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Life, Death and the Los Angeles Lakers

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I need this off my chest and if not now, then when?

Kimani Okearah

I’ve been trying to get through this one for a while now. I was at a dog park with my girlfriend on Sunday morning, enjoying bands of sun through long traveled clouds, soft wind on our faces when I realized I’d gone almost two hours without trying to distract myself from myself. My life these last 400 days, these last 4000 days really, have been a march through uneven ground rife with unexpected pain. Last November, my old brother told me, with cold certainty, he was going to die of cancer. In a year where I had already seen pass a friend, a grandfather, a cousin, and a dear mentor, doctors were sure death would come for Ricky before Christmas. I went to see him for a final time in December of 2018. Where my arch-rival for sidewalk hoops had been, a withered man now sat, braced on a couch against an unending tide of pain. I laid awake in his home, in the bed of his young sons and listened to him as he coughed himself awake throughout most nights. We watched movies for the final time, talked comic books for the final time, discussed old flames for the final time and finally, with more hesitation and heartbreak than any single moment before it in my 28 years on this Earth, I loaded his dog into my car and said goodbye for the final time. John Richard McKenzie fought the very end of time itself to see his two sons enjoy a final Christmas. He saw New Years pass. Then, on Valentine’s Day 2019 my older brother, my nemesis and inspiration in all things, a father, a husband, a Lakers fan and virulent support of Kobe Bryant left this world.

In our last conversation before I started a new life devoid of him, I tried to unclench that ever-tightening knot in my throat by challenging Ricky to a final game of one-on-one. I even offered to spot him the use of his oxygen tank as a tool for defense and a 10 point lead going to 11 and through a forced smile he reminded me that when he left, he left being the only one of my eleven siblings that ever went out with an undefeated record against me, even if it was only by a single game. I begged him for that one last shot to force a tie, citing that if Kobe Bryant could hit two free throws with a torn achilles, he could certainly win a game with a 10 point lead and an oxygen tank to hit me with. “It’s just a bit of terminal cancer, Rick, it’s not like a torn achilles or anything serious”.

I spent most of childhood waiting for the random night that he’d drive up to the house just to stand by my hoop out on curb and tease mercilessly “Yeah, you’re good but you aren’t Kobe Bryant level yet”. I could hit ten fadeaways in a row and he’d be there on the eleventh shot’s clank to remark that I shouldn’t be yelling “IVERSON” if I expected to make it. He pushed Mamba Mentality before Mamba Mentality was even a marketing ploy. He knew I hated the Lakers and rubbed their successes in my face or into our conversations any chance he could. He knew he could get a basketball towards his head for even bringing Kobe into a rational discussion about GOATs or best of generations. After years of waving to Kobe Bryant on his purple and gold pedestal of work ethic and drive, how now, even all these years later, could he expect me to not want one last game, want one last buzzer beater against him, one last win for either of us, even if just to prove we never gave up competing as an infinity apart loomed over us. It hurt him to laugh at my black humor, really hurt him to even be awake, but, being who he was he laughed the best he could anyways, because he knew I needed it. Because he knew he had it coming after so many years of dishing it out. That typical bandwagon Lakers fan, the Southern California jerk who can’t name four starters on that season’s team but yelled “KOBE!” during every. single. shot. of a 1v1 game that he had no business being in, let alone winning - he knew I just needed that guy to be okay again. Speaking both about cancer and his much taller, little brother: Ricky died undefeated.

Kobe Bryant has long been my least favorite player in the NBA. He was a tool for torture by my brother, he broke a young LA-based Sixers fans heart in 2001 and then a newly transplanted young Kings fan’s heart every year there after in some way, shape or form, basically every year until his retirement in 2016. He was the Boogeyman. He was the inevitability of bad shit headed our way. As I went from eight footer, on-the-curb hoops to games away from multiple California State Championship appearances, Kobe and his fans were the reason I pushed as hard as I did. I saw a number 8 or 24 on the court, I knew that asshole had to get stripped on a break, had to get boxed-out with a little extra elbow, had to get a bit extra jaw from me after a three. Kobe Bryant was untouchable, but their Lakers-loving ass was going to have some extra bruising tomorrow. I cut my teeth talking about basketball just arguing with Lakers fans at school, at work, online. My roommate in college, now one of my best friends, is a Kobe fanatic. Mamba shoes, jerseys of every type, one of those devout followers of all things Kobe Bean. I was with him the night Kobe tore his achilles and held him in a hug like we’d heard a relative had passed, knowing that Kobe, that Kobe at least, was gone forever. I tore my achilles a few weeks later and cried knowing the same about myself. Talking to Ricky about it over text later he said “Your favorite player is going to come back better than ever, why not you?” By the time Kobe came to Sacramento for his final game, I was writing for you all at Sactown Royalty. I wrote in the preview for that game:

“If the world had no villains, it would have no heroes either, and if it hadn’t been for Kobe Bryant testing my faith in the Kings during some of those all-time great games against us, I would have been a lesser fan. He made me hate him so many times over the years, and that pushed me further into my fandom for the Kings.”

I was at that game, and boo’d his ass out of Sacramento, just as he’d have wanted it. But it wasn’t with hatred as I had hoped and expected it would be. It was begrudging respect, disappointment for having never beaten him. As much as I could boo, as much as the Kings could fight, Bryant left the game having bested the team I love. A team I know for certain I love because of Kobe Bryant. Most days I’d wager that means I got to hate him for two things, but today, I can’t muster it up.

I was on a bench, trying to breath through the slowly rising tide of anxiety that I fear will come in perpetuity around this time of year. The one year anniversary of my brother’s passing is weeks away, and every time I pass through Target and see chocolate hearts I think of him. Every time I pass the local basketball courts and see kids shooting hoops, every time someone mentions prices of oil, or their family in the military or I see twins, my heart collapses into the hole that was left by his passing. A buzz from my back pocket and my youngest sister, currently serving in the Air Force was the first to text me about Kobe’s passing. I checked Twitter expecting to see people talking smack about fake rumors. Instead, there was panic, pain, disbelief and I fall, even now, into that hole, familiar and cold, all over again. By Sunday night, I’d found myself wandering DOCO before a movie meant to distract me from the churn of grief - about Kobe sure. About Kobe, and Gigi, and Alyssa Altobelli, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Ara Zabayan, Sarah Chester, Peyton Chester, Christina Mauser, my brother, my Kobe-worshipping friend and hundreds of thousands of people just like him around the globe. As we wandered through the shops, people in Kobe jerseys passed. Some with heads held proud, walking through enemy territory seemingly ready to defend the Mamba one last time. Others still in tears, trying to find somewhere, some physical place to memorialize him but finding no memorial here, in the town that hated him most.

I have no final point to make. There will be no “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears. I have come to bury Kobe, not praise him”. The only, the final point for any one is death, and that it fucking sucks. Whether it be your older brother, your worst enemy or the myriad of people in-between, death comes for the nurse in Altadena and the Hall of Famer in Calabasas alike. It comes crawling through your legs like cancer or rushes like fire through a cockpit and when it arrives, there are no final games we get to play to postpone it. Try as we might, all the love in the world can’t muster the strength to beat what is truly undefeated.

Love those you have while you have them, remember those you’ve lost while you can, and, whenever possible, beat the snot out of any young punk kid that thinks you’re too past your prime to score on him.

To all our brothers and sisters in the Laker family and the Basketball community as a whole: We mourn the loss of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. Their lives meant more to us than we can ever say.