Right after my 12th birthday in 2009, I convinced my grandma to drive me to GameStop and let me get a game for my new Xbox 360. She agreed on the condition that she approve the game that I got.
When we got there, I made a beeline for games like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and “Assassin’s Creed II” and tried to convince her these were age appropriate.
Granny, a women’s high school basketball coach in her prime, was much more interested in the giant poster of “NBA 2K10” on the wall and told me I could only get one of the others if I played that one too.
At that point, I had never played sports and was barely interested in them. When I looked at the giant poster of Kobe Bryant holding out his jersey and yelling, I was seeing for the first time someone who would inspire one of my greatest passions.
Within a few days of playing, I had made it a habit to try different dribble moves and shots as Kobe in “2K” and then run outside to try to imitate them. I remember making my grandpa film my jump shot, comparing it to Kobe’s and doing it again and again.
The next year, I signed up for the junior high basketball team. Turns out, I was really, really bad and unathletic on top of that. But I loved every second of it. After practice, I would go right back to my room and turn on “2K” and tell myself I was a little bit closer to becoming as good as Kobe. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but it sounded really good at the time.
As time went on, other “2K” games came out and other NBA players became my favorite, mainly Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I didn’t forget about Kobe, though. He became a staple both in the gym and in the classroom.
The guys always yelled his name as we shot anything towards a hoop, whether it was a basketball or a paper ball in a trashcan. It got to the point where most of us refused to throw things away normally without at least attempting a jump shot and saying “Kobe!” Memorably, I was once assigned detention for attempting a shot during class and missing the trash can and hitting the teacher.
Throughout high school, our basketball team had several coaches. One of them was obsessed with Kobe. Before every game, he would print out a quote or story about Kobe and leave it in the locker room as a sort of inspiration. Most of the time, inspirational quotes aren’t really inspirational at all, but something about reading those words fired me up every time.
I didn’t play much, but I got really hype on the bench and during practices. I was determined that if I ever got an opportunity, I was going to prove that I had just as much heart as Kobe. That year, I got two concussions from diving for loose basketballs, a trip to the emergency room for trying to practice with pneumonia and the “Hustle Award” from my team.
There are dozens of small stories like this throughout my life and probably most people my age. Kobe was the type of person and player to inspire millions of fans and an entire generation of basketball players. Kobe was great at the sport before I was born, to the point where it seems like he was always there.
When I heard the news about his death on Sunday, it was completely unbelievable. I sat in front of a television and scrolled through Twitter for hours waiting for any news that original reports were false.
When I realized that none were coming, it felt like something punched me in the chest. Two days later and it is still something that hits me every time I remember and makes me sick to my stomach.
Dear Kobe, I don’t play basketball as much as I used to, but I already know I’m going to teach my kids how to ball like you taught me. Hopefully I’ll be able to sneak in a few life lessons along the way.