Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Death of Kobe Bryant is hard for Lakers fans to take

Sunday didn’t start out looking very promising from the beginning. It was foggy outside and there was no football to watch.

I decided watching Tiger Woods make a run at the Farmers Insurance Golf Tournament at Torrey Pines near San Diego would have to satisfy my television viewing for the day.

The first sign that something was wrong was on the radio. Why were these guys on the air stammering over themselves? Steve Hartman, who hosts the late-morning show on KLAC 570, is a seasoned pro. Why was he having trouble talking in complete sentences?

Then I heard what he was saying. A helicopter had crashed in the hills of Calabasas. TMZ was reporting that Kobe Bryant was on that helicopter. Hartman was waiting for some other media source to confirm that news.

I thought back to the death of Michael Jackson in 2009 when we were doing the same thing, sitting in the office, waiting for Twitter or some other social media to confirm what TMZ was already reporting as facts.

Then ESPN was reporting the same news. Associated Press. CNN. etc.

Kobe Bryant, perhaps the best basketball player of his generation, was dead at the age of 41. Then the bad news really hit. Bryant was one of five people on the plane. His daughter, Gianna, might have been with him.

CBS didn’t end up showing much of the golf tournament on Sunday. By the time it’s coverage started at noon the local affiliate, Channel 2, was hip deep in Kobe news and it remained that way the rest of the afternoon.

Later, the news came out that nine people were aboard the helicopter that was headed for a girls basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks. Kobe, his daughter, Gianna, her teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli and his wife, Keri, Payton’s mother Sarah Chester, Christina Mauser, an assistant basketball coach and the helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan.

There was even a local connection. Sarah Chester was a former Whittier resident, a city at the eastern end of The Wave’s footprint. Her brother, Andy is the head football coach at La Serna High School there.

The death of Bryant cast a pall over LosAngeles like nothing else has in recent memory. The night before sports fan had celebrated LeBron James passing Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. And now we were mourning Kobe.

Kobe, who burst on the scene as a 17-year-old out of Philadelphia in 1996 ready to take on the NBA. He idolized Michael Jordan but he intended to equal all of Jordan’s accomplishments and didn’t mind telling people that.

You either loved him or hated him. I loved him.

I was a Lakers fan growing up in the 1960s, when every NBA seemed to end in heartache when the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. It only seemed like it happened every year.

Jerry West was my favorite player then, a super-competitive player who wanted to win more than anything else.

I rejoiced for West when the Lakers finally won a championship in 1972.

The Showtime Era Lakers rekindled by love of the Lakers in the 1980s. I remember watching from a hotel room in Palo Alto game six of the 1980 championship series against the Philadelphia 76ers when Magic Johnson scored 42 points to lead the Lakers, who were without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that night, to a win and the team’s second title.

More titles followed with Magic, Kareem and James Worthy. Then came the horrible announcement in 1991 that Magic had AIDS. At the time, the word AIDS was a death sentence and we all mourned for Magic. Fortunately, he’s still with us.

The Lakers had hit a dry spell when Bryant joined the team the same year Shaquille O’Neal was signed as a free agent.

The duo was supposed to lead the Lakers back to the promised land, but it took three years before the Lakers hired a coach, Phil Jackson, who could get the two of them on the same page long enough to learn how to win a championship together.

Three championships came back-to-back-to-back. It could have been more. It should have been more. But those were two healthy egos, Kobe and Shaq, and two totally different people.

Shaq was the big, happy-go-lucky guy who was the life of the party. He spent his offseasons having a good time and used the preseason to get into shape.

Kobe spent his offseasons improving his game. He was ready for the season when preseason started. They clashed. Shaq got traded to Miami where he won another title with Dwyane Wade.

Kobe suffered through the Smush Parker years until the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008. With Gasol, Kobe had someone else to lean on, to help him bring home another championship.

They brought home two, in 2009 and 2010.

After getting hurt at the end of three straight seasons, Kobe became a aging superstar. Some said he cost the Lakers too much money to build a solid roster around him.

But Kobe could always be Kobe as he showed on the last night of his NBA career. Kobe literally took over the game in the second half, single-handedly bringing the Lakers back from a big lead against the Utah Jazz and scoring 60 points in the process.

ESPN showed that game from start to finish Jan. 27, the night after he died.

What a performance? It was the kind of walk-off only a legend could accomplish.

In retirement, Bryant found other interests winning an Academy Award for a documentary he produced in 2019. He devoted himself to his four children, especially Gianna, who had a lot of her dad inside her.

At 13, she was already talking about playing for Geno Auriemma, the legendary women’s basketball coach at the University of Connecticut.

It’s hard to believe he’s gone. What else might he have accomplished?

Magic Johnson has had a business career almost as successful as his basketball career. Kobe had the will to be every bit the success off the court that Magic was.

We’ll never know what he might have accomplished. And that makes his death at 41 even harder to deal with.

SUPER BOWL LIV: Lost in the grieving for Kobe Bryant is the fact that Super Bowl LIV and Groundhog Day are the same day this year. The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs square off in Miami Feb. 2 at 3:30 p.m. on Fox.

The Chiefs are still a one-point favorite, which is why I am betting the 49ers. I think they will win the game outright on the strength of their defense.

The Chiefs fell behind early in both of their playoffs wins over the Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans. If they fall behind like that to the 49ers Patrick Mahomes will spend most of Sunday running for his life with Nick Boza in hot pursuit.

Jimmy Garappolo, the 49ers quarterback, only threw the ball eight times against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. That’s because Raheem Mostert was running around and through the Packers defense.

Garoppolo completed six of his eight passes against the Packers and he will complete most of his passes against the Chiefs, too.

Both teams will be able to move the football. The team that will win is the team that makes the fewest mistakes.

Mahomes is the NFL’s new gunslinger. He’s liable to throw an interception and a crucial point in the game that will turn the tide in favor of the 49ers, who will win 31-28.