If you’ve ever wanted to know exactly what larger than life looks like, come to LA.
The idea is etched into the fabric of the city like few other places could understand. Vast expanses of roads criss-crossing each other in their own, fraught symbol of the American Dream. The world’s biggest movie stars walking on the same streets where their posters stared down at the adoring masses. There’s a suburb that famously has its name splayed in gargantuan letters across the hills that surround the city.
There are very few more sure-fire ways to be larger than life than becoming a Los Angeles sports legend. Depending on how you want to count them, 13 professional sports teams have called the city home at one point or the other, with their stadiums so resembling coliseums that there is in fact one called the Los Angeles Coliseum. Famous actors get stars on a sidewalk in LA; famous sports stars get statues.
Growing up in LA in the 2000s, larger than life meant two words: Kobe Bryant.
He was everywhere. Banners. Billboards. Graffiti art. Car window stickers and license plates. Shouts of “Kobe” in every neighborhood basketball court after every made shot. Kobe’s signature Adidas, and then Nike, shoes the coveted footwear in the heart of flip-flop country.
Lights for a legend.— Mayor Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) January 27, 2020
Los Angeles City Hall lit in purple and gold starting at 8:24 p.m. this evening in honor of Kobe Bryant’s storied championship career and in memory of Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and all who perished in today’s tragedy. pic.twitter.com/1una7Aj98Z
And, really, he grew up with us. He was 17 when he arrived in the city, drafted by the Charlotte Hornets but immediately traded Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 straight out of high school. His rookie season ended with four infamous airballs in a playoff elimination game.
He bounced back from that, and three seasons later, he was an NBA champion.
The Lakers would win three in a row from 1999 to 2002, then begin to fall apart.
His time was not without its controversies, both on and off the court, but he stayed in LA, the only place he would call home in a 20-year NBA career. He would win two more championships, and end his career as one of the best ever to play the game, and the greatest to put on a Lakers jersey.
For many of us, Kobe was LA, an emblematic mix of talent, bravado, showmanship, and a sense of theater and drama.
He once scored 81 points in a game, then refused to ever rewatch footage of this performance because he would have gotten mad about the opportunities he missed to score more. In the same year (2006), he practically refused to shoot in the Lakers’ final game of the season, apparently in response to criticism that he was too selfish (but also as a message that the team couldn’t win unless he dominated).
His famous nickname, Black Mamba, was quite aptly borrowed from Hollywood, after he heard the snake described in Kill Bill as a deadly, quick-striking assassin.
After late-career injuries robbed him of his speed and explosiveness, he signed off on basketball in the most Kobe way possible: 60 points in his last-ever game, in 2016, the most by any player in their farewell game.
Pure Kobe. Pure LA. Larger than life.
Kobe Bryant called his daughter Gianna ‘Mambacita’ after his own court nickname, ‘Black Mamba,’ confident she would follow in his footsteps and become a professional basketball player https://t.co/aQns7v04Bu pic.twitter.com/GQneOH3H7P— Reuters (@Reuters) January 27, 2020
A poignant phrase on a day like Sunday, when Bryant’s life came to a tragic, horrifying end after a helicopter crash which also claimed the lives of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others. Gianna was a budding basketball star herself, poised to carry on her father’s legacy.
The heartbreak that his wife, Vanessa, and his remaining three daughters must be feeling is unfathomable. It’s echoed in the city they call home, where thousands of fans have had their hearts ripped out as news filtered through of the death of one of their favorite sons.
They gathered outside Staples Center in LA on Sunday, an impromptu memorial as fans rushed to pay tribute. A notice to stay away from the building the Lakers call home, as it was also hosting the Grammys a few hours later, was initially ignored. No glamorous, glitzy LA party could matter more than LA’s very own Black Mamba.
Kobe Bryant. Los Angeles legend. Bigger than the Grammys. Larger, even, than life.