Matthew Wright was sharing a meal with friends and family before a long flight from Canada to the Philippines on January 26, 2020 when he learned that Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash.
“I cried for weeks trying to process the loss,” Wright said.
For many a world away in the Philippines, most were asleep when the crash killed the 41-year-old retired Los Angeles Lakers star, his 13-year-old daughter, one of his daughter’s coaches, two of her teammates, and the pilot.
They were headed from Orange County to his daughter’s tournament at his Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
Kiefer Ravena was one of the many to wake up to the news.
“I was barely awake when my brother Thirdy called me about it. I didn’t believe him until I checked it myself on social media,” Ravena said.
Kiefer Ravena was just five years old when he met Bryant, then 19, at an Adidas event in 1998. An autographed photo with Bryant is a treasured keepsake.
“It was when he first came over here,” Kiefer Ravena said. “My dad (Bong) was able to play with him. I was just growing my love for the game, and to see him right there inspired me to maybe be like him one day.”
Wright’s fandom was forged by watching many late night Laker games from his hometown in Toronto. He was drawn to Bryant’s incredible skill and legendary intensity.
Bryant was the star NBA player aspiring ballers in the Philippines followed.
“He was cocky but humble at the same time and I was drawn to him,” Wright said. “I modeled everything after him. All his moves I tried to perfect — the footwork, the fadeaway. He was the blueprint to success for me.”
It’s easy to see why Filipinos loved Bryant. While most Filipinos didn’t have his physical traits, many saw a magnified version of themselves: A scrappy fighter who excelled by playing with passion and a sizeable chip on his shoulder.
“No matter how different we are, we can all channel that inner beast within to accomplish a task,” Wright said. “That’s the Mamba Mentality in a nutshell.”
And Bryant seemed to love Filipinos back. Bryant made six visits to the Philippines and was embraced each time.
“Filipinos love Kobe because he gave back to the country. He visited countless times and held Nike events for the youth here. It’s not hard to see why people are fans of Kobe,” said Wright.
While no amount of memorials could ever capture the sheer weight of Bryant’s basketball legacy, that hasn’t stopped Filipinos from paying him tributes.
The “House of Kobe” in Valenzuela — which was opened the day before Bryant’s death — sounded the buzzer at 8:24 a.m. on the day of what would have been the late Laker’s 42nd birthday on August 24.
In Taguig at the Tenement, a day after the tragedy, Mike Swift and his team of visual artists went to work and finished their most touching tribute yet — a mural of Kobe holding Gigi in his arms during the 2016 NBA All-Star Game — in just a span of 24 hours.
“I went to the Tenement court in Taguig on Feb. 24 to be a part of the ceremony and to touch the mural on the court,” Wright said. “It was emotional, but there were a lot of kids who just wanted to enjoy the moment and play, so it took some of the edge off of the ceremony. Much-needed.”
Millions mourned and coped in the following weeks and months. Lengthy eulogies flowed and beautiful murals rose.
With sports on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PBA players would have to wait until October 2020 to honor Bryant in a basketball game.
Some players, like Wright, wore Bryant’s signature shoes. The TNT Tropang Giga debuted “Black Giga Mamba” jerseys. Others, like Vic Manuel and Kiefer Ravena changed their uniform number to 24 to honor Bryant.
“It was different because it was the only time I changed my number, and it felt right to honor someone who influenced me big time when it comes to my career,” said Ravena.
Ever since a stone-faced Bryant said it to reporters after Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals, the phrase “job’s not finished” has found its way into countless PBA postgame interviews in the PBA.
The phrase and all it embodies may be Bryant’s most enduring legacy for PBA players.
“It’s always about being the hardest worker in the team. That’s the job and it should never end because it means you stopped working,” said Ravena.
For Filipinos who idolized Bryant and appreciated how he approached life and basketball, the aim is to get to the top the same way he did — with purpose, with optimism, with a mindset that there’s always a new venture, another challenge to be conquered. The job’s never really finished.