Every kid who grew up in the 2000s remembers throwing a piece of garbage in a bin and yelling, “Kobe!” To speak the name of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, with a balled piece of paper or plastic in hand, was to call on the powers of Shazam for a few fleeting seconds. Bryant’s name turned the mundane into the fantastic, giving everyone who spoke it, regardless of age, the power to crossover from the threshold of the middle school cafeteria to the ends of the Staples Center.
Growing up, I would hear stories about Michael Jordan’s legendary run with the Chicago Bulls, stories about dunking from the free-throw line, and a meticulous style of play made to look effortless. With millions of others, I watched Bryant’s greatness grow on the Los Angeles Lakers’ court before my very eyes. Three-point shots flowed like butter and alley-oops popped off like popcorn. He made being a superhero look easy.
On Sunday, January 26, Bryant, 41, along with eight other souls, including his daughter, Gianna Bryant, 13, perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
Throughout his playing career, everyone from JAY-Z and Beanie Sigel to Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar used Bryant as a signifier of dopeness, of quickness (“With a splash of Monster Kody / Shoot faster than Kobe”), and of deadly accuracy (“When I roll up on niggas, I tell them to move slowly / Or get 8 on their chest like a Kobe jersey”). Being like the Black Mamba wasn’t just aspirational; it was a lifestyle.
Kobe’s achievements as a player for the Lakers and a global ambassador for basketball are too numerous to name here, but his basketball resume wasn’t the first thought to cross my mind when I heard about his untimely death. I thought about the city of Los Angeles, which less than nine months ago lost another local icon.
For a short time before his murder on March 31, 2019, Crenshaw native Nipsey Hussle experienced a meteoric, late-career rise to rap stardom. Nipsey, born Ermias Asghedom, was a man of the people, gaining trust through a series of mixtapes, which led to him selling physical copies of his breakout project, Crenshaw, for 100 dollars each. JAY-Z famously bought 100 copies, validating the work ethic Nipsey spent years perfecting. Nipsey’s major-label debut, Victory Lap, released in 2018, was aptly titled. The album is a monument to the motivation Hussle drew from the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson.
Nipsey’s vision brought thousands of fans to the building Kobe Bryant built for his funeral. The level of respect he commanded within the rap community inspired an all-star tribute at the GRAMMYs on Sunday night. The Marathon Continues is more than a hashtaggable mantra; Hussle’s sportsmanlike ethos has become a lifestyle.
To hear Nipsey Hussle tell straightforward stories of his come up on Childish Gambino’s “Black Faces” (“Young rich nigga shit, pops was a immigrant / lifestyle ill legit, but now I own businesses / Started out the trunk, ended up at the dealership”) is to watch Kobe Bryant drive to the basket and dunk on an opposing player. Getting to the point was their specialty.
Directness was their shared specialty, but the pair also oozed crossover appeal. Bryant filmed interviews alongside Kendrick Lamar and attended studio sessions with Kanye West. Nipsey conveyed his love for the game far beyond his rooting interest in the Lakers and his courtside presence at games. He regularly played in fundraiser tournaments and even contributed to friend Russell Westbrook’s annual Thanksgiving dinner drive.
In life and in death, Bryant and Hussle are beloved, but both were imperfect. In 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado hotel. Bryant settled with the alleged victim out of court, but the story followed him throughout his playing career. Similarly, in 2018, Hussle posted a picture of Black boys to Instagram that was meant to uplift and inspire. Instead, he put forth homophobic rhetoric in the caption: “They gone feed us every image of our men and boys but this one. No hyper violent...No homo sexual...No abandoners...Just strong blacc men and young men!” The post inspired backlash online, which Nipsey attempted to mitigate—to mixed results—during an interview with The Breakfast Club.
Seeing Bryant and Nipsey side-by-side, airbrushed onto the digital screens above the GRAMMYs stage on Sunday evening, was a shock to the system. Equally disturbing, though, was seeing a photo of Bryant and Nipsey at a 2014 peace summit with the family of the late Trayvon Martin. Two superstars standing alongside two of this generation’s most iconic Civil Rights activists. They cared for and about their community. And their community cared just the same.
Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle, in life and in death, will forever be linked.