Mike McGraw: Like Payton, Bryant is a famous sports dad gone too soon
There was a time, before the wave of web-only news, when I was usually the last person to leave the press room at the United Center.
After one particularly long night, after the Bulls played the Lakers, I walked out of the room as usual. The hallways were empty. The players, equipment managers, friends and family, security guards were long gone.
Then suddenly, the door to the visitors locker room opened up and out walked Lakers star Kobe Bryant with a small entourage. It was the strangest thing. What was he doing in there?
Maybe I should have asked him, but just walked past. I guess he didn't need a night out in Chicago, something most NBA players look forward to. Hanging in the locker room with a few people was his formula to unwind.
Bryant died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash in California. He was just 41.
Bryant left an impressive legacy as a player. He probably dropped out of the greatest-of-all-time argument dominated by Michael Jordan and LeBron James. But he's certainly an NBA legend, probably the second-best shooting guard ever, second-best late-game clutch scorer, behind only Jordan.
At 9:39 p.m. on Saturday night, Bryant sent a tweet congratulating James for passing him on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
Bryant had some issues as a player, questions about being a good teammate, along with some troubling legal issues. Later in his career, he was certainly a class act. His farewell news conference at the United Center in 2016 was impressive.
News of Bryant's death shook the sports world on Sunday afternoon. My first thoughts were of Walter Payton, my favorite athlete when I was a kid, who we lost at age 45. Different circumstances, but another athlete who should have had a much longer run as a living legend.
During the 1990s, I'd often see Payton at high school games, watching his son Jarrett, who played soccer and football at St. Viator. One of the many tragic aspects of his passing was Walter never got to see Jarrett carry the ball in the national championship game for Miami in 2003, or cheer on both his children as they've progressed as broadcasters.
Bryant has four daughters and appeared to be heavily invested in their sports career. The oldest, Natalia, is a junior in high school and specializes in volleyball. The second-oldest, Gianna, has been billed as one of the best ninth-grade basketball players in the country and Bryant reportedly coached her middle school team.
Multiple reports said Gianna also died in the accident.
Even if an athlete is famous across the globe, his greatest impact will always be inside his own home. The years his daughters will spend without their father and sister are truly tragic.
I wish I could say I had some personal encounters with Bryant. My strongest memory of covering him was probably after rumors spread of him asking to be traded to the Bulls sometime in the mid-2000s. When the Bulls went out West the following season, I waited at his locker with Jay Mariotti before a game hoping we could ask him about it, but he never showed.
I was fortunate to cover his first championship as a player, when the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals. After the Lakers' clinching victory in Game 6, no one was allowed to leave the Staples Center for a few hours, because the celebration outside had gotten out of hand.
I hung out in the tunnel with a few stranded celebrities and eventually saw Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal leave (separately) in triumph. Then I walked outside and past the charred, overturned police car that Lakers fans had set on fire. Lakers fans have a passion and unquestioned love for Bryant that is well-documented.
Bryant always seemed willing to give advice to other NBA players, just as Jordan did for him. The torch passed from Jordan to Bryant to James and the competition is underway to determine the NBA's next legend. Whoever it is, one of the forefathers will be missed.