A memorial wall at a basketball facility called “House of Kobe” in Valenzuela City, in the Philippines.Credit...Rolex Dela Pena/EPA, via Shutterstock
To be a basketball fan is to rank the star you’re watching with the stars you have seen before, constantly searching for the precise comparison.
He’s a young Magic Johnson with a better jump shot. He’s like Kareem in his prime but shorter. He’s good, but does he have Jordan’s killer instinct?
The search stopped Sunday night because there’s no analogy to be made. Nothing like this had ever happened before in basketball. The tragic, hard-to-believe-it’s-real death of Kobe Bryant simply has no comparison in the modern N.B.A.
A star so famous he had one name — Shaq, LeBron, Kobe — cut down so suddenly, so close to the peak of his powers.
Most baby boomers can tell you where they were when they learned that J.F.K. was shot. Now basketball fans have their own terrible version.
If Kobe wasn’t quite the president of the N.B.A., he was something kind of like it. Bill Clinton recently sat courtside to watch the Lakers and chat with LeBron. Kobe did so all the time, and it had a similar feel.
One reason the N.B.A. is so popular, so perfectly suited to this cultural moment, is the seeming accessibility of its stars. Basketball players aren’t hidden behind bulky helmets. They are on the court in tank-tops, they are in the locker room as fashion icons, they are on Instagram as celebrities.
Because the N.B.A. is so online, far more so than any other sports league, fans and players all experienced the news of Kobe’s death together, watching one another learn the news in real time, grieving through selfies and memes and broken-heart emojis.