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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

It's hard to believe Kobe Bryant is gone

Kobe Bryant of the Lakers looks back in

Kobe Bryant of the Lakers looks back in the first half against the Jazz at the Staples Center on April 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. Credit: Getty Images/Harry How

It just doesn’t seem possible.

Kobe Bryant, the larger-than-life face of the NBA for an entire generation of fans and players, is dead.

The news that Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, had died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning was met with shock, tears and heartfelt tweets of condolence from everyone from former President Barack Obama to Taylor Swift.

I was driving when I heard the news and had to pull over. In the course of his career, I saw Kobe play in person at least 50 times and wrote dozens of stories about him.

Both on and off the court, Kobe was no mere mortal. Or at least that’s what we all thought.

Now he is tragically gone at the age of 41.

“There’s no words to express the pain I am going through,” tweeted Shaquille O’Neal, who won three straight titles playing alongside Kobe with the Lakers.

Bryant, who played all 20 of his seasons with the Lakers, lived life at hyper speed, establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with when he was just a teenager. He was drafted at age 17. Played in his first NBA All-Star Game at 19. Won his first of five NBA titles at 21. Won the league MVP at age 29. Won an Academy Award at age 39 for his first animated film.

For all he accomplished, however, there is no doubt that Bryant’s legacy is complicated and flawed.

He made headlines in July 2003 when he was arrested in Eagle, Colorado, on charges of sexual assault. At that time, a 19-year-old hotel employee accused him of rape, telling authorities she was assaulted by him while he was staying at The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera while awaiting surgery.

Bryant publicly admitted he and the accuser had relations, but he said it was consensual. He also made a public apology to his wife. The criminal case was dropped after Bryant’s accuser refused to testify, but a civil suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Part of the suit involved Bryant’s apology, although he never admitted fault.

On the court, he could be ruthless to his teammates, especially if he didn’t think they were giving their all. His bickering with O’Neal was a constant story line during their eight seasons together and sometimes overshadowed the three championships they won.

Jerry West, the executive who traded for him after he was drafted by Charlotte, once explained to me that making friends never was Bryant’s top priority.

“He wanted to be the best, and he became, well, he got right there in the class of the very best,” West said. “We’ve had a lot of great players in the league, and he’s in the upper echelon. Somebody who plays the game at that level, it’s more than just skill. His skill was enormous, but he was also efficient and he played the game with flair. There’s not many good players that do that.”

When Bryant retired in 2016, he was the third-leading scorer in NBA history. On Saturday, he was passed by LeBron James, and his final tweet says a lot about the man he has become since his retirement.

“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾   #33644,” Bryant tweeted.

Since retiring, the man who was accused by some of being selfish as a player has gone all out to help others. His Mamba Sports Academy — where he was flying with his daughter when their helicopter crashed — supports 50,000 athletes annually through clinics and club teams. It also has become a mecca for professional NBA and WNBA players looking for a place to train.

Bryant also founded Granity Studios to create sports-themed films, TV shows and books. The father of four — all girls — became a big promoter of women’s sports, especially the WNBA. Gianna was an accomplished basketball player and Kobe coached her team.

There are some people who will never forgive Bryant for what happened in Colorado. More than 17,000 people signed a petition to take back his Oscar because of what happened there.

For the majority of young fans and players today, however, the Kobe they remember was the fierce competitor who was the bridge from Michael Jordan to James. No matter how complicated his legacy, he played the game at a superhuman level.

It’s hard to believe he’s gone.

A look at some of Kobe Bryant’s career basketball highlights:

-- 5-time NBA champion (2000-2002, 2009, 2010)

-- 2-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (2009-2010)

-- NBA MVP (2008)

-- 18-time NBA All-Star (1998, 2000-2016)

-- 4-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011)

-- 11-time All-NBA First Team (2002-2004, 2006-2013)

-- 2-time All-NBA Second Team (2000-2001)

-- 2-time All-NBA Third Team (1999, 2005)

-- 9-time NBA All-Defensive First Team (2000, 2003-2004, 2006-2011)

-- 3-time NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2001-2002, 2012)

-- 2-time NBA scoring champion (2006-2007)

-- 2-time Olympic gold medalist (2008, 2012)

-- NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion (1997)

-- Los Angeles Lakers all-time leading scorer (33,643 points), fourth on NBA all-time list

-- Both jersey numbers 8 and 24 are retired by the Los Angeles Lakers

-- Naismith Prep Player of the Year (1996)

Compiled by AP

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