in coaching in the NBA, but the WNBA surely intrigued him. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine Bryant — the father of four girls — not only being involved in the league but also finding ways to help make it far more successful.
We’ll never know how the second act would have played out. One thing we do know from the tremendous outpouring of grief upon his death is that Bryant was loved by many — and for many different reasons.
Smoke was still coming from the crash scene in the hills north of Los Angeles when hundreds of fans made their pilgrimage to Staples Center to lay flowers and show their respect. The Grammy awards were Sunday night at Staples, and in the rafters they lit his No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys for all to see.
There will be many tributes in the days ahead because there's grief everywhere. It will take time to mourn Bryant’s passing and figure out what his life meant to both a city and a sport. All of that can wait. All of that must wait.
For now, all that matters is that the Black Mamba is gone.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg