When it comes to sports teams, I’m pretty lucky.
My mom was a Jamaican immigrant raised in New York, but the only team from the city she loved was the Yankees. And for it I was able to experience four pennants in the 90’s in my favorite (and collegiate) sport, baseball.
My dad was raised, as was I, in Pittsburgh. Home to the Steelers and to the Penguins. I bled Black and Yellow while living through a dominate stretch of football spanning decades, reveled in two Super Bowl victories and cried over a third. Hall of fame players were and still are the norm for the Steelers alumni. As for the Pens? I don’t really even follow hockey but the Penguins forced my hand, giving me four of the greatest hockey players of their generations, oh and 5 Stanley Cups.
The Canes were the byproduct of love, adopted when I met my wife and her green and orange family. We’ve been season ticket holders for almost 15 years now. From that I get a history as rich as any in college football, or any sport really, amateur or professional. Champions were born and bred here.
Shoot, I even have my Jamaican heritage to fall back on when the Olympics come through.
More than any other sport however, basketball was king in my house growing up. As many times we cheered the Steelers on, or yelled over the pinstripes, I remember more than anything watching Jordan on a tiny 5x5 black and white tv with my dad at the laundrymat. Or trying to mimic Marv Albert with my friends and watching Space Jam with my cousins.
But, I truly loved basketball because it was so hard for me to figure out athletically. Baseball came naturally, football was simple, but basketball always escaped me. So to see it on TV played with such grace by NBA players always kept me glued to my seat more than other sports.
Thing was, in Pittsburgh, we didn’t have a pro team. The Pitt Panthers weren’t on my radar as a teenager. My mom hated the Knicks. The closest team to Pittsburgh was the Cavs, and well, aside from the Cavs being the Cavs, Pittsburgher’s HATE Cleveland, FSU style. So I had to choose a team on my own. Really the only choice I ever made as a sports fan.
It started with Magic. Not the rookie who dominated the Finals, or even the one that battled Cam’s Pistons. But the one that was trying to make a come back from retirement following an AIDS diagnosis . 24 years ago, Magic came back. His best friend questioned everything about him along with the rest of the country as he came out as HIV positive. And he was determined to prove not just to them, but to the rest of the world that he still had it. That he still had that Magic. He was my first underdog story, which always stuck with me.
Fast forward 7 years, through Nick Van Exel, Pat Riley, Eddie Jones and the injection of Shaq, and we were all introduced to a scrawny 17 year old from Philly that would become The Greatest Legend in my very fortunate sports fandom.
“The most important thing is you must put everybody on notice that you’re here and you are for real. I’m not a player that is just going to come and go. I’m not a player that is going to make an all star team one time, two times. I’m here to be an all-time great...Once I made that commitment and said ‘I want to be the greatest ever’ then the game became everything for me.”
The first thing you saw with Kobe was desire. Not to say other players didn’t want it like him or didn’t have a spark, but Kobe just had a hunger in his eyes that is uncommon. Before he was a perennial all star or winning rings he looked like he belonged. He carried himself like he had been there for years and I think that riled up opponents. He was seen as a kid, so for him to come off arrogant towards opponents meant he would probably see their best every game. Yet, it didn’t matter. Every game he brought the same drive and focus. Possession after possession, game after game, year after year. Championship after championship.
Whereas I enjoyed Magic for his gregarious nature and the underdog tail to the end of his career, Kobe was the opposite in a sense. He was cold blooded and the underdog to START his career. As an 18 year old in the NBA, not seen at the time as being a can’t miss top 3 pick like Carmelo or Lebron, Kobe had to separate himself by being confident and doing more than the next man.
The similarities in this respect between Kobe and the Hurricanes is strong. Both were talented upstarts. Both were thought to be in over their heads. Both decided to slap the world in the mouth to prove they belonged, and did it many times over. Kobe would have been a perfect Miami Hurricane to the pure definition. Out work, out hustle and out talent the opponent all while taking their heart at the same time.
When I think about Kobe Bryant, and I think about the Miami Hurricanes, the first number that jumps to mind is FIVE. As in championships. The two even won a championship in the same year - 2001. Success was always the expectation. The desired result.
The Hurricanes from 83-2003 were a juggernaut. In your face, rubbed you the wrong way and then called you soft for it. They revolutionized football for the way they played the sport, carried themselves and how they brought a city off its knees.
Kobe was no different. He was brash, loved the spotlight and didn’t care if you didn’t like him for it, foe or teammate. If you didn’t like it, stop him. His game may not have been revolutionary but he was so good at what he did, he went from emulation of a great to being emulated as a great.
As fans, we love the results. We scream at the screen when the big play happens.
Hester vs. UF.
Kobe vs Toronto.
Thrill Hill running through tunnels.
Kobe’s oop to Shaq vs Portland.
We feel like we hit the lottery after every big win. After every championship. Along with every championship, expectations tend to grow, and appreciation tends to wilt. While the joy and memories of a first championship holds bright, the subsequent rings grow hollow as we belittle teams and individuals when they don’t do it year after year. It’s not until the end is in sight when all the appreciation lost over the year returns in a flash, as we realize that we may have seen the last of greatness. That what we witnessed went too fast for us to really understand what we saw.
For Kobe at least, in his last game, his last gift of brilliance could allow him and allow the fans to share a moment of real gratitude. For a team like the Hurricanes, expectations and failure steal the opportunity for a great team to really get that type of send off.
Ultimately though, and as Kobe said it best:
“Those times when you get up early and you work hard...Those times you stay up late and you work hard. Those times when you don’t feel like working. You’re too tired. You don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway. THAT is actually the dream.”
Its easily lost on us as fans, when all we want are results. Even on players, because they want victory more than we think we do. But as cliche as it sounds, its always been the journey TO greatness that is the prize.
The grind that gets you TO the playoffs.
The grind that gets you TO the Finals.
The ice bathes, the study sessions, the team meetings, the small adjustments. The mundane. The monotonous. The trivial. The wait. Its why great is great. Its why championships feel so grand and so pure. Not because you get a trophy or to be in front of thousands, but to be vindicated, verified and validated.
Winning is an affirmation that what you did was right.
Kobe understood this, just as many champions. Like Ray Lewis, Jimmy Johnson, Ed Reed and Alonzo Highsmith, Kobe knew that one extra rep or one extra treatment would be the difference. He knew that if his opponents were sleeping he was already winning because he was putting in more work while they were counting sheep.
“I Can’t Relate to Lazy People. We Don’t Speak the Same Language. I Don’t Understand You. I Don’t Want to Understand You.”
More than anything else, Kobe Bryant was an example of “triumph AFTER triumph.” It was never win one and that’s it. It was always win more, and win more everywhere, not just on the court. Life isn’t anything near a game but sports teach us that we need to succeed incrementally when people aren’t watching. Reach and help as many people as you can. A man’s memorial will tell you if he was able to help a little or a lot. Put your family first. Even when we aren’t with them, know that they are watching. Be aware that we should make our peers proud and understand that our youngsters will become us, good or bad. Be able to look back on your work and be proud, because if you can’t you’ll just look back at a lot of wasted time when tomorrow is never promised.
What we see on stage is a result of what we don’t see behind the curtain.
“When we are saying this cannot be accomplished, this cannot be done, then we are short-changing ourselves. My brain, it cannot process failure. Because if I have to sit there and face myself and tell myself ‘you are a failure’,...that is almost worse than death.”
Everything Kobe stood for is what it means to Be a Miami Hurricane.