Kobe Bryant's death moved me in ways I didn't think possible.

Growing up in Delaware, I was a rabid Philadelphia 76ers fan, and Kobe was the enemy. He was the man who went to high school in Philadelphia but said he wasn’t from Philly, and he was the man, along with Shaq, who bested the 76ers in five games to win the 2001 NBA Finals. As Kobe’s career progressed and his championship ring collection grew (while Philadelphia’s heroic guard Allen Iverson remained ringless), my animosity intensified. My friends and I mocked Kobe’s famous work ethic, teased Laker fans that Lebron James was the better player, and, after Kobe retired from playing, joked about Kobe’s youth basketball coaching exploits.

When the news first broke, I didn’t believe it. 

“No way,” I told my friends, and then, as more time passed, “TMZ is trash; wait for a serious source.” 

As it became clear that the reports were true—that Kobe Bryant had indeed died in a helicopter crash on the morning of Sunday, January 26—shock washed over me. Yes, Kobe was a villain to me and my friends, but as the outpouring of grief on social media mounted, as the videos of crying teenagers and adults added up, as did the weight of his accomplishments (18-time All-Star, five-time NBA Champion, two-time Finals MVP, 4th all-time in scoring, longest-tenured Laker at 20 years), I realized that a giant of a person whom I had known of my entire life was gone.

Kobe Bryant NBA Trophy

Photo Courtesy of Skysports.com

I remember when Kobe caught fire and scored 81 points in a game, second only to the 100-point game by Wilt Chamberlain. As I watched, Kobe seemed to transcend the game; it was no longer a 5-on-5 game of basketball—it was something different—something primal. Points 80 and 81 weren’t scored by one of Kobe’s trademark fade-away jumpers—not by the thunderous dunk Bryant was known for—but by hard-earned free throws. The fatigue of such an incredible performance started to wear him down, but Kobe dug deep and drove hard to the basket, past the outstretched arms of defenders who still were determined not to be further embarrassed by the 28-year-old star. In the waning seconds of that win against the Toronto Raptors, Kobe was distilled to his essence, a basketball machine, who would rip you and your team's heart out every time.

I have never been deeply affected by celebrity deaths. I was sad when Robin Williams, Carrie Fisher, and Prince died, but it was always a fleeting feeling; when I read about their deaths, I could appreciate the sadness of fans, but always from a distance. But as that terrible January Sunday dragged on, I found myself in tears, sudden and unbidden. I realized that I was feeling the pain of millions ... of so many who had just lost a hero, a role model, an icon. 

When the NBA teams played their games that afternoon, the sight of choked-up players, superheroes in their own right, reminded me that for those athletes, playing Kobe was the ultimate inspiration. Even though the likes of Austin Rivers and Larry Nance Jr. had reached the height of their profession, they still looked up to Kobe. Multiple games opened by the opposing teams taking 24-second and eight-second violations, in homage to Kobe’s iconic two numbers. 

Kobe Bryant Trophy Gianna

Photo Courtesy of CNN.com

Social media is easy to deride. It is a ubiquitous part of our lives that also is home to some of the lowest displays of human behavior. But if you are a sports fan, social media has changed, at least for now, to a place of mourning and reflection. Stories of Kobe’s famous competitive spirit and of his love for his daughters abound.

This Kobe quote, from a November interview, makes it impossible for me to ever again consider Kobe the enemy:

“Being a father is the thing I am most proud of in this world; it’s my greatest accomplishment. I’ve learned so much, but perhaps the most profound thing has been the fierce, unconditional love you have for your children when you become a parent. I’m blessed to have had that experience four times now and there’s nothing more powerful in this world.” —Kobe Bryant