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Kobe Bryant's Death Creates Cultural Touchstone

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

It’s quite likely that Sunday’s news of the passing of Kobe Bryant will be this generation’s moment where everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

Even if you’re not a sports fan and you couldn’t distinguish a Laker from a baker, Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles is a marker that transcends social barriers.

To wit, the accident that claimed the lives of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, found its way onto every American platform as players from other sports, politicians and entertainers took time to pay tribute by word and social media.

Bryant burst onto the NBA scene in 1996 fresh out of a Philadelphia-area high school, coming home after spending time overseas with his father, Joe, himself a former NBA player.

While in Europe, Kobe Bryant learned to speak Italian, returning to the States as a polished, erudite young man with ambitions of greatness.

And Bryant’s game fulfilled those aspirations. He finished a dazzling 20-year NBA career as its third all-time leading scorer, bumped to fourth ironically Saturday night by LeBron James.

He was named to the league’s all-NBA team 15 times and its all-defensive team 12 times and his 81 points in a 2006 game are second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 in a 1962 contest.

Bryant, then in his early 20s, was the co-author of three Laker championships at the turn of the century, joining center Shaquille O’Neal as a seemingly immovable force atop both the NBA and the sports culture.

Ten years later, without O’Neal, Bryant led the Lakers back to the summit, winning back-to-back titles to close the first decade of the new century, further burnishing his reputation as an elite competitor, that reputation aided by Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012.

Along the way, Bryant created the identity of the black mamba, a personification of a poisonous snake, a fast-moving predator that strikes without remorse.

That persona would be realized in an often-bloodless pursuit of perfection. It was Bryant who reportedly orchestrated O’Neal’s departure from Los Angeles. It was Bryant who belittled teammates to round them into form.

And it was Bryant who was accused of sexually assaulting a young woman in a Colorado hotel in 2003. He was not charged in the incident and the case was settled in civil court. However, the stain followed him throughout the remainder of his career.

But then, the Kobe Bryant who grew into his 30s and early 40s, evolved, as so many do, especially those confronted with the end of their playing careers.

Bryant became even more introspective and thoughtful, even giving. He emerged as a patron of the arts, winning an Oscar and an Emmy for his animated poem, “Dear Basketball.”

Bryant also became a major proponent of women’s sports, particularly basketball, an affection fueled in no small part no doubt by the fact that he was the father of four girls. Indeed, he was supposedly flying Gianna, or Gigi, to a travel basketball game Sunday when the crash occurred.

Former president Barack Obama noted that Kobe Bryant’s second act was just getting started. The first one, though occasionally messy, was something to behold.

And that’s how I see it for this week. You can reach us via email with your questions and comments at Sports at Large at gmail.com. And follow me on Twitter at Sports at Large.

Until next week, for all of us here, I’m Milton Kent. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.