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Kobe Bryant's Legacy in L.A.'s Cultural Fabric

Angelenos Mourn Kobe Bryant's Passing

The death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident on Sunday, January 26, has rocked Los Angeles more than just about anything in recent memory. Coupled with the loss of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others on board with him, the tragedy is heartbreaking. Everywhere around the city, on murals, on the MTA buses or jumbotrons, you see Kobe's picture along with goodbye sentiments and more, honoring the legend.

Kobe Bryant will forever be remembered as one of the brightest lights to ever shine in the City of Angels. His life and his example ripples through L.A.’s collective cultural consciousness. Sports blogger and children's author Victor Castelo wrote in his essay "A Piece of Los Angeles Faded Away" that, "Kobe became Los Angeles. He was adored (and hated). He became a living legend in a town that is overrun with legends. From Koufax to Kershaw, to Jackie, to Magic, to Chick Hearn, to Vin Scully, to Gretzky, Valenzuela, to Lasorda, Kareem, Wilt, to Jerry Buss, to Beckham, to Bo Jackson, to Eric Dickerson. Kobe may have eclipsed them all.”

Castelo is right in more ways than one.

According to the Ringer.com, “No player in any major professional sport spent more time playing for a team in Los Angeles than Bryant.”  In twenty seasons with the Lakers, Bryant won five championships, averaged 25 points a game, appeared in 18 All-Star games, won one MVP award, and he is the only NBA player in history to have two jersey numbers retired (8 and 24.). In the modern era of free agency and frequent trades, perhaps only Tim Duncan and Tom Brady can compare to Kobe when it comes to such a high standard of winning, performance excellence and longevity with one team.

Luis Villanueva lights a candle in front of a Kobe Bryant mural in downtown Los Angeles on January 26, 2020 | APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images
Luis Villanueva lights a candle in front of a Kobe Bryant mural in downtown Los Angeles on January 26, 2020 | APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images
A mural honoring Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who died in a helicopter crash along with seven others. The mural was painted by artist Artoon | Ronen Tivony / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
A mural honoring Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who died in a helicopter crash along with seven others. The mural was painted by artist Artoon | Ronen Tivony / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Dear Basketball

Castelo’s sentiments also ring true when Bryant’s legacy is examined outside the basketball court. Bryant was also a writer, poet and lyricist. As such, his impact reverberates in the very fabric of culture. His 2018 book, "The Mamba Mentality," shares his philosophies. Bryant also appeared as a rapper on a Destiny's Child remix of "Say My Name," in 2000. He also rhymed on a 1998 Brian McKnight song, "Hold Me." When Kobe announced his retirement, he did it in a poem titled, "Dear Basketball." The animated voice over version of the poem ended up winning an Oscar in 2018.

Honored as the Best Animated Short, the film was directed by the renowned animation genius Glen Keane and featured music composed by the illustrious John Williams. The short film spotlights Bryant's voice over a montage of animated scenes following the narrative of his poem. Moving in chronological order from early in his boyhood to hitting game-winning shots in his NBA career to his retirement, the piece is even more poignant now that he is gone.

The first 11 lines of the poem are:

The poem is a beautiful ode to his career and life in basketball, and now, it's also an elegy to his life and all that he stood for. Today, it’s a beacon for anyone pursuing a sport, an artform — a calling.

Kobe Bryant Loved Hip-Hop, and Hip-Hop Loved Him Back

In “Dear Basketball,” we feel the deep love Bryant gave to his passions and his generous spirit. That was also on display on July 9, 1997, when the Wu-Tang Clan headlined the Wake Up Show Tour at the Palace in Hollywood, now called The Avalon.

According to Key Kool, the first Asian American to ever release a hip-hop album, he and other members of the Visionaries, one of the first multicultural hip-hop groups, were standing in a circle freestyling with some friends on the night of the concert when Kobe walked into the venue wearing an Adidas tracksuit and a Kangol hat. Upon seeing the group, Kobe stopped and joined the circle. He began bobbing his head and moments later he started freestyling in the circle with the Visionaries even though they had never met.

"Kobe walked into the show alone," said Key. "He was not with an entourage or even a bodyguard." Key remembers Kobe as warm and really positive as he stood there with them in the freestyle cipher. After a great exchange, Kobe smiled, and they briefly shared words. A few hours later Sway, one of the lead DJs of the tour and the night, called Kobe up on stage, and Kobe kicked a quick verse right before the Wu-Tang Clan came onstage.

While Kobe was kicking his verse onstage, Key Kool was standing next to DJ J Rocc, one of the members of the World Famous Beat Junkies. J Rocc is now on Stonesthrow Records, and he is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest DJs ever to rock turntables, but back in 1997, he was already an award-winning DJ. As Key spoke with J Rocc, they talked about the Visionaries debut album that was about to be released. J Rocc said that he had the perfect beat for them and that they needed to get together to record right away so that J Rocc's track could be on the album. 

The very next day, Key drove from the South Bay on the 405 to Westminster to pick up J Rocc and to record the song together. "I drove down to pick up J Rocc," Key shares, "and as we were driving from OC to Carson, J was sitting shotgun in my Caprice Classic as I played the beat on my boom box that was sitting on my front seat. That's where I was freestyling and started writing the verse on that drive up to the office."

