Feb. 12, 2013 – Los Angeles, California, USA – Suns forward P.J. Tucker pins Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in  the corner as the Los Angeles Lakers defeat the visiting  Phoenix Suns 91-85 on Tuesday, February 12, 2013 in Los  Angeles, California. (Credit Image

Mamba Mentality

I spent my formative years in Phoenix in a time when it was transitioning from a town to a city. We had one major professional sports team, the Phoenix Suns. The most prominent team in the Western Conference was, of course, the Los Angeles Lakers. We had a lot of run-ins with the NBA’s most revered team out west. We lost a thrilling first playoff series 4-3 to Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain’s 1969 champs. We beat Kareem’s 1976 team to make our second playoff. Throughout the years, the Suns and Lakers created many terrific match-ups, from Show Time to Shaq, from Magic and more … all indelibly embedded in my memory.

Ah, the Lakers.

I hate them.

And I mean that in the best possible way. It’s the visceral anger that every passionate fan has toward the other guys when they routinely drub your team. It is, in a way, a form of high praise. And I harbored the same “hatred” for some of the Lakers legends.

None more than Kobe Bryant.

I knew from the first time I saw him play what this was all about. He was poised, elegant … and lethal. He was young … younger than anyone on this stage. He had boyish features and charm that I assumed would age out … but never really did.

He encountered troubles off the court, one very serious one as we all know. Innocence lost—and the stage he might have occupied off the court lost with it. In some ways, he never really recovered from a costly mid-career mistake.

But he did manage to produce a fiercely productive second half, emerging from the shadow of that incident. He was determined to do so. His work ethic was as impressive as his on-court performance. He dubbed his workouts “blackouts” because his intention was to work until he was on the cusp of blacking out. Above all else, I have enormous respect for him for refining God’s gifts with consistent, relentless, hard work.

The news last Sunday hit me like a dagger. He was still so present in the basketball, sports and L.A. scenes. He was still so young. Seems like just yesterday I was cursing another flawless pump-fake-nothing-but-net-three to put the Lakers ahead of the Suns. He will be remembered as an iconic figure by basketball fans for generations.

I pray that his family finds peace from the pain of Kobe and Gianna’s untimely passing and that all those lives lost in the crash find eternal memory in God’s kingdom.