For three kids from different parts of the world whose paths converged in Madison Square Garden, Kobe Bryant meant everything.
NEW YORK, NY—The final installment of the season series between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets was supposed to be about two scuffling teams and a budding crosstown rivalry. Instead, the game was overshadowed by the untimely passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
Bryant inspired countless kids to pick up a basketball and play the game he put so much of his life force into. This is the story of three of those kids, who all happened to be in the same place on the night that Kobe Bryant died.
Bryant’s reach extended far beyond the confines of the United States of America. He was a global icon in every sense of the phrase. For a young kid growing up in Strasbourg, France, Bryant was more of a villain than a hero, but that would change in time.
“It’s funny because at first it’s not that I didn’t like him, but I wasn’t a big fan of his attitude,” Frank Ntilikina said to a small group of reporters after the game. “But when you grow up and you know more about the game and you realize stuff, like you got nothing but respect for this guy.
“When I was grown enough to understand all these things I just didn’t stop watching his tapes, his documentary, and everything he was also off the court. The type of person he was. Yeah he was just a killer. Killer. He was one of the best to ever play this game. For everything that I said, how I studied him, what he did to allow me to improve as a player, but also as a man, I’m thankful.”
Ntilikina’s dislike of the Black Mamba was a common feeling amongst many and it’s a safe bet that Bryant wouldn’t have it any other way. Playing the villain, the killer, the stubborn son of a gun who refused to lose was part of what made Kobe tick.
There was no way Bryant was going to let anyone outwork him and when he stepped on the court, he wasn’t going to let anyone beat him. Although many people hated Kobe, everyone respected him for that intensity and passion that few possessed.
South Central, Los Angeles
As a scrum of reporters surrounded Garrett Temple, Spencer Dinwiddie sat at his locker in the corner, icing his feet in an orange cooler. It appeared as if he was still trying to make sense of the situation and failing to, like so many others. It still didn’t feel real.
“I was born in ’93, he was drafted in ’96. I grew up in South Central, Los Angeles. He was everything to my generation, for L.A. kids especially, that was our childhood,” Dinwiddie recalled to reporters. “The lessons of hard work and, it might be cliché, but Mamba Mentality is part of who I am today. The mentality of consistent hard work and pushing through boundaries, playing through injuries, never giving up.”
For most current NBA players, Michael Jordan is more of an idea than an experience. The vast majority of the league wasn’t old enough to watch Mike when he was Mike. But they were able to watch the closest thing to a Jordan prototype there ever will be—Kobe.
For Dinwiddie’s generation of NBA players, Kobe was the guy. He was the five-time champion, 18-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA, the MVP. When he finally retired and moved on to the next phase of his life, his influence on the NBA remained.
— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) January 27, 2020
“I met Kobe several times, exchanged pleasantries and text messages and things. Maybe this is a little bit overexaggerating but I felt like this was the first time he was looking at me as the basketball player Spencer,” Dinwiddie said as he fought off the tears. “… For him to tell me that in his book I’m an All-Star and stuff like that, we’ve talked about the popularity contest before and you don’t win things like that when you’re me. For him to say that, I didn’t need to be selected anymore because I was an All-Star.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
For another kid born in 1993, Kobe was the only player who mattered. At a rehearsal dinner for his cousin’s wedding in New Orleans, that kid sat glued to the television watching Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal will the Lakers to a Game 6 victory over the Sacramento Kings. Los Angeles would go onto win Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and eventually win the NBA Finals in a clean sweep.
The nine-year-old kid had already been hooked on Kobe, but Game 6 elevated Bryant to god-like status. Back in the suburbs of New York, his yellow bedroom walls were plastered with Kobe posters and pages cut straight from Sports Illustrated for Kids.
As he got older, his love for Kobe was still there, but he needed to make room for guys like Steve Nash and LeBron James on his bedroom walls too. Even with a few new idols to look up to, Kobe would always be Kobe.
That kid wouldn’t grow up to play in the NBA like Frank Ntilikina or Spencer Dinwiddie but Kobe still inspired him to build his life around basketball. That kid stood in the depths of Madison Square Garden, listening to Ntilikina and Dinwiddie about the death of their childhood hero and it finally hit home.