By Annie Krall
I don’t watch basketball. I don’t follow basketball. I don’t know the rules of basketball. All I know is outside the arc means you get one more point than usual, and Kobe Bryant was a legend.
I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one who saw Bryant as more than a sports figure and his Lakers as more than a team once I touched down in Los Angeles two weeks after his tragic death.
Everywhere I turned, from the streets of L.A. Live to the Riviera Country Club, the numbers “8” and “24” stood proud as if arithmetic required no other numbers.
It was magnificent.
But why had he transcended sports and infiltrated into the very fabric of the second-largest city in the country?
To even begin to understand that question, I had to go to where it all began: Staples Center. The home of the Lakers held the key to cracking the Kobe code.
On a warm Monday night in L.A., this word reverberated off the walls of the massive basketball arena where the Lakers were preparing to tack on another victory to their already impressive 39-win season. Their adversary was the struggling Phoenix Suns, who by comparison, were in 12th place in the Eastern Conference.
Walking into the stadium, the squeaky floor sounded like a cacophony of high-pitched shoes harmonizing in tandem with the beat of a ball striking the court. It was enthralling.
For someone who had never understood all the hype, it was hard not to be struck by more than just the sound of heated competition. The bright lights split through the arena’s darkness. It took little imagination to see the dazzling arena transformed into the home of the Grammys as it had been just two weeks ago.
Hanging high and proud over the lively athletic entertainment were those two numbers again, 8 and 24. They were the only two jerseys on display at the uppermost point of the center symbolizing Kobe’s retired numbers. This space was typically reserved for all Lakers retired numbers but to show solidarity all other numbers had been removed since Kobe’s passing. The two jerseys were suspended silently and barely noticeable by fans sucked into the game.
A game that was quickly shifting in favor of the Lakers by the end of the third quarter with a score of 90-75. These two apparel mementos of the man who wore both of them spoke to a player who was very different at certain stages of his life.
Scoop Jackson, veteran ESPN writer who covered Kobe for years, described the icon best as someone who early in his career “looked at every player on his team as the enemy.” Jackson described Kobe as being difficult to get along with but after having kids, some of his selfishness was removed.
Five daughters seemed to make all the difference.
For the 2020 Lakers team who has been winning with rock stars like LeBron James and Dwight Howard, the team is still fighting for championships just as much as they were before Kobe retired in 2016. Four years after his retirement, his caliber of play is being honored on the court that now has his numbers marked on its floor.
“Nobody in the league can guard Anthony Davis,” said Suns coach Monty Williams after a disappointing 125-100 loss for his team. Having basketball titans like Davis dribbling alongside James and Howard makes it difficult to combat. It was a tough but predicted loss for the Suns.
At the end of the day, the Lakers are winners.
It’s a mentality stitched into the purple and gold jerseys no matter who puts them on. Kobe was a man elevated to mythical status because of how impressive he was on the hardwood in those colors.
It’s not about the number of points on the board. It’s not about how much he was loved and adored. It’s about his legacy and what it all meant: dedication to a sport and his family. He wanted to be able to write his own story. The best way he knew how to do that was to keep his head down, work harder and win more.
What I can say is walking the streets of L.A. meant a lot more to me than I ever expected. One of basketball’s greatest legends made an impact on someone who couldn’t tell you the difference between goaltending and a technical foul.
Let us not forget the streets in February 2020 sprinkled with purple and gold and the numbers 8 and 24. A fashion statement that otherwise would be exceedingly too bold. I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but someday the streets won’t be so vibrantly loud.
Now, I have no doubt that the Lakers will keep honoring their fallen legend by doing what he loved best: wining championships.
Many Los Angeles fans and those across the globe will still don the daring color combination regardless of which sports season it is. Being able to strap that audacious attire on means respecting a team who has permanently etched their name in the history books.
My generation will teach the next that the name “Kobe” meant “skill”.