By Lenn Robbins
It was early January of 2013 when I bumped into World Metta Peace in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. He broke into a huge smile, gave me a neck-cracking hug and we settled into a couple of chairs courtside to do some catching up.
I had forged a bond with the young man then known as Ron “Ron-Ron” Artest Jr. years earlier when he played at St. John’s. Anyone in the metropolitan area basketball world knew of Ron-Ron, his acts of generosity and volatile personality. He was ‘real,’ as they say, a kid out of Queensbridge who marched to his own thumping, erratic drummer to the NBA.
There were the really good years in Indianapolis, ended by the notorious Malice in the Palace brawl; the solid years in Sacramento and Houston, followed by the magical season when Artest and Kobe Bryant won the 2010 title together with the Lakers.
“Man, Kobe and I went at it before the Lakers,’’ Metta Peace told me. “I was worried we weren’t going to get along when I signed with them. It wasn’t that we didn’t like each other. We wore different jerseys, came from different places.
Bryant had lived in Europe as a child, where his father, Joe ‘Jellybean’ Bryant played professionally. Kobe was fluent in Italian and Spanish and later educated at Lower Merion High School on Philadelphia’s exclusive Main Line.
Artest’s world was a housing project in Queens and a struggling Catholic school on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside – LaSalle Academy.
‘Kobe, people would see his smile, right,’’ said World Peace. “And he can speak, like five languages or something. Nice suits. I’m all ghetto. But we would kill you to win a game. Kill you. That’s what we had.”
We will never see Kobe Bean Bryant’s luminescent smile again, which is almost as tragic as the fact that we will never see the smile of his daughter – Gianna Maria Bryant. Kobe, 41, and Gianna, 13, were both killed in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles on Sunday.
The Black Mamba, a nickname Kobe gave himself, is dead. Unfathomable.
Kobe still had so much of life to live but he had accomplished so much in such a short time. It was 14 years ago this week that he scored 81 points in an NBA game. It was just Saturday that LeBron James passed Kobe for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
James wrote “Mamba 4 Life” on his sneakers in Sunday’s game against the 76ers.
Bryant is a member of the most exclusive sports club – Pele, Serena, LeBron, Kobe.
And he was on the cusp of business and creative greatness. He won the 2018 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for “Dear Basketball,” a six-minute film based on a poem Kobe wrote. He parlayed a $6 million investment in sports drink BodyArmor into a $200 million payday when Coca-Cola bought the company.
Most of all, he was scratching the surface of being a father. Bryant was taking Gianna to one of her travel basketball games. Gianna had dreams of playing at Connecticut, the Lakers and Celtics of women’s college basketball rolled into one.
Gianna had her entire life ahead of her. There will be no WNBA title, no opportunity to write a poem or become a businesswoman. Unfathomable.
One of the few truths we know is that no parent should have to bury a child. Now Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s high school sweetheart, will have to bury a husband and child, and find a way to raise daughters Natalia, Bianka and Capri.
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kobe was asked if he had any regrets.
“Probably the amount of time spent on my craft and spent away from my family,” he said.
So what do we now, how do we process this tragedy?
Here’s the only consolation I can find. In their final seconds, Kobe and Gianna had each other. A father and a daughter together because of their love of the city game.
“He loves the game so much,’’ Artest said of Kobe. “You have to take his life to take that game from him.”