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JOHN DeMONT: The redemption of Kobe Bryant

Raptors DeMar DeRozan hugs Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant after Bryant plays last game at the ACC in Toronto, Ont. on Monday December 7, 2015. Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network
The Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan hugs Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant after Bryant played his last game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Dec. 7, 2015. - Craig Robertson / Toronto Sun / Postmedia Network

When I asked the most winning coach in Canadian university sports history about the single image of Kobe Bryant that will stick with him forever, Steve Konchalski, paused briefly Monday.

Then he said the unparalleled baseline fade-away jump shot, just like the one that Bryant hit over Steve Nash — whom Konchalski coached on Canada's national team — ending the NBA playoff run of Nash's Phoenix Suns.

Now, I honestly don't remember that shot.

But I had just been watching a YouTube video of the scene the St. Francis Xavier men's coach described next, which I probably saw about the same time he did, and haven't been able to forget either.

It's Bryant limping slowly to the foul line against the Golden State Warriors. Moments before, as he had done thousands of times, he took a couple of dribbles to his left.

At about the foul line, where he was always able to defy space, time and gravity, Bryant — who by then had been playing professional basketball for half of his 34 years — seemed to lose his footing.

The referee, perhaps because it was Kobe Bryant, whistled a two-shot foul. But the Los Angeles Laker legend stayed on the floor, clutching his left Achilles tendon.

The pain from a torn Achilles, I'm told, can be extreme. But the Lakers were down by two points with just 3:06 left in the game. And so, after a time out, Bryant walked to the foul line. There, jaw set, he tied the game before making his slow exit to the locker room.

People everywhere have been looking at old videos of Bryant since we learned that he died Sunday, at just 41, in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people.

Of the 81-point effort against our Toronto Raptors, of the 60 he scored in his final game — after returning from the torn Achilles tendon — against the Utah Jazz, of his high-light reel dunks and game winning shots, of his heroics during the five NBA titles his teams won.

Konchalski never coached against him, although he did spend some behind the bench in the Los Angeles Summer League, when Bryant was still a teenager just starting out. (“You used to see him in the hotel and around the gym a lot,” Konchalski said.)

But he is a Bryant fan like so many are. The skill level was out of this world from the moment he stepped onto an NBA court.

But there was always something old-school about Bryant: unlike today's stars who flit from franchise to franchise, Bryant played all 20 seasons in Los Angeles, a level of loyalty which would appeal to a coach who has been behind the St. F.X. bench since 1975.

Then there's the kind of work ethic that made Konchalski's friend, Jay Triano, once Canada's national team coach, now an assistant in the NBA, say he had "never seen an athlete as committed to his sport as Bryant.”

There's something else that Konchalski won't forget about him: what he meant to others, how he got young people, whether the men who played for him at St. F.X., and even young women like his own daughter, Maria, who suited up for the school's X-Women varsity basketball team from 2006-2010, to pick up a basketball and try to be like Kobe.

“I hear it over and over again, 'The reason I started playing basketball was because of Kobe,'” said Konchalski who, with his assistants, plans to sit down with their team to try to help young men make sense of the tragic death of a hero.

Bryant's spectacular career, you have to understand, unfolded right out on social media for the world to see. So the condolences and R.I.P.'s came pouring in from across the globe, from athletes, and entertainers, statesmen, and ordinary people shocked by his passing.

His legacy, anyone can see, is a complex one. Monday a reporter for the Washington Post was suspended from work following her tweets about the 2004 rape allegations against Bryant and the ensuing backlash she received online.

The criminal charges were dropped when his accuser chose not to testify. But Bryant paid an undisclosed amount in a civil suit settlement and also apologized to her publicly.

If the scandal had occurred today, since the rise of the MeToo movement, his narrative would be very different, so would the headlines. But he had time for redemption.

It seems like he had the will, too.

Reading Monday's coverage it seemed like nothing was ever the same for him after the sexual assault allegation surfaced, as was certainly true for the complainant in the case, who was pilloried mercilessly by Bryant's high-priced lawyers.

He told the Washington Post that the incident changed his personality on the court, where he began to think of himself as the pitiless “Black Mamba,” a character from Quentin Tarantino's movie Kill Bill.

Off of it he became a different man, too.

From what I understand, he patched stuff up with his wife. He became a great dad; the helicopter on which he died was thought to be on the way to daughter Gianna's basketball game. He became a mentor to younger athletes.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Bryant built a wide-ranging business empire that includes a venture capital fund, multimedia production company, athletic training centres and books. In 2018 he won an Academy Award for an animated short called Dear Basketball based on a poem he wrote about his impending retirement in 2016.

I have no idea how absolution is achieved. But Bryant's seems complete.

And what we will remember, what we will perhaps never forget, is that he was a man with other-worldly skill and ambition, who died in the most human way possible: just trying to make his daughter happy.


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