How Kobe Bryant's incredible journey with the Lakers turned a 'hater' into an admirer

I'm sure I had a common reaction when the news surfaced that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning.

Disbelief came first. Denial came second. And finally, sadness and grief. The city of Los Angeles is hurting right now. It is in a daze. I saw people weeping in the streets. I was one of them.

Most Angelenos never had the chance to meet the man. We could only watch his accomplishments from afar. And yet, the news of his death was a punch to the gut. It feels like we've lost a part of our family.

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For a younger generation, Kobe was our Michael Jordan. He entered our living rooms at the perfect time. Someone was needed to fill the void left by MJ, and even though we didn't know it at the time, we found that someone in Bryant.

He joined the league in 1996 out of high school as a scrawny kid oozing with confidence. We watched him grow up in front of our eyes. We watched him and Shaquille O'Neal take over LA (and the entire NBA) and win three championships. We watched as his feud with Shaq played out publicly. He won two more championships without O'Neal, and further cemented his legacy in a city that has grown accustomed to greatness.

As I sit and watch the highlights and tributes, it allows me to think about the relationship, albeit from afar, that I had with Kobe Bryant. It's a strange one. My father is from the East Coast. There was no love for the Lakers in my house. In fact, there was hatred — and Kobe received the brunt of that hatred.

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Every season for 20 years, I watched 82 games of Lakers basketball, always praying they'd find a way to go down. Kobe was always at the forefront. I hated that he coined the term "Mamba Mentality." I hated that incredible and unstoppable turnaround jumper. I hated that he had an 81-point game. I hated that no matter the score, I always had that sick feeling in my stomach knowing that Kobe wasn't going to let his Lakers lose.

And yet, as the years passed, I felt the "sports hate" that I had for Kobe begin to fade. I slowly realized, begrudgingly, that not only did I have immense respect for him, but I also admired him.

He was everything I wanted in an athlete. His work ethic was legendary. The famous 5 a.m. gym sessions, countless hours spent perfecting his game, an absolute devotion to winning at all costs — his singular focus on the game he loved was intoxicating. I wanted to believe I would have been the same way if given the opportunity to stand in his Nike shoes.

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He struck fear in my heart when the game was on the line. Players say they want the shot at the end of the game, but do they really want the pressure of the final possession? Not only did Kobe want the shot, but you were convinced it was going in. When you watch an athlete deliver again and again on the biggest stage, you can't help but learn to love it.

I'll always remember Kobe as the greatest basketball player of my generation. I'll remember the incredible respect he garnered from his peers and the reverence the younger players showed him. I'll remember standing and screaming at the TV for Kobe to keep shooting in the last game of his career.

I'll remember the few short years after his retirement when I deeply missed watching him play at Staples Center as he started a new chapter in his life off the court. He showed us that he was capable of anything, winning an Oscar in 2018 for his animated short film "Dear Basketball."

Kobe, and his daughter Gianna, are no longer with us. Tears will be shed for quite some time. But we'll always remember what he gave to the game of basketball, what he gave to the fans and what he gave to the city of Los Angeles.

So from a former hater, a final message to the Mamba: Thank you, Kobe.