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Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts after teammate Pau Gasol dunked during the second half of Game 5 of the Western Conference title series against the Phoenix Suns on May 27, 2010, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 103-101. / AP photo by Mark J. Terrill

"He was supernatural."

Those were the words Italian professional basketball coach Ettore Messina used to describe Kobe Bryant after the former Los Angeles Lakers assistant learned the 41-year-old Bryant, Bryant's 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash Sunday morning in Calabasas, California.

Whether you loved or loathed all those Lakers teams Bryant starred on for every single one of his 20 years in the NBA, Messina's words seem just about perfect, which is what Bryant so often appeared to be on a basketball court, especially when it mattered most.

No, his five NBA titles didn't wind up matching Michael Jordan's six, which so many will always say he needed to be the Chicago Bulls star's equal.

He also was occasionally criticized for shooting too much, passing too little and sometimes appearing to worry more about himself than the team, especially in former Lakers coach Phil Jackson's scathing book "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul," in which he labeled Bryant "uncoachable."

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Beyond that was the 2003 sexual assault charge he was hit with by a Colorado resort employee. That was later dropped when she declined to testify, but it cost Bryant lucrative endorsement deals with McDonald's and Nutella and severely soiled his image for a time.

And those negatives may always be part of the Bryant résumé, much as LeBron James — who on Saturday night moved past Bryant into third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list — has also often had to defend his legacy when compared to Jordan.

But that doesn't erase the fact that in a 2012 annual survey of NBA general managers, Bryant was chosen for a 10th straight year as the player GMs would most want to shoot the ball with the game on the line. Or that the man who nicknamed himself the Black Mamba for his ability to, in his words, "strike with 99% accuracy," averaged 25 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals a game for his career.

Or that if one measure of an athlete's greatness is whether he's known by a first name only — think Peyton (Manning), Babe (Ruth), Mickey (Mantle), Tiger (Woods) or all those past Lakers greats such as Wilt (Chamberlain), Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Magic (Johnson) — Kobe belongs in that fraternity, perhaps right behind Michael and on even footing with LeBron.

Or that no less a Lakers legend than Magic tweeted the following Sunday afternoon: "My friend, a legend, husband, father, son, brother, Oscar winner and greatest Laker of all-time is gone. Kobe was a leader of our game, a mentor to both male and female players."

When Magic Johnson labels you the "greatest Laker of all-time," well, you can't get much more supernatural than that.

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers certainly tried, however. Tears running down his cheeks as he talked about Bryant, Rivers said: "He had that DNA that very few athletes can ever have. Tiger Woods. Michael Jordan. Just so many people he touched. Just looking at our young players (in the Clippers' locker room). How emotional they are. And they didn't even know him. He had so much left to do. Sometimes things don't make sense."

Death, when it comes to someone so young, almost never makes sense. Especially when it also claims children such as Gianna, and presumably a youth league teammate of hers who reportedly was in the helicopter.

As the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, tweeted Sunday: "Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day."

Indeed, unlike so many athletes upon retirement, Bryant seemed to be on his way to stardom in ventures far beyond basketball. He won an Academy Award in 2018 for Best Animated Short Film with "Dear Basketball." He had become a wonderful online analyst for ESPN. He had numerous other business ventures in the works.

In other words, he had his life together as a husband to Vanessa, whom he married in 2001 and who had recently blessed him with a fourth daughter, Capri, in June.

The grief over Bryant's death was on display throughout the NBA on Sunday. Madison Square Garden bathed the world's most famous arena in Lakers purple and gold. Most NBA matchups opened by both the home and visiting teams beginning with 24-second violations in honor of one of the two jersey numbers he wore. (No. 8 was the other, and the Lakers retired both.) Many players wrote his name on their sneakers.

But if you want a different angle on what made Bryant one of the most unique athletes of his generation, consider this: As a special present to Vanessa, he taught himself to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano by ear, without conventional lessons.

In a story for The Undefeated, Bryant said of such an exercise: "If you just sit down and say, 'I'm going to learn this thing until I do,' there's not really much out there that you can't figure out eventually."

The ultimate cruelty in Kobe's passing may be that having appeared to figure out what's truly important in life, that meaningful second act Obama mentioned never will be fully known by the rest of us. Not to mention the first acts of Gianna and her teammate.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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