By Toni Caushi
BU News Service
Pitch black. It is June 2009. I swiftly slap the alarm clock so it doesn’t wake my parents, who are sleeping two rooms away. Without turning the lights on, I reach for the remote control, purposefully left within reach of my bed, to turn on the TV. I quietly slide out of my covers, walk over to my brother’s bed and shake him awake.
3 a.m. is our rendezvous to watch the NBA Finals. We are some 6,000 miles away from the STAPLES Center, where chants choke the Albanian announcer’s mediocre commentary and slip through the speakers at low volume from our Phillips TV.
“MVP, MVP, MVP!”
“Why are they yelling that?” my brother asks.
“Kobe must be taking free throws,” I say while rubbing my eyes.
I didn’t have to look at the screen. The chant made sense to a 16-year-old two continents and an ocean away. It made sense to me nine hours ahead of the Los Angeles local time, and I’m sure it made sense to others 10, 11 or 12 hours ahead on the other side of the globe.
With school as a nuisance and the subpar realities of our surroundings, NBA basketball made our cheap TV screens light up, like windows peeking into an island where towering superheroes lived forever.
The shiny parquet, the squeaking, gorgeous sneakers, the snapping glares of cameras, the handshakes were all part of a world that existed so far away, and yet felt so close. When the biggest stars were playing, we would do everything possible to watch them.
11 years later, the chants became “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.” 24-second violations rung across NBA stadiums as a nod to his number, in honor of his life. The world was compelled to celebrate his achievements, but his drawbacks emerged as well.
There were thing happening beyond the TV screen that we didn’t see. The shadow that chased some stars outside the basketball courts – Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest), Gilbert Arenas and Allen Iverson to name a few – was often missed.
The same could be said for Kobe Bryant, with 2003 sexual assault charges that can easily stifle lively conversations about him.
Much has been written about the complexity of mourning Bryant while also not dismissing the allegations, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But as a manic basketball fan and an appreciative observer of Kobe’s legacy, either in his sneakers or out of them I watched carefully for the impact on both Kobe the player and Kobe the man.
Among other things, the Bryant that emerged was committed to elevating women. Most notably, women in basketball. Working with students in their teens all the way up to collegiate players, Bryant stayed constantly busy after his 2016 retirement, establishing Mamba Sports Academy and creating a friendship with University of Oregon point guard, Sabrina Ionescu, who was also the focus for one of his ESPN+ analysis episodes, a show usually reserved for professional athletes.
His support for the WNBA surprised many. The WNBA is known to be underappreciated, Bryant was always there to give a push for empowerment. Four days before the Jan. 26 fatal accident, he had spoken to CNN to vouch for the quality of the WNBA.
The relationship he had with his daughter resurfaced after their deaths. An aspiring WNBA player, Gianna Bryant even played with her father’s style. Bryant was known for his obsessive nature during his career. In retirement, developing Gianna’s career as a basketball player had become his obsession.
Bryant told Elle Duncan of SportsCenter, “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.”
Duncan reminisced on this conversation after the shocking news.
“He died doing what he loved the most,” she said, choking up. “Being a dad. Being a girl dad.”
The push to give himself fully to the women in his life, in a way, came as a silent search to leave the old Kobe behind, starting with a clean slate. The number change from 8 to 24 happened at the beginning of the 2006-2007 season, hinting at a new start.
“The maturity level is greater,” Bryant explained to Bleacher Report in 2017. “Marriage, kids. Start having a broader perspective being one of the older guys on the team now, as opposed to being the youngest. Things evolve.”
Throughout my younger years, Bryant’s star shone among others as an undoubtedly special player. But in adulthood I see him as someone who was able to leave behind a past marred by an ugly decision and other difficult relationships, and in the end, manage to walk into the future with steps of a humble, yet ambitious giant.
By the time Bryant retired in 2016, other priorities had kept me from a chance to see him play live.
“It’s okay,” I said to my brother at the time. “He’ll join the BIG3, or become the Lakers coach, or something. We’ll eventually catch him.”
I could never imagine that something like an untimely death would be possible for him, and in a way, I’m still not able to. Even though the TVs got better, and I was in the same continent as him at the height of his career, for me, he will remain a dribbling figure in the old TV of my childhood home in Albania, in purple and gold, shooting a free throw surrounded by “MVP” chants.