I’m from Los Angeles and have been a Lakers fan for as long as I can remember.
The Great Western Forum was 15 minutes from my house in Inglewood, California. This is the arena where the Lakers won five championships in the 1980s.
It was Showtime. Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Scott – these were the names associated with the fast-paced style of basketball that attracted casual fans and celebrities alike.
There was no bigger star than Magic Johnson. To this day, he is Los Angeles.
Most Lakers fans I know can remember exactly where they were when he announced his HIV diagnosis. I was a middle school student at Celeste Scott Christian School, and it was the last part of the day.
He was beloved. I believed no individual could ever reach his level in Los Angeles. Until Kobe Bryant.
Confession: I wasn’t happy when we got Kobe Bryant in 1996.
The Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant with the 13th overall pick and immediately traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac. As a naïve teenager, this bothered me for two reasons.
First, I like Vlade Divac. I watched him develop over the years and was confident in his ability.
Second, Eddie Jones was my favorite Laker at the time, and I didn’t feel we needed help at shooting guard. Plus, he was a 17-year-old high school student. I didn’t believe anyone at his age could contribute on an NBA roster.
My thoughts felt validated during the second round of the 1997 playoffs. An 18-year-old confident Bryant shot four airballs in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The crowd was laughing and cheering for the Utah Jazz. I was at home livid! “This is why we should not have drafted him!”
However, from that point on, Bryant went to 18 All-Star Games. He was a scoring champion, the league’s Most Valuable Player, All-Defensive team, five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist. He is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Needless to say, my anger for those airballs quickly changed to cheers of admiration. Kobe was now my favorite Laker, and I cheered tirelessly for him.
Today, the public pays their respects to this basketball legend. We still feel the pain of his tragic death on Jan. 26, 2020.
Kobe has been one of us since 1996. Just as Magic Johnson has been, Kobe is Los Angeles.
Since his death, I have read and heard the same questions, “Why do people love Kobe so much? What did Kobe do to deserve this outpouring of emotion?”
Well, I can’t speak for the millions of Kobe Bryant fans out there. But I can speak for me.
I admired Kobe. And I did so for two reasons.
First, he is the only basketball player I have ever seen that airballed four times in the fourth quarter and overtime in a game. And not only was it a game, it was also a playoff game. I’ve never seen it before, and I probably won’t ever see it again.
For most, it would have been the defining moment of a career. Mark Sanchez played in the National Football League for years, but most football fans remember the “butt fumble.”
Bill Buckner was an All-Star in Major League Baseball. But fans only remember the ball going through his legs.
It is rumored that Kobe left that playoff game and went straight to the gym to shoot most of the night. He was determined to use that failure to propel him to greatness.
That’s an admirable trait and one that people connect with. In fact, I want to be the type of person that uses every failure and shortcoming to push me further.
Now, I rarely think about the 1997 playoffs. I think about the five championships Kobe helped bring to the city.
Second, his high-profile transgressions and subsequent repentance offer a story about grace and redemption.
In 2003, Kobe was accused of rape. These were serious allegations, and Kobe would eventually have to publicly admit to adultery. The case tarnished his reputation.
Every time he went back to Colorado, the venom was in the air. The case was thrown out when the young lady refused to testify. Bryant never admitted guilt, but there was an out-of-court settlement and an apology given.
When the news of his death reached the world, there was still basketball to be played. In Denver, the people chanted his name.
Seventeen years ago, Kobe was perceived as the villain and victimizer, one who took advantage of his celebrity status and raped a young girl. Maybe time heals all wounds. Who knows?
Kobe’s comeback from these allegations inspires me. I’m not here to pronounce guilt or innocence. However, it is clear this incident changed his life.
He was a better person because of what he went through. And people saw it.
The public accepted his apology. We watched him become a wonderful husband and loving father. We knew he was a changed man.
As a Christian, I love Kobe because he represents grace. He is one who fell short on the basketball court and in life. Yet, he was forgiven. He got another chance.
Kobe’s life reminds me that God gives us second chances; hopefully, we can be like Kobe and take advantage of that gift.
We celebrate Kobe’s life today. But we must also celebrate the God of a second chance.
Senior pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Burlington, New Jersey. Jones serves on the Good Faith Media governing board. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from the Morehouse School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center, and a Doctor of Ministry from Beeson Divinity School at Samford University.