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Remembering Kobe’s Cool

I’ve felt, to varying degrees, painfully uncool my entire life. There is perhaps no period in one’s life where being uncool feels as painfully acute as it does in middle school. A modern rendering of Dante’s Inferno could be easily substituted for a simple description of the seventh grade.
In middle school, I decided that one thing that was decidedly cool about me was the fact that my family was from Los Angeles. At a school where worshiping the Celtics, Bruins and the Red Sox was an intrinsic component of the social vernacular, constantly professing my love for the Lakers felt like a distinguishing trait, if not a meager attempt at resistance against the painful exclusiveness of middle school social hegemony.
In reality, I very seldom sat through the entirety of a basketball game. I found sports monotonous and intimidating. What absolutely hypnotized me, however, was the inherent coolness of Kobe Bryant.
Kobe, to me, was neither merely a sportsman nor a celebrity; but rather a human manifestation of coolness; a thing I craved so desperately but could never seem to tangibly grasp. Even when the Lakers lost, no team could ever mimic Kobe’s cool. At 6’5, he didn’t have the awe-inspiring stature of players like Shaq or Pau Gasol. But even standing next to them, there was a transcendent quality about Kobe–call it swagger or finesse or whatever you might– that never allowed him to be overshadowed.
Almost ten years ago to the day, I went to Boston to watch the Lakers play the Celtics. Hours before the game, my family and I were sitting in the lobby of our hotel – which had been known to be patronized by the team–hoping to catch a glimpse of the legend who received a level of veneration comparable to a saint in our Catholic home.
Sure enough, the entire team sauntered out of the lobby in purple sweatpants and bespoke Nike’s. They all, of course, walked with the earned confidence of elite athletes and multi-millionaires in their twenties and thirties.
But at the very end of the line walked out Kobe, in a slouchy beanie and sunglasses. Certainly, Kobe radiated cool–I felt exponentially cooler by some kind of osmosis being even in the vicinity. But more importantly, there was nothing about Kobe’s cool that was mean. In even the fleeting few seconds he walked across that hotel lobby, there was a disarming warmth to him that was impossible to ignore. I can’t explain it–not even now, ten years later–but he radiated a sense of kindness that seemed to transcend understanding, in a culture where coolness is so frequently defined by cynicism and derision of others.
Kobe’s life, of course, reflected this. Even more valuable than his role as a basketball legend was his role as a father, prolific philanthropist, mentor, and cultural hero. Kobe’s coolness was not defined by how he played or what he wore or how many championship rings he had, but by his utter refusal to sacrifice his humanity in the name of coolness itself.
When I heard the news that Kobe had died, it felt – as it did to many – patently unreal. Kobe’s iconography seemed immortal, and the fact that he was in fact an ephemeral being like the rest of us – or perhaps the realization that there exists something in the world actually capable of stopping Kobe – was jarring. We know that no one comes out of life alive, but Kobe seemed exempt from that inevitability.
The world losing Kobe, and his brilliantly talented thirteen year old daughter, is an immeasurable loss. But even the shocking permanence of death cannot erase the seemingly endless facets of Kobe’s legacy. One of these facets that will remain forever, at least to me if nobody else, is Kobe’s dedication to making niceness a core tenet of his own brand of cool.