Kobe Bryant, villain in Phoenix for 20 years, sheds his black hat in death

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Bryant died today. Four words I did not expect to hear — let alone write — when this day started. But there they are, in black and white. Kobe Bryant, gone at the age of 41.

Less than four years removed from the final game of his Hall of Fame career.

Less than two years after winning an Oscar.

Less than a year after publishing his first young adult novel.

Less than a day after congratulating LeBron James on passing him on the all-time scoring list.

In the immediate aftermath, figures from all walks expressed their condolences — players, current and former; coaches; owners; fans; and more. Teams took 24-second and 8-second violations in his memory. Lamar Odom, who was a teammate of Kobe's for seven seasons, posted on Instagram: "When I went through that Coma situation if God would have came to me and said we would take me and spare Kobe I would have rather that happened."

In times such as these, it can be difficult to find the words. As a writer, you always strive to do the story justice, to craft each sentence in such a way that the language and structure of the writing conveys the gravity of the topic. Absent that ability at present, I'll substitute honesty.

This hurts...and it's an unexpected hurt. I was never a Kobe fan for multitudinous reasons, not the least of which his being a thorn in the side of my favorite team for 20 seasons. How do you root for a man not inaccurately described by Raja Bell in 2006 as "pompous?" How do you cheer someone who openly disliked you back? How do you, as a Suns fan, support a Laker?

Yet as the years ground down his all-world talent, time also revealed a side to Kobe few saw previously. He was personable, affable, easy-going. Yes, he was still step-on-your-throat competitive, but he also appeared content in the knowledge that he'd done as much as he could as a basketball player. He wouldn't be one of those players who cling to their glory years, barking to anyone who'll listen that they can still play this game. Kobe could still play this game when he hung up his sneakers; he just had better things to do by 2016 than put a ball through a hoop.

He wrote the poem "Dear Basketball" in announcing his retirement, a love letter to the game he'd dedicated his life to, which in turn spawned the animated short that won him an Oscar in 2018. Kobe called his Oscar one of his most prized accomplishments due to its unexpected nature.

He started writing The Wizenard Series with co-author Wesley King, hoping to encourage and inspire kids to overcome the obstacles in their lives. This came on the heels of writing his own book, The Mamba Mentality, that landed on the New York Times' Best Seller list.

He created a series for ESPN, Detail, where he shared his accumulated wisdom with anyone interested, breaking down the game of basketball as he saw it — in excruciating, well, detail.

He became an even more outspoken advocate for women's sports, especially the WNBA, just recently declaring that Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, and Elena Delle Donne could all play in the NBA. He spoke up not just because he believed it but because he wanted his daughters to grow up in a world where they believed nothing was off limits to them.

Which leads me to the most important thing he had to do.

After two decades of being consumed by basketball, Kobe could finally let his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters consume him. And he acquiesced happily. His family activities included watching oldest daughter Natalia play volleyball or singing Barney songs to his three-year-old, Bianka. And then there was Gianna. Harboring basketball aspirations of her own, Kobe cherished that bond they shared, taking the 13-year-old to numerous NBA and WNBA games and coaching her and her teammates at the Mamba Sports Academy.

"For me to make the trip up to Staples Center, that means I'm missing an opportunity to spend another night with my kids when I know how fast it goes," Bryant said in a Los Angeles Times piece about why he doesn't attend as many Lakers games as he could. "I want to make sure the days that I'm away from them are days that I absolutely have to be. I'd rather be with them than doing anything else."

Gianna was with her father when the helicopter they were flying in went down.

Kobe was a jaw-jutting, jersey-biting, uber-competitive, pompous jerk who rubbed more than his fair share of people the wrong way. The flip side of that coin, however, was a human being so driven, so talented, and so multifaceted that nothing seemed beyond his reach. A man who adored his family and was bound and determined to make up for lost time. Someone who couldn't have appeared happier in his new stage of life.

It's the space created by that second side of the coin that allowed me to entertain a respect for a player and person I once despised. To admire the player who played through a busted-up finger and tried to pull his snapped Achilles tendon back into place. To not feel animosity towards the person who had been on the receiving end of one of Phoenix's most-enduring sports moments — The Clothesline.

It's a space that allowed me to mourn. To cry.

For a Laker.

For a father.

For someone taken far too soon.

For someone who had too much left to offer the world.

Today, I put petty fandom aside. I don't care that Kobe Bryant tormented my favorite team or that he thwarted Phoenix's last real chance at a title with Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire in the fold. Because basketball is just a game. It's not life, no matter how weighty the overhyped stakes sometimes feel.

In the wake of this tragedy, we are all reminded that more important things exist. Reminded by the grief of a wife who will carry on without her husband and daughter. Reminded by the sorrow of three girls who will grow up without their father and sister, including a little girl born last June who likely won't remember either at all.

Reminded that nothing is promised to us in life. Sadly, not even tomorrow.