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Jace Frederick: Kobe Bryant’s passing leaves us all ‘numb’

Fans gather at the intersection of Las Virgenes Rd and Willow Glen, in Calabasas, California, near the hillside where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant Sunday morning. Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Karl-Anthony Towns tweeted what so many of us felt on Sunday afternoon.

“I’m numb.”

We all are.

The tragic helicopter crash that took the life not only of Bryant, but that of his daughter and seven others — all devastatingly too soon — shook the entire basketball world to its core. Not just those who knew him best, those who crossed paths with him throughout his historic NBA career or even those who loved Bryant and the Lakers.

The basketball world is a big one. It includes those who play pick-up games at the park, throw up shots in the driveway or simply tune into games on TV.

If you love basketball, even if you didn’t love Kobe Bryant, you loved something about him.

“I wasn’t even the biggest Kobe fan,” a friend — a basketball junkie — messaged on Sunday, “and I’m still crushed.”

Memories are still vivid of Bryant’s final game at Target Center, played back in December of 2015. Bryant was in the midst of his farewell tour in the final year of his NBA career, and Target Center sent him out in style. The roars for one of the game’s greats came early and often.

Bryant was far from the peak of his powers at that point. That night, he told then-Lakers coach Byron Scott to leave him on the bench and ride with the young guys to the finish. It was a great game, one in which Minnesota held on to win by one. But throughout the final quarter, most fans in attendance — including many Timberwolves fans whose hearts Bryant crushed numerous times over the years with his greatness — continuously chanted for Bryant to make his way back onto the floor so they could get one final glimpse of the legend in action.

“I’m extremely appreciative of it,” Bryant said that night of those chants. “It means I must have done something right over these 20 years.”

That was Kobe.

Exactly what was it about Bryant that made him so special to us all, from his fans to his haters?

Basketball is a sport fueled by passion, fire and determination. All the greats have it, just as many less-talented folks playing in weekly rec leagues. Fifty-year-old men often can’t help but dive on the court for a loose ball at “noon ball,” even when it’s in their worst physical interest to do so.

That, too, was Kobe.

Spend one night at Target Center, and it becomes immediately obvious what gets fans on their feet. It’s the hustle plays, the relentless pursuit of balls and determined defense. On the flip side, they can tell when that’s missing, and they aren’t afraid to show their frustrations when that’s the case.

Fans never had to worry about that with Bryant. One of the most gifted players on the planet also happened to be the single most determined. He fought to the bitter end every single night, which created so many magnificent moments.

The championships were amazing, of course — as were the bountiful number of buzzer-beaters — but just as admirable was when Bryant carried a bad Lakers team into the playoffs and all the way to a seventh game against Steven Nash’s scintillating Phoenix Suns