Shepkowski: Thanks For The Ride, Kobe

Bryant leaves a basketball legacy that resonates with so many.

Nick Shepkowski
January 27, 2020 - 11:39 am

(670 The Score) Growing up in the Chicagoland area in the 1990s, it was natural to be drawn to the Bulls. Michael Jordan and the dynasty had that effect.

It was after Jordan retired and the Baby Bulls began a doomed cruise that we often had to look elsewhere to find our NBA fix. Luckily, it was around that time that a young star from Philadelphia via Italy really blossomed on the NBA scene. That was Kobe Bryant, who was drafted 13th overall by the Hornets in 1996 and then traded to the Lakers.

Thin, wide-eyed and ambitious as a youngster, Bryant would go on to become a legend who earned 18 All-Star nods and won five NBA championships, one MVP award, two NBA Finals MVP awards and two Olympic gold medals before retiring in 2016.

On Sunday morning, Bryant's life came to a tragic end, as he and eight others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. He leaves a basketball legacy that resonates for so many, like myself.

Growing up, I rarely rooted for those great Lakers teams that Bryant helped lead. I preferred that the Kings or Trail Blazers had made a run to the NBA Finals instead of the Lakers. But we could also appreciate what Bryant brought, as he was the reason myself and so many others my age continued watching. 

I don’t feel alone in saying Bryant was always the young up-and-comer. Perhaps it’s because I always associated him with my innocence of being a fifth grader who was trying to compile as many of Bryant's rookie cards as possible. We were told he would be the next great thing. He not only met but exceeded those expectations.

To my generation, watching Bryant was like watching a real-life basketball Simba. Even after he suffered a torn Achilles and fractured knee later in his career, he was still Kobe. As Bryant grew old, it felt different than when other legends wore out. 

There's endless sadness around this horrific story that begins with a basketball legend’s untimely death but extends to the passing of his 13-year-old daughter and seven others. This is an awful tragedy for every family that lost a loved one and all those who knew the victims.

What makes this feel even more impossible to comprehend is the context of other NBA legends who continue to be such a presence around the game. That NBA rarely has rarely experienced such unexpected tragedy. The MVP award has been handed out since 1956, and only Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone and now Bryant have won that award and aren't with us anymore. 

It seems far too make-believe to be true. 

Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Magic Johnson are still alive and carrying the game forward. 

And now Kobe is somehow gone before any of them.

On Sunday, I kept hitting refresh on Twitter thinking Bryant's death would be some strange dream. It's not, and that's heartbreaking.

Rest easy, Mamba. And thanks for the ride.

Nick Shepkowski is the executive producer of the McNeil & Parkins Show on 670 the Score in afternoon drive. Follow him on Twitter @Shep670.​