The Joy, Imagination and Tennis Smarts of Storyteller Kobe Bryant

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(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Bill Simons

Melbourne 

It’s interesting. Sports are just games, curious diversions from the pain and grind of life. They don’t really matter. Yet, they appeal to so many all over the globe. They teach, they unite, they cross boundaries, they delight.

And sometimes they break our hearts. Not just when our favorite team or athlete fumbles or comes up short, but when one of our beloved idols falls. Yesterday we lost the Black Mamba – Kobe Bryant.

The world was stunned. Suddenly, with no warning, a dynamic athletic icon, who had morphed into a giving, imaginative creator, left us.

Bryant, just 41, was not the first young dazzling personality we loved to abruptly leave us during a big tennis happening. Princess Diana’s car crashed in a Parisian tunnel during the 1997 US Open. John Kennedy Jr.’s plane went down in the sea during the Davis Cup finals in 1999.

Bryant loved to play tennis in LA and he loved tennis pros. There’s long been a great synergy between tennis and basketball. Wilt Chamberlain adored the game. We often saw him at the US Open, and he was a regular at Gabriela Sabatini matches. Hall of Fame Warrior Rick Barry always carried rackets in his car. As a kid, Roger Federer had a poster of Michael Jordan on his wall. Later Jordan would go to Federer matches, and he relished comparing tennis and hoops.

Bryant went to Wimbledon and tweeted about the incredible level of a Federer-Nadal match. He went to the US Open and told Coco Gauff’s dad how great his daughter was. Coco is just two years older than his own daughter Gianna, who also died in the crash that killed Kobe. Serena was a muse for his tennis book for children.

But it was Novak Djokovic who had an in-depth relationship with the great Laker. Just the other day the Serb told ESPN, “Kobe has been one of my mentors. When I was going through the injury with my elbow and struggling to mentally and emotionally handle all of these different things that were happening to me and dropping in the rankings and then having to work my way up, he was one of the people who was really there for me to give me some very valuable advice and guidelines, to…believe and trust in myself, trust the process that I’ll be back.”

Maria Sharapova also praised Kobe’s supportive ways. She tweeted, “This is incredibly difficult to process. I will never forget your generosity, and the time you set aside in some of my most difficult moments. I am forever grateful. My heart is with you and your beautiful family.”

Today Djokovic tweeted, “My heart truly mourns…Kobe was a great mentor and friend…You and your daughter will live forever in our hearts. There are not enough words to express my deepest sympathies to the Bryants and every family suffering from this tragedy. RIP my friend.”

Here in Melbourne, a world away from Calabasas, CA, where Bryant’s helicopter smashed into a remote hill amidst great fog, people were gutted, and in their own fog. Martina Navratilova told me, “I just can’t talk about it. I’d break down.” When Nick Kyrgios walked out on court for his battle with Rafa, he wore Bryant’s Laker jersey and tears were in his eyes. Tonight’s big winner, Rafa, reported that his friend Pao Gasol said that Bryant always had a “spirit of overcoming…He was an inspiration…Kobe Bryant will be in our hearts and our minds for the rest of our lives.”

Aussie Rennae Stubbs told IT, “The great thing about Kobe is that he made his first children’s book about tennis. He understood the power of having a presence for children – and particularly women.”

As Bryant’s career wound down he became fascinated with storytelling. He wanted to use fantasy, magic and mythology to create content for his four daughters. A week after he retired, the GM of the Lakers got him into tennis. He told the Tennis Channel how tennis and hoops are similar. “They are both about footwork, being comfortable on your feet, being able to change rhythm and to be able to get to drop shots and not dropping your back foot.”

Late in his career, Kobe began to wish he could play an individual sport where you “have to deal with inner challenges, the uncertainties and disappointments. From shot to shot, it’s you out there, baby.”

Amazingly, Kobe not only created an Oscar-winning movie on the humble basketball that expresses his love of a game that was his passion, but he also wrote a delightful fantasy on tennis. He sent the first draft to the whimsical Naomi Osaka, who loved it.

The book, “Legacy and the Queen,” tells the story of a young woman who must win a tennis tourney in order to save the orphanage she grew up in. Kobe called it “a beautiful story of emotion [in which] players have an inner weather. Depending on what you are feeling, you can affect the dimensions of the court, the air around you. Things can get darker. You can create gusts of wind. Every player has that power depending on the emotions within them…The sport inherently has those things. How do we develop these inner emotions?…Tennis is a great metaphor for that.”

Who knew the five-time NBA champion would grasp the core beauty and power of our game? When watching tennis, Bryant focused on the strategy of each player and its progression. To him, tennis was a chess match and a battle of wills. He began to visit tennis clubs and was becoming an ambassador for the sport.

Kobe not only had a free-form sense of fantasy. He had a global impact. Here in Melbourne, the grounds at the Aussie Open were peppered with purple Laker jerseys. One Melbourne fan and basketball player, Marcus Escota, told IT, “Kobe’s message was be yourself, don’t be scared to do something or to fail. If something’s hard, just keep going. Give it everything you can. Try and find something you love and put your all into it and make it work for you. It helps to have role models like Kobe. He was a great person and a legend. His death shows how passing life can be.”

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