It is, of course, insane and incomprehensible that Kobe Bryant is dead. It will take a long time for that fact to feel real, if it ever does.
Basketball, like most things in life, is a useful distraction from the inevitability of death, and all the ways it has impacted us or will impact us. Bryant played an integral part in that distraction for the bulk of his 41 years of life. He did it better than almost anyone ever.
When police confirmed that Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people aboard a helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, and left no survivors, it wrenched us out of our distracted state and confronted us, cruelly, with the cudgel of impermanence; our own, and that of everyone and everything around us.
In Bryant's case, it's surreal and terrifying and crushing to reckon with the sudden loss of someone who'd been so irrepressibly alive. Forgive the cliche, but if this is true of anyone, it's true of Kobe: He was larger than life. He seemed invincible. There's that old saw about Father Time's unblemished record, lying in wait for everyone. But Kobe, and especially Gianna, were supposed to have so much more of it.
On Sunday, as the news of their deaths reverberated throughout the basketball world and NBA games went ahead as planned, the raw emotion on display in every arena across the league told you everything you needed to know about what Bryant meant to his peers. You witnessed the impact he'd had on so many different people, how much love and admiration he inspired in every corner of the globe.
Seeing and hearing the outpouring of grief in Los Angeles, the impromptu vigil outside Staples Center, and the way multiple generations of players and coaches reacted to the news of his passing was stunning. The number of current NBA players who cite him without hesitation as their biggest idol and inspiration, who say he was the reason they picked up a basketball in the first place, who say his style was the one they always sought to emulate and his mentality the one they tried to adopt, made one's personal feelings about Bryant feel beside the point.
And still, everyone has their own feelings about Bryant that they'll bring to bear on this tragedy. He was a deeply flawed individual, and it's not enough to say he was only human like all of us and deeply flawed like all of us when credible allegations of rape were involved. It does nobody any good to gloss over the ugly truths about people we care about - and in Bryant's case, to whitewash what happened in Colorado in 2003. You can't tell the story of his life without it. That was a major inflection point, and it changed him. It probably wasn't done changing him.
There was never going to be any "making things right," but Bryant seemed to be earnestly trying to do good, and to be the best version of himself; a devoted family man who prioritized his wife and daughters, and who went out of his way to amplify women's basketball at every turn. We're all in constant states of becoming, and one of the most devastating things about any death is that it curtails a work in progress.
It shouldn't be considered high-horse moralizing to suggest that survivors of sexual abuse may feel wounded or triggered by seeing perpetrators of sexual abuse glorified unconditionally, without an accounting of the pain they caused. Doing so also shouldn't diminish the magnitude of this tragedy; nor should it encroach on the grieving space of people who knew and cared about Bryant, or were simply inspired by him from afar. You can acknowledge the harm he did and still grieve for him, his family, his peers, his fans, and yourself.
It's as difficult to wrap your arms around the totality of his on- and off-court legacy as it is to wrap your head around his death. But then, recognizing and appreciating his impact on the NBA and basketball at large is simple. You can count on one hand the number of individuals who've had a greater influence on today's game than he did.
The iconic moments and achievements he authored are indelible parts of basketball lore. He'll be remembered for his maniacal competitiveness and tireless work ethic, and the way it inspired others. The way peers like LeBron James talked about their mindset changing when they played alongside Bryant on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team and realized how much harder they needed to work in order to keep pace. The fact that he shot those free throws on a torn Achilles. The Time He Didn't Flinch. The 81-point game. The gold medal game against Spain. The 60-point finale. The 18 All-Star appearances, 11 All-NBA first-team selections, regular-season MVP, two Finals MVPs, five championships ... each one of those plaudits and achievements tells a story. They're all part of the operatic narrative that defined Bryant's life and career.
Even in retirement, he felt omnipresent, deeply woven into the fabric of basketball. At the end of his final season, he wrote a literal love letter to basketball, which became an Oscar-winning animated short film. In his post-playing career, he continued to meticulously analyze the game in a series called "Detail." He trained and mentored younger generations of players, and NBAers of all stripes attended his elite basketball camp in the summer.
Just hours before the tragic crash, LeBron eclipsed Kobe's career scoring mark and afterwards delivered an emotional soliloquy about how much the milestone meant to him. Look around the NBA, and Bryant's fingerprints are everywhere. On top of his family and friends and legions of fans, he is survived by a league whose popularity he helped build, full of players he inspired.
As I tried to process his death, I kept coming back to Chad Harbach's distillation of baseball and humanity in his novel, "The Art of Fielding":
"You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not."
Beauty may not have been the specific goal Bryant was seeking, but as much as anything, I think he was revered by so many fans and practitioners of his craft for the beauty that was born of his relentless pursuit of basketball excellence: The feathery footwork, the pirouetting finesse, the bamboozling post moves, the silky fadeaways, all set against the backdrop of his calculating brilliance and toughness and boundless self-belief. There was an aesthetic delight in watching him play, and in watching him process the game. Many people had their own supplemental reasons for feeling attached to him - as a player and a person - but for some, including myself, it didn't need to be any more complicated than that.
And that, amid so many other feelings, is the sense of loss I'm reckoning with. Kobe Bryant was alive and had access to beauty, and even erratically created it. But now he is dead and will not.
Joe Wolfond writes about basketball and tennis for theScore