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What Kobe Bryant could have accomplished in retirement

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Kobe Bryant’s death leaves his story unfinished.

Kobe Bryant plays defense for the Lakers.
We’ll never know Kobe Bryant’s power in retirement.

We’re never going to get to hear the Hall of Fame speech. That’s a shame because Kobe Bryant would have delivered an all-timer. So many of those speeches are meant to be disposable. An athlete thanks their family, their friends, their god and their agent, and then moves on from the spotlight, sometimes for good.

Occasionally, the speeches are truly memorable. Michael Jordan went scorched earth on the legion of critics and haters that had apparently occupied his mind even when that number of doubters was both small and inconsequential. In doing so, Jordan chose to be remembered as a far pettier man than the universally beloved figure he was during his prime.

Like Jordan, Kobe played the game with a singular domination that didn’t lend itself to making friends with his enemies. That was a great part of his appeal for a great many people, but it was the attention to detail in his craft, the endless quest for perfection in an imperfect sport that resonated even more. That wasn’t so much Jordan-esque as it was Kobe personified.

We’ll never know for sure what Kobe would have said in Springfield. But here’s a guess: he would have looked forward, not backward, because for Kobe the future was way more interesting than the past. That’s only one of the ways in which he was endlessly complex and compelling.

When he embarked on his final-season farewell tour and made himself accessible in city after city he rarely trafficked in cheap nostalgia. He had made his peace with the end of his basketball career and had somehow moved beyond the competitive rage that fueled his career. As he noted during his last NBA All-Star Game appearance in Toronto in 2016:

“I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment. So, competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that’s gone.”

That’s a remarkable bit of self-awareness for any athlete, let alone a self-styled killer whose edge rested on an ability to bury his opponents under their own weaknesses. As the former pitcher Jim Bouton once wrote, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

No, Kobe was not rooted in the past, nor would he allow it to define him. Even before he physically moved on from the game, he appeared ready to make that leap in his mind. That’s the irony of the endless debates about his legacy. Kobe may have cared deeply, but he put others on his Mt. Rushmore and declared that Jerry West was the greatest Laker.

While he had a great appreciation for the history of the game and his place in it, there was no need waste any time making his case. Kobe was above all that. He had said all he needed to say on the court. Besides, as Tony Soprano once put it, “Remember when is the lowest form of communication.”

Kobe fancied himself a storyteller and characters like Soprano appealed to him. After modeling his younger self on Jordan — carrying out some of the worst of Jordan’s excesses to the nth degree — Bryant remade himself into an anti-hero, a problematic construction if ever there was one.

He did so in the wake of his rape trial in Colorado, but the rape trial was not “problematic” in the way that word gets used as a placeholder to ignore the realities of the accusation. It was abhorrent. There is a paper trail and following it is brutal. The crime Kobe stood accused of committing was a gross violation of another person’s body and humanity. There is no glossing over that, nor should there be.

The problematic part of the equation was crafting a persona that was meant to be a stand-in for his authentic self while a generation of kids wanted him to remain their unimpeachable superhero. For the anti-hero, the ends always justify the means and for Kobe’s most ardent admirers, his five rings gave them license to treat his words and actions as gospel.

There is a tremendous amount of power inherent in that construction, and Kobe based much of his post-basketball empire on its appeal. The Mamba Mentality was all you needed, and you, yes you, could prosper, provided you adhere to the tenants of its faith and were willing to become just as ruthlessly competitive as its founder. Viewed through a particular lens, that wasn’t all bad.

“I think you have to believe that they’re possible,” Bryant said during that All-Star weekend in Toronto. “It’s easier said than done, because I think we all have dreams. But once you go through the process of trying to make those dreams a reality, you hit obstacles. And I think unfortunately because of pressure or anxiety or responsibilities, things, whatever, you kind of give up on those dreams and somewhere along the line you lose that imagination. I think it’s important that you never lose that. You have to keep that. That’s the most important thing. I never gave up my dream.”

That sentiment is admirable, really. Too many people settle for mediocrity. Too many see the struggle and leave their dreams behind, choosing instead to live a life devoid of purpose or meaning. To give people hope and inspiration is a wondrous thing and Kobe did that with a great many people, as well.

But it’s something else within that quote that gives one pause. Unfortunately because of pressure or anxiety or responsibilities, things, whatever.

There was never any room in Kobe’s worldview for pressure or anxiety or things, whatever they may be, because to Kobe, those were merely obstacles to be defeated. There was instead a singular focus on winning, whatever the cost. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for acceptance when others fail to meet those standards.

Just a few months ago, after a team of seventh-grade girls he coached took fourth place in a tournament, he laid bare his disappointment with the result in an Instagram post that reeked of sour grapes and shaming. Following an uproar, Kobe tried to soften those comments.

Websites such as ours accused him of trying to “cynically triage his brand.” Perhaps, that’s the best way to view any charismatic figure like Bryant: cynically. Or perhaps the reframing of his motivational message was evidence of someone trying to evolve.

In retirement, Kobe took his role as a mentor seriously. He had endless credibility with players and by keeping himself at a remove from the league in any official capacity, he offered something even more unique: a truth that was not bound to any allegiance.

Kobe was particularly engaging with female athletes who possessed qualities he admired. His blessing of their achievements had the potential to carry a profound message of empowerment. More than anyone, he recognized the craft and skill of women’s basketball and celebrated that as a monument to itself.

Then there are accounts of his actions during normal human interactions, such as a car accident in his neighborhood. Imagine that, Kobe the good samaritan. He was the kind of guy you wanted for a neighbor, a fellow dad with whom you could talk about life.

He took obvious delight in being a father, and that is yet another reason why this hurts so much. It was his daughter Gianna, who had promised to carry on his legacy on the court who was among those who died in a helicopter crash Sunday. Their death, and the deaths of the other people aboard that helicopter, are senseless and shocking. As parents and as people, we grieve for those who are lost and especially for those left behind.

It’s hard not to look at that Kobe and see a person of empathy who possessed the capacity to change lives for the better. He certainly had that power, and he seemed to understand there were positive currents that burned just as bright as the darkness he worked so hard to cultivate as a player.

For a lot of people, Kobe was their Jordan, but he was savvy enough to realize that he had something more to offer the world than mere idolatry. Beyond his basketball legend, the repellent nature of the accusations against him, and the inherent contradictions of an inspiring yet unforgiving mantra, there was so much potential for good in his post-playing career.

Kobe Bryant was going somewhere in his life. That’s what makes his loss such an immense tragedy. Man, it would have been a helluva speech.