For most sporting superstars, the first act – chewing up opponents, training obsessively, playing harder, winning, always winning – is the easy part.
It’s instinct and it’s obvious. It’s the natural part of being a natural.
It’s the second act that brings the doubts and the breakdowns. The loss of the old physical certainties, the end of the dominance. Someone born with an ability to see patterns and plays before others is suddenly unable to answer the biggest question of all: what happens next?
The tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s early death, and that of his daughter Gianna, is primarily a family one. Sport’s shock and grief is second to that of wife, daughters, parents, friends.
What links them all is that Bryant, a genius on the basketball court, sometimes a flawed character off it – appeared to be solving his life after sport in a way that many of his contemporaries and antecedents could not.
It was always about a lineage with Kobe. Michael Jordan the inspiration before, the overlapping and feuding and sometime chemistry with Shaquille O’Neal, the battles and then abdication to LeBron James.
That’s not to deny the basketball-playing greatness of Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The difference with the four that followed them was how they leapt out of the sport as well.
Each had their competing brands – Nike for Jordan, Reebok for Shaq, Adidas in the early years for Kobe – but in every one the NBA recognised a talent and narrative that could take its league to places and popularity that the old guard could not.
Jordan described Bryant as his little brother and the shared traits were unambiguous. Jordan sometimes seemed to play with a rage, determined to prove himself right and everyone else wrong, not caring who or what got chewed up along the way. His obsession fuelled his greatness but magnified his shortcomings too.
So it was with Kobe the player. After watching the film Kill Bill he began calling himself Black Mamba, seeing in himself an assassin’s ruthlessness on court, an ability to strike repeatedly when others could not.
None of that is normal, but neither is much that goes into becoming the best in a world of elites. In creating a sporting machine you can misplace the softer, more human stuff along the way.
Just as Jordan lost himself in gambling, in the mess around his father’s murder and the short-lived sojourn in baseball that was mixed up in all of that, so Bryant’s weaknesses were inescapable too.
The 2003 scandal following accusations of rape from a 19-year-old woman may have ended with criminal charges being dropped, but the subsequent civil lawsuit and aftermath clouded what had been an unblemished public image. There was the homophobic abuse of an umpire and a subsequent $100,000 fine, as well as an apology.
On court Bryant could be selfish, missing more shots in his career than any other player in NBA history, proudly admitting that he would rather miss 30 shots in a game than nine because it showed that he would never give up.
He had serious disputes with O’Neal, with Lakers management, even with Phil Jackson, the Zen-practising coaching virtuoso who also drew the very best from Jordan in their time together at the Chicago Bulls.
He also won two league scoring titles as well as the five championship rings. He missed but he made far more. Reconciliation and a second era of dominance followed the initial estrangement with the Lakers.
All of it, good and bad, like Jordan, sprang from the traits that his great friend and on-court rival Vince Carter says defined him: “His drive. His mentality. His will to win.”
Those were the bonds and the ties. It was in navigating the second act that Bryant was starting to cut himself free.
Jordan has not yet learned to replace that first infatuation. For him it’s more about admitting to himself that he won’t, of living with a beautiful past that will probably always overshadow his present and future.
“I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball,” he admitted, as he turned 50.
Jordan is rich beyond the comprehension of the earlier generation of NBA legends but is still struggling to find anything that satisfies him as much as the first act.
He will always be the most important person in the room, but he now does so as someone who must deal with failure, and fading eyesight, and a body that no longer allows him the daily miracles it used to.
Bryant was moving towards a better place. As his own father Joe had been to his development, instilling the lifelong love of their shared sport, taking him with him to Italy for seven years as a child when his own playing career moved on from the NBA, so Bryant was with his four daughters and the wider generation beyond.
His dedication to Gianna was total, coaching her middle-school basketball team, watching Lakers and college games with her courtside. From that came a wider commitment to women’s basketball, advising the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, holding coaching camps for younger players.
There was generosity at home and a munificence elsewhere. The first time he met a young LeBron, at an All-Star weekend, he gave him his boots. As LeBron overtook his scoring record a few days ago, he wrote “Mamba for life, 8, 24 KB” on his current shoes, an inadvertent valediction to his hero’s shirt numbers and driving force.
Much of what Bryant did in his 41 years seemed preordained, from the moment he jumped straight from Lower Merion High in suburban Philadelphia to the NBA draft and on to Los Angeles via a famous trade with the Charlotte Hornets.
He fulfilled all that crazy potential, came past the wild predictions and hopes that made been made when he was still a skinny teenager in Jordan’s shoes. He was also starting to do something else entirely.
“Dear Basketball,” he wrote, in the poem that became an Oscar-winning short film. “We both know, no matter what I do next/ I’ll always be that kid/ With the rolled-up socks/ Garbage can in the corner/ Five seconds on the clock/ Ball in my hands.”
He will be. But Kobe Bryant was escaping too, navigating the second act, becoming something that all around hoped would last.