Kobe Bryant’s final game in Memphis: A road trip to remember

Kobe Bryant is gone.

It still doesn’t feel real.

Finding the right words to describe this unimaginable loss has been a challenge for the past month.

There’s nothing I can write that hasn’t already been expressed, but nothing beats a personal experience.

My favorite memory of Bryant occurred from the club-level seats of the FedEx Forum on Feb. 24, 2016.

The Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard received a screen on the right wing, took one dribble and stepped back for a three-pointer that barely grazed the net as it went through the basket.

This was a regular season game without much meaning, but the entire arena celebrated as if he’d just drilled a shot at the buzzer, as he’s done countless times throughout his 20-year NBA career.

Instead, the triple brought him to 13 points and a couple minutes later he was subbed out of the game.

Bryant’s point total didn’t mean much, because he’s proved what he’s capable of during his tenure in the league, but to see him up close brought goosebumps to myself and four friends that made the trip to Memphis that day, which was marked on the calendar from the moment the future Hall-of-Famer announced his plan to retire.

A group of us — brought together through college — wanted to see Byrant in-person for his final stop in Memphis. Securing tickets, travel and taking time off from work were the main hurdles, but it was well worth it because we all needed a break from the monotony of our daily lives.

I took the responsibility of purchasing tickets, since I had a frat brother who worked for the Grizzlies. Ran committed to driving, unwillingly of course.

The three-hour drive wasn’t relatively bad for the four who lived in Nashville, the place we all met, but Jae had to travel from Chicago, eight hours from Memphis. And through a snowstorm at that.

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From left: Jae, Rob, Ran, myself and Q after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 128-119 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on February 24, 2016.

Q, by far the biggest Lakers fan I know, anticipated the mini-getaway the most and even wore his Kobe VII Poison Dart Frog’s to pay homage to his favorite player of all time.

Rob was the final person of our group, and kept us laughing throughout the entire trip.

As soon as we got to “the M,” as the natives call it, we stopped at Central BBQ for a quick bite to eat before heading to Beale Street to catch up with a few friends from our alma mater, Tennessee State University.

Once we got into the arena and found our seats, our expectations of a vintage “Black Mamba” performance quickly surfaced — perhaps a game-winning shot, a flurry of turnaround fadeaways or even an explosion for 60 points (we’d eventually get our wish two months later).

Instead, we got to see Bryant shoot 5-of-14 in 29 minutes as the Lakers suffered a 128-119 loss to the Grizzlies.

His quickness wasn’t there that night. His jump-shot wasn’t as fluid as it once was. But the one thing that remained constant was his will to win.

Often depicted as the greatest Laker of all-time, this was the same Bryant who won five NBA championships and two Finals MVP awards, finished No. 4 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, appeared in 18 All-Star games and last but not least, dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors.

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Feb 24, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) steals the ball in the first quarter as Memphis Grizzlies forward Matt Barnes (22) looks on at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Even if he didn’t appear like it that night, that version was still in there somewhere.

We were satisfied. It was a road-trip that we’ll never forget. At least I won’t.

After the game, I remember telling my friends: I couldn’t call myself a fan of basketball without witnessing the greatness of Kobe “Bean” Bryant, even if I favored LeBron James more.

Kobe excelled on and off the court. His sheer determination to become the greatest at whatever he tried to accomplish is something I admired.

During his retirement, Bryant stepped into the world of storytelling as an author, producer and filmmaker, most notably for his animated film, “Dear Basketball,” which won an Oscar in 2018.

He was becoming the biggest advocate for women’s basketball, as his 13-year-old daughter Gianna was falling in love with the game he strived to perfect.

Fast forward four years to Feb. 24, 2020 and I don’t think any of us imagined we’d be watching a memorial service for Kobe and Gianna on national television to honor the legacy they left behind.

***

Jan. 26, 2020 is a date that’ll forever be recognized as the day the world stopped. Not just the sports world, either.

I’m sure everyone knows where they were when it was reported that Kobe Bryant, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, and seven other passengers lost their lives in a tragic helicopter crash in Southern California.

I had just finished helping a colleague move furniture and my plans were to watch an online church service I’d just missed.

After the sermon, I checked Twitter and instantly exited the app in disgust because I saw TMZ report the news about Kobe’s death. I couldn’t believe someone had the audacity to report such a thing, but the more I scrolled, the more I feared it was true.

I couldn’t believe it. LeBron James had just passed Kobe for No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list the night before in Philadelphia, P.A. — Kobe’s hometown.

It gave me the same gut-wrenching feeling I had when I found out Nipsey Hussle had been killed in April of 2019.

I scrolled through my contacts list and FaceTimed almost 10 people, but my most vivid memory is talking to Q.

Quick fact: If I call you more than twice it’s probably an emergency and you need to pick up.

After maybe three or four calls to Q with no answer, he finally called me back and asked what was going on.

He clearly didn’t know what I was about to tell him, but all I could muster up as the tears rolled down my face was, “Kobe’s gone!”

Before I could even say more, I received a call from work and I was faced with two choices: sit at home and sulk or go a local basketball tournament and speak to people about the impact Kobe left on them. I chose the latter.

That’s what Kobe would’ve wanted, right?

It was there I found out, Gigi, who was just beginning her promising basketball career, was on the helicopter as well.

Several boys and girls who just finished stepping off the court were met with the heartbreaking news and couldn’t even fathom what they were being told. The win or loss didn’t matter anymore and perspective began to take shape.

Nine people started the day with plans on returning to their families and now that wasn’t possible.

For the next few weeks, tributes were held nationwide across all levels of basketball, which included moments of silence, heartfelt messages on sneakers, game-winners and jersey changes to No. 2 (Gigi), 24 or 8 (Kobe). A kid even wore No. 33 to honor Bryant’s high school jersey.

The NBA front office, Lakers organization and national media did a phenomenal job with providing commercial-less coverage of every tribute from the first game at Staples Center, to All-Star Weekend and finally, today’s memorial to honor nine souls: John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, Ara Zobayan, Gianna Bryant and Kobe Bryant.

While it appears as if it’s tough for us as a sports community, I can’t imagine the type of grief the families and friends of all who were lost are going through.

One thing I’ve learned about death is that it never gets easier, and as we get older, it gets closer to home. And the best way to honor those we lost is to live each day with purpose.

Just as Kobe did during his career in the NBA, retirement, and as a father and husband.

That’s the Mamba Mentality.