“I get first pick!”
Those four words I strategically said when my buddies and I gathered to play NBA Street Vol. 2. I tapped my foot anxiously in fifth grade math class, waiting to say those four important words on Friday night.
I was very competitive when it came to video games; I always wanted to win. If I didn’t say those four words, winning was going to be very unlikely. Simply put, not picking first meant Kobe Bryant would not be on my team. NBA Street Vol. 2 ranked Kobe Bryant with 5 out of 5 stars in shots, dunks, steals and handles.
The only player who could hang with Kobe was 1985 Michael Jordan. I couldn't unlock Michael at my level, so Kobe Bryant was always my first pick.
Kobe Bryant was like my cheat code.
Growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, I always heard about Michael Jordan, “His Airness.” He was all anyone in Chicago talked about or cared about when it came to basketball. I was too young to consciously remember Jordan playing for the Bulls. I caught him at the back-end year of his career with the Washington Wizards or in a video clip from “Space Jam.”
I wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I purchased full disk sets of the 1990’s Chicago Bulls. All the hype was real; Jordan flew. He was a human highlight reel. He played at a whole different level. Although I missed live footage of Jordan, I still witnessed “His Airness.” I saw Jordan’s "little brother,” Kobe Bryant, playing in Los Angeles against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 NBA Finals.
Bryant was my Jordan. Bryant was my inspiration. He was the player I tried to imitate when my dad and I played 1-on-1 in our driveway. He was the reason I lowered the hoop in my driveway from 10 feet to 7 feet, so I could attempt reverse slam dunks like The Mamba.
Kobe's work ethic inspired me to dribble for hours through recycling bins and trash cans as makeshift defenses on my driveway. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to arrive at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. practice and sleep in my car outside of a gym. I practiced hitting hit off the tee at 2 a.m. in college after late-night studies for finals and practiced 50 free throws in my driveway almost every day. Kobe's example is a major reason I made it to the major leagues.
When Bryant played the game of basketball, he was passionate, relentless, remarkable, tenacious and demonstrated the “mamba mentality.”
I looked up quotes on Google that might do justice to Kobe Bryant’s legacy, I stumbled on a quote by L.J. Vanier, “If light is love, then fear is its shadow.”
When it came to Bryant and basketball, Bryant always chose love. Every time he played, his light radiated from his love for not only the game, but for his life, his family and his teammates. As Kobe shined his light, he inspired us to shine ours. I continuously read articles and headings on Kobe being gone after Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash that killed him, his daughter Gianna and seven other people. But how can Kobe be gone if I feel him every day?
Although he is no longer on this planet, the Mamba is in each of us. Kobe’s light will always shine in us.
As I ruminate on his death, I feel his light more than ever. The same brilliant light he shined in his 18 NBA All-Star Appearances. The same light he shined when he sunk two free throws after tearing his Achilles. The same light he shined as his team won five NBA Championships. The same light he shined when he scored 81 points on the Toronto Raptors. The same light he shined when he was 19 years old and scored 33 points against Jordan and the Bulls. The same light he shined when he ended his career on a 60-point game against the Utah Jazz. And the same light he shined when he sat next to his beloved daughter Gianna on the sidelines smiling and laughing.
“I have no fear whatsoever. If I take the last second shot and I miss…so what!” – Kobe Bryant.
The best words I can use to express my gratitude for Kobe Bryant would go something like this: “Thank you, Kobe Bryant for choosing love instead of fear. For choosing to shine your light every day. Thank you, Kobe. We will always shine your light! We love you!"
• Kevin Kaczmarski is a 2010 Prairie Ridge graduate and former professional baseball player in the New York Mets’ organization. He reached the major league level in 2018.