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Hochman: Saying goodbye to Kobe Bryant — mentor to Tatum, hero to Flaherty

Hochman: Saying goodbye to Kobe Bryant — mentor to Tatum, hero to Flaherty

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The fiercest competitors always seem to have the best smiles, don’t they?

Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Yadier Molina and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

It’s as if they put so much into winning, expending so much energy, that they earn this excess happiness to express. And this is how they do so — through a great grin with wattage that mere mortals can’t duplicate.

Kobe Bryant was the fiercest competitor I have ever covered as a sports journalist. And he sure had the best smile.

As an NBA writer in New Orleans and Denver, I covered so many Kobe Bryant games. Regular-season games, All-Star Games, playoff games, NBA Finals games. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I came along at the right time — I got to see Kobe.

He was just different. There are plenty of amazing athletes, but Kobe was rare. He earmarked himself for greatness, with the audacity that he would be the next Jordan, and then had the ambition to make it his mission. He darn near did it, too. For many years, Kobe was the most-talented player in the NBA, and for all his years, he was the hardest worker in the NBA. He won five gold Larry O’Brien trophies (NBA championship) and two gold medals — he was golden mettle.

Kobe, Giant.

And he’s gone now. It’s unfathomable.

Kobe, 41? That’s some point total against the Utah Jazz . . . or the amount of Lakers home games each season at Staples Center, where he performed for pop culture’s greatest performers, star-gazing Bryant from courtside.

But, no. That’s Kobe’s age upon his death. He died Sunday in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. They were headed to Gianna’s basketball game.

But Kobe Bean Bryant sure lived the hell out of those 41 years. He was a passionate father, a husband to the grieving Vanessa, a Philadelphia phenom and a Los Angeles legend who won it all with Shaq (three times), won it all on his own (against Orlando) and then won an all-timer — his fifth title, this one along with a peaking Pau Gasol and Ron Artest, in Game 7 against the hated Celtics.

Kobe was a trend-setter and a tone-setter. An author of children’s books and even a winner of an Academy Award. He was a prodigy and a protege, turned into a mentor to the next generation.

“Ever since I started playing basketball, I wanted to be just like Kobe,” Jayson Tatum shared for a column in 2015, when Tatum was a senior at Chaminade.

Tatum first met Kobe on a 2007 visit to Cleveland, because Tatum’s godfather, Larry Hughes, played for the Cavaliers.

“They played the Lakers — we went because Kobe’s my favorite player — and the Heat,” Tatum said in 2015. “So I got to see Kobe. And Shaq with the Heat and Dwyane Wade. I got to go back near the locker room, and when they walked out, I got to take a picture with those guys. Meeting Kobe, it was of the greatest feelings ever. To get to see him play in person, and to meet him, was just a dream come true.”

Tatum now showcases his Kobe-like qualities for, of all teams, the Celtics. As a pro, he kept in close touch with Bryant in recent years.

Tatum has a groin strain, so he didn’t play Sunday. The Celtics-Pelicans game was aired nationally on ESPN. After the tip-off, the Pelicans got possession, and their ball-handler just stood there. He let the 24-second shot clock expire — as a tribute to Bryant, No. 24. The Celtics did the same thing. It was heart-warming; it was heart-wrenching.

Kobe was complicated. He infamously admitted to adultery, but denied the charges that he sexually assaulted a woman in Colorado — charges that were dropped. It’s one of those things that often comes to mind when one thinks of Kobe. But it doesn’t define him.

And Kobe was fascinating. He was cocky but cerebral. He was multilingual but sometimes spoke sharpest with facial expressions. He was a cold-blooded player and a demanding teammate who also fun-loving and funny. Over the years, I had the pleasure of occasionally chatting with him in small groups, even off the record — it always was the neatest experience of the day.

Kobe is gone. Why did this have to happen to a father? Why does a wife have to endure this, saying goodbye to both a husband and a daughter?

And here in St. Louis, we think of the sports fans of LA.

We understand what it’s like to live out a lifetime with a player. He arrives on the Cardinals or Blues at a young age, and we go along for the ride, watching him grow into a hero. Stan Musial and Lou Brock and Adam Wainwright. Bernie Federko and Brett Hull and Alex Pietrangelo. And during those years, we grow, too. Our lives are bench-marked by their accomplishments. Their triumphs are ours, their experiences make ours. Well, Kobe Bryant played 20 years for the Los Angeles Lakers. It was his only team. He was LA’s guy.

Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals’ ace, is an unabashedly passionate Lakers fan. The LA native often talks about Kobe and the relentless “Mamba mentality” that Bryant brought to the court. Flaherty brings it to the mound.

On Sunday night, Flaherty retweeted a video.

It was of Kobe and Gianna, playing one on one.

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