Death is never easy to take, and, for obvious reasons, among the hardest to process is that of a sports figure who transcended his or her calling. It’s why the passing of Kobe Bryant yesterday came as a shock even to casual observers with little or no regard for basketball. In life, he evoked emotions few others in his profession could. And in the absence of life, he generated an outpouring of sympathy and grief. It wasn’t simply that he went too soon at 41, and under tragic circumstances — his daughter Gianna, all of 13, by his side. It was that he went not on his own terms, and, therefore, not on terms all and sundry could accept.

Indeed, Bryant was used to having his way. He was already all fire when he burst into the National Basketball Association as a 13th overall pick out of high school in 1996, confident of his abilities and determined to show not just that he could take the measure of the greats before him, but that he could best every single one of them. Time was the only element he figured to be up in the air, and it was on his side. Everything was a matter of when, not if. And true enough, he didn’t need to wait long to reach the pinnacle of success. He was with the league’s most popular franchise in the Lakers, with the league’s most dominant player in Shaquille O’Neal, and his growth coincided with creation of a modern-day dynasty.

In retrospect, Bryant was destined to scuttle the partnership as well. He couldn’t co-exist with O’Neal, if for no other reason than because he had to be the Lakers’ Number One — okay, only — option. His will to win was legendary, and he suffered no slouches who displayed a work ethic an iota less focused than his. He had talent, but it was his determination that allowed him to stand out. On the court, there was no endeavor he didn’t relish, no challenge he couldn’t accept, no hurdle he didn’t conquer. There may be no “I” in “TEAM,” but he managed to force-fit it, anyway. And who can argue with the results? Five championship rings, two Finals Most Valuable Player awards, 18 All-Star berths, and more: All these speak to the resolve with which he mastered his craft.

Bryant would mellow in his later years, and his position as elder statesman eminently satisfied with his accomplishments suited him. He reveled in his newfound roles as mentor to the stars, as revered great, and as friend to all — even to O’Neal. He stayed away from the NBA for the most part, but seemed to be more visible in recent memory due to his daughter’s increasing love for the sport. They were, in fact, on their way to a game when they lost their lives. Now, they’ll be watching elsewhere, and they will be missed.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.