Kobe Bryant was a true cultural icon

Kobe Bryant was much more than a basketball superstar. He was a cultural icon, and is rightfully being mourned as such.

The NBA legend died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people. The helicopter was traveling to Gianna’s basketball game, where Bryant was slated to coach.

In other words, he was being a dad — a proud girl dad.

Out of all the touching tributes shared about Bryant over the last three days, one of the most poignant came from “SportsCenter” anchor Elle Duncan, who described meeting Bryant at an ESPN event while she was eight months pregnant.

“I saw him and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Kobe. I’ve gotta get a picture for the ‘gram,” she said Monday. “I didn’t get it for a few minutes because, as I approached him, he immediately commented on my rather large, eight month pregnant belly.”

Bryant asked Duncan if she was expecting a son or daughter. When she said the latter, his eyes lit up with excitement. “‘Girls are the best.’,” she says Bryant told her. “”I asked him for advice on raising girls seeing as though he quite famously had three at the time and he said, ‘Just be grateful that you’ve been given that gift because girls are amazing.’”

One of the most difficult things to process about Bryant’s tragic passing is how his second act was just getting started. In the three years since retiring from the NBA, Bryant had won an Oscar for his animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” and served as a champion for inclusivity in sports. Bryant’s legacy is complex, and there were dark times, such as the disturbing and credible rape allegations levied against him in 2003. But it’s apparent Bryant underwent an evolution, and there’s little doubt he served as a voice for good in the later staged of his life.

To understand Bryant’s impact, just read and watch the words of crestfallen NBA stars. Roughly 12 hours before Bryant’s death, LeBron James delivered a surreal pre-eulogy, speaking about Bryant’s impact on his life after he had passed him for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list.

Bryant’s gesture of giving a then-16-year-old LeBron James his sneakers was more powerful than anything he had accomplished on the basketball court — even if the shoes were one size too small.

On Instagram Monday, James wrote how he was ready to take the Basketball Ambassador mantle from Bryant. “I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man!” he wrote. “You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!!”

Bryant’s incredible career achievements will live forever on highlight reels and stat sheets. But his words and gestures will leave the most indelible mark. In today’s polarized world, there are no longer many true icons who rise about our cultural divisions. Bryant was one of the last standing. He was universally beloved.

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