The verse that began in Key’s car soon became part of the 1997 Visionaries song, "Blessings," which may be the first song that ever mentioned Kobe Bryant. There are now countless songs mentioning Bryant, but when they recorded "Blessings," the day after the Wu-Tang Clan show in July of 1997, Kobe had only played one season with the Lakers; he had yet to reach the stratosphere of fame.

The song includes four members of the Visionaries rhyming on the track. Beginning with 2Mex, then Dannu, followed by Lord Zen, Key Kool's verse is the final section of the song. Key ended up rhyming about seeing Kobe Bryant the day before and how he and J Rocc ran into each other that night and came up with the plan spontaneously. 

As Key was driving J Rocc to record the song, they were in Key's Caprice Classic that had a broken tape player. Key had a boombox and played J Rocc's beat in the boombox as they drove. Key's verse mentions all of this and also his encounter with Kobe. The synchronicity of the song and their meeting Kobe is now even more remarkable 23 years later as we reflect on the loss of Kobe. Here's Key's verse in its entirety:

The song “Blessings” is included in the Visionaries debut album "Galleries." Key tells me that he has always been inspired by Kobe and that as the Visionaries career took off it was parallel to the trajectory of Kobe. By the early 2000s, they had opened for the Wu-Tang Clan, DeLaSoul, Common, and Mos Def. The spirit of the Visionaries is very Los Angeles, and their longevity and integrity match the same qualities that Kobe has demonstrated over his career. The song "Blessings" and the accompanying story offer extra insight into Kobe.

Kobe in the Animation Industry

Glen Keane, Dani Bowman and Kobe Bryant, from left to right | Dani Bowman
Glen Keane, Dani Bowman and Kobe Bryant, from left to right | Dani Bowman

I have heard other similar stories about Bryant’s effect on those beyond the arena. One of those stories is from a former student, who is now an award-winning animator. I teach at Woodbury University, and the school has a great Animation Department. Dani Bowman is a student that took two General Education classes with me in 2017-2018, and she is now working in the animation industry. 

“Kobe Bryant and I first met at the Annie Awards, which is the animation equivalent to the Oscars in 2017,” Bowman says. “He was there as one of the speakers, introducing award categories and announcing the winners. He was coming off the red carpet, and I asked him if I could have a picture with him. To my surprise, he was very kind and not only he took a picture with me, but he also talked with me for a little while. I introduced myself and told him a little bit about my work.”

"As always, I did mention that I have autism, and I don't know whether that made a difference in the way he treated me or not. He was very kind and gracious; he was not in a hurry at all to stop talking with me, even though there were so many people around him that wanted his attention. I saw him several times after that as a panelist while he was promoting his animated short 'Dear Basketball,' but I especially remember the time at Raleigh Studios when his animated short was screened, and he recognized me out of the crowd 'Hey Dani! How are you?'"

“We talked for another while, always interested in how I was doing. He made me feel very special. I never imagined someone like him would have something in common with me, but he loved animation almost as much as I do. We talked about that, and how he was so amazed by the process. Anyway, I feel such a loss, but I am so grateful for the few moments I got to spend time with him. I will always treasure those moments.”

Dani Bowman is not only an animator; she is an entrepreneur and keynote speaker. She has started her own company Danimation Entertainment. She is an advocate for helping people on the spectrum of autism find work in the animation industry. Early in her teenage years, Dani became interested in animation, and her laser-like focus became an asset in an industry that requires a great eye for detail. 

Sooner than later, Dani started creating animated shorts that started winning awards in various animation and film festivals. In my class in the Fall of 2017, she created an animated short film for her final project. All of the other students turned in written portfolios, but Dani created a short animated film with her voice over it. It was incredible and remains one of the greatest projects any student has ever turned into me.

Dani recently gave a Keynote speech at the Festival of Human Abilities at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Bowman’s drive and determination are kindred to what Bryant wrote in his book "The Mamba Mentality."

The Mamba Mentality

One of the many inspiring quotes from Bryant within the text reads:  "A lot of people say they want to be great, but they're not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness." Bowman is only 25, and she has already made many sacrifices to become an animator. She is now working on a Master’s Degree and continues to run her company.  "My mission," Bowman says, "is to help change the world's perception of autism by addressing employment issues through job training and skill development in media and entertainment production, including animation."

Her status as a high functioning person on the spectrum of autism has proved to be an asset because she works so hard. Her drive epitomizes the spirit Bryant praises in "The Mamba Mentality."

Bryant and Bowman connected because he saw her determination. Another quote from Bryant's book in this spirit states:  "If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it."  Bryant’s obsession with basketball clearly paid off. His poem “Dear Basketball” offers an extra window into his lifelong focus.

Ultimately, Bryant reminds us to apply this focus in our own lives. He reminds us to love what we do and inject everything we do with our whole heart and soul. These anecdotes from Key Kool and Dani Bowman show the extra detail that made Kobe great. He not only worked extra hard on his craft, he paid attention to the people he encountered, and he did what he could in the moment to encourage them to make the most of their lives and to assist them towards their success.

In this spirit, it is only right to close this essay with more lines from Kobe's poem. As the poem closes, he reflects on how he started as a kid shooting that imaginary shot with rolled-up socks:

Los Angeles loves you forever Kobe. Thank you for your example and inspiration. Though your physical presence is gone, your spirit and impact will live on forever. 

Love you always Kobe,

Los Angeles

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