Like millions of people around the world, I woke up yesterday morning and received the most devastating news — Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash.

I thought I was dreaming. It turned out to be a nightmare of epic proportions.

I couldn’t process what had happened. Kobe Bean Bryant was invincible. He was the Black Mamba. He was unstoppable. How do you comprehend and explain the incomprehensible loss of your idol?

I soon learnt that his daughter Gianna and seven others also tragically perished. I tried to hold back the tears, but they rolled down uncontrollably. I needed a moment to reflect.

Immediately, all the fond memories I had of Kobe flooded in. In the Philippines, we live, breathe and sleep basketball. I was only 12 when my family migrated to Australia, but I continued playing hoops. Kobe’s arrival to the Lakers in 1996 reignited my love for basketball and the Lakers.

I could relate to Kobe because of his grit, relentlessness and passion for the game. He was smart, multilingual and creative. Post-retirement, he inspired me with his business acumen and savvy. He built his own empire. He created his own short film that won an Academy Award.

I watched Kobe play in 2009 when I visited America. I said to myself that I’d love to come across Kobe Bryant again someday, and that memorable moment finally came a decade later: March 6, 2019. It was the day I met Kobe Bean Bryant face-to-face.

Truly that was the highlight of my year. Nothing else matched that kind of thrill, excitement and opportunity.

There were only five NBA stars on my personal bucket list that I wanted to meet: Kobe, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James.

When I heard about Kobe’s upcoming Mamba Mentality Tour in Melbourne, I could not pass up the opportunity to meet him. I was probably one of the first ones to get a ticket.

When event day came, I was so nervous and anxious. I was seated in the back, but that didn’t matter to me. Just to be in the same building with him was already a blessing.

Fifteen minutes before the show was about to start, I got a major surprise. The organisers presented me with a new ticket — I got upgraded to VIP front row! It was a lucky draw — I felt so blessed.

But there was another surprise. Little did I know, I was about to meet Kobe. I was taken into another room and I noticed 20 other people in a line. I didn’t know what was happening — all I could remember hearing was, “Enjoy, my brother.”

I could’ve died right there and then. Sometimes stars do align.

When the moment finally came, my heart skipped a beat. I was ushered straight into Kobe and he gave me the biggest smile, handshake, and man-hug. We talked briefly, posed for the cameras and the rest was history.

That night, he did a Q&A on the main stage, talked about his basketball journey and shared words of wisdom. I hung on to every word he said. It was magical. I finally met my hero. There were 2,000+ people that evening, and I happened to be one of a few lucky fans who got to meet the man himself.

That was the most memorable time of my life that year. It probably comes a close second all-time to the birth of my daughter Anela Jo.

That would also be the last time that I would see Kobe.

Kobe is a beloved superstar because he can relate to people from all walks of life with his simplicity and demeanor. When Kobe embraced social media, his fans flocked. He accrued 20 million Facebook fans, 16.2 million Instagram and 15.2 million Twitter followers.

Like many of my fellow Los Angeles Lakers diehards, I lost a piece of my heart when I found out that he died.

To me, his passing seemed so surreal. The story mustn’t end in a tragedy — he was a real-life superhero clothed in purple and gold.

Kobe’s game was more akin to Michael Jordan, the greatest of all time. He is beloved because he had that old-school mentality. He played for one club. He was an 18-time All-Star, 12-time All-Defensive, five-time NBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, MVP.

Hence the Jordan comparisons.

Kobe was the ultimate game-changer. He came straight out of high school and established a long, successful 20-year career. He was drafted 13th overall in 1996, he outlasted everyone in his class and won more titles apart from Jordan and Bill Russell.

He was a winner and a leader. Nothing mattered to Kobe more than winning. He was a closer — his opponents feared his killer mentality.

After he retired, he shared his gifts and experiences to the next generation instead of keeping them. He mentored current NBA stars.

Kobe’s passion and love for the game had also been taken on board by his heir apparent, his late daughter Gianna. We share the unimaginable loss with his wife Vanessa and three surviving children — it will be felt deeply by fans all over the world.

Kobe’s death cuts deeply through my soul. Thank you for all the memories, Mamba. My hero, gone too soon.

Rest in power.

Vale, Kobe Bryant.

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