It was 4:30 am.

The last time I woke up this early, was for a Christmas Day game between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. In a lockout-shortened (and injury nuked Bulls) season, it was one of the games I was pretty excited about.

Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, my boys, up against the big bads strutting in the Staples Center. Boy were they loaded. Andrew Bynum (where you at bro?), Pau Gasol (you were great as a Bull), Lamar Odom (hell yeah Mr. Goods).

And Kobe Bryant.

I woke up at 4:30 AM to see Rose ice our win on that day.

But today was different. I woke up to find out you were gone. Gone to basketball heaven, with little Giana at your side.

I never liked you. All those exploits of you that I watched reminded me of my god, who you were trying your darnedest to copy. It was blasphemous to a seven year-old, who was repeatedly told he was too old to join the school’s basketball team, but never let it stop him. The habits, the fader, the tongue, the way you ran, the manner you took flight and glided. It was so much like Mike. Too much like Mike.

It did not help that you were putting up the same numbers he did. Thirteen straight 25-5-4 seasons. Five championships. Two Finals MVPs. A spot on the top five of the All-Time Scoring list. Two jerseys on the rafters, one of which, was audacious on your part, to break away from the ghost you were perpetually chasing, the one which had 23 on his back.

I was probably one of the few who never fully appreciated what you did before Colorado Springs happened.

For all great men and women, they couldn’t live without a stain on them. And this was yours. There’s no other way around it. As much as we celebrated all your on-court achievements, you were a sad footnote to a culture’s dark side. People who bring this up may be crucified, like that poor Washington Post reporter who put up a link to your trial and its case details. But they shouldn’t be. Because it is a huge part of your narrative. Everywhere you went, I’m pretty sure it dogged you.

Rapist. Sexual offender. Assaulter. You know how it goes, especially on the internet. Even to this day, on a day the basketball world continues to mourn, white knights brandish their lance of self-righteousness at your image, denouncing you to anyone who would listen, denying the fact that after that incident, you did what most people wouldn’t even do: Man up. Accept your abject failure and carry that stain with you to the grave, learn from it, be educated by that incident and become a changed human being.

Your redemption arc was breathtaking.

I cannot ignore that, Mamba. I cannot ignore how you became the best family man basketball has ever seen and everyone has taken the lead with that. I cannot ignore how you anchored yourself on your faith and changed for the better, to make use of your platform to teach anyone who was willing to listen about being a better person after what you have done. I cannot ignore how you were light years from everybody especially with women’s basketball. It’s like you accepted that you were never going to get a boy in the family, so you just went full Kobe Bryant. With a girl. Your little girl.

And the season you went off? It was the most Jordanesque performance from an individual that I ever saw, and you did not take any night off. You channeled your rage, your emotions, on the basketball court. And to punctuate that, you had to literally carry the Lakers with 81 points against the Raptors, something high school still can’t fathom to this day. I thought that was a dream. To me that still is a dream.

It was a dream like today is.

I feel…empty. Like someone ripped a hole to the Eye of Terror in my chest and sucked my entire soul out to the void.

I can’t comprehend really what is happening to me. I could not get any work done. I’m lost. I keep telling myself this is not Mamba Mentality. But what do you want me to do?

I never thought that you would have this effect on me. You who forever chased 23 as 24. You who stood defiant in your last game, refusing to go out a loser. You who had the single, most-astounding offensive performance the modern NBA has ever seen, I have ever seen. You made an impact beyond basketball, becoming the biggest ambassador for women to get recognized, thanks to Mambacita.

It is hard to write “Kobe Bryant was” instead of “Kobe Bryant is.”

But here is the thing. Beneath the façade of just acknowledging your exploits, of marveling at your work there was something I could not admit to myself before this very day.

To paraphrase Draymond Green’s taunt at Paul Pierce: You could never be Michael. I won’t love you like that. You ain’t no Michael.

You were Kobe Bryant.

I used to love hating you. But I hated how much I loved you.

One last dagger to my basketball-loving heart.

81.

Etched in stone.

Forever.