Kobe Bryant inspired a legion of fans for his manic devotion to basketball. Almost nothing was beyond the reach of the American, who trained obsessively and was able to score even without an Achilles tendon.
Diego Maradona, on the other hand, played football smiling. It was with the joy of a boy that the Argentine hit the ball, charming in situations of higher pressure or in a simple warm-up.
In the sad 2020 that also hit Sport, without fans and without a soul in the Covid-19 pandemic, tears flowed in the farewell of the two legends. Kobe died in January, at the age of 41, in a helicopter accident. Maradona left in November, at 60, for heart and lung problems.
They were irremediably different in their relationship to the game, and yet, very similar. In the bad face of the basketball star and in the boyish countenance of the football genius was a common – and unusual – love for the ball, eyes that sometimes defied the limits seen as normal by society.
Bryant was on the verge of psychopathy in his preparation for entering the court. It was so normal for the winger / point guard to wake up at 4 am to practice game moves or stay in the gym performing hundreds of shots after a bad match that he was genuinely shocked when his teammates did not display the same disposition.
This generated friction with colleagues like Shaquille O’Neal, much less willing to the daily toil, but made the athlete a kind of symbol of the ability to overcome obstacles. It is not by chance that the word “inspiration” was much more frequent than the word “talent” in posthumous tributes to the idol, although the talent of the five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic champion was extraordinary.
The examples are as numerous as they are impressive. There are the unbelievable free throws converted after the rupture of the Achilles tendon in 2013, and the multiple injuries he lived with in the 2010 title campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers – among them a fractured index finger, which required a quick and unlikely change in the launching technique.
If a man is as big as the number of people whose soul he can touch, Kobe was a Goliath with the greatest drive. Perhaps there is no more illustrative portrait of his legacy than the image of the primary school teacher who made students write their biggest fears, crumple the paper and throw it in the wastebasket shouting “Kooobeee!”.
Maradona, in his own way, was also gigantic in his ability to inspire, but his style was quite different from Bryant’s: a plump, short David who used the weapons at his disposal to defeat powerful opponents.
The famous “hand of God” was one of them, at the 1986 World Cup. And the justification for the irregular move in Argentina’s victory over England was almost as brilliant as its execution, which avenged the people of Diego for injuries not yet scarred from the Malvinas War.
The jersey number 10 made the goal with a smile, smiled again after lining up half an English team to score the second and continued smiling until deciding that World Cup, with a precise pass to Burruchaga against Germany. He was a boy on the pitch at the World Cup final, the same boy whose eyes shone in the naked at the humble Villa Fiorito, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
It was also this little boy who made Napoli a European power in the second half of the 1980s. There was an immediate identification with the poor people of southern Italy, whose love for the player is comparable to that felt by Argentines.
It was an extension of the child’s love that the ace felt for the ball itself. Only he was able to make a warm-up, on the way to winning the 1989 UEFA Cup, a more memorable spectacle than the subsequent match itself.
Carefree about the decisive game in Munich – in which it would also be decisive -, Maradona started playing with the ball to the rhythm of the music that was played on the speakers of the Olympic stadium in Munich. Untied boots, he had fun adjusting his movements to the sound of the hit “Live is Life”, from the Austrian band Opus.
The audience started to react, and the playful boy joined the exhibitionist adult who loved the spotlight. The result, recorded on video, became known as “the greatest warming of all time”.
Although the feature was not the same, the charm of the ball was very similar to that of Bryant. The nickname Mamba and the willingness to destroy rivals like a poisonous snake did not disguise that Kobe was also the boy in love with the game.
This little boy appeared in the short film “Dear Basketball”, animated version of the American retirement letter. As he was apparently unable to perform tasks poorly, the short won an Oscar.
Maradona did not have that perfectionism. On the contrary, its appeal was linked to its own imperfection. If Kobe was an almost superhuman figure, Diego was only human, from laughter to addiction.
“It doesn’t matter what you did with your life, Diego. It matters what you did with ours,” said a banner on the outskirts of Casa Rosada, where the body of shirt 10 was veiled.
There were many other losses in a 2020 of many tears, and each death represents an incomparable pain. Few lives, however, have had as much impact on the public as those of Kobe Bryant and Diego Maradona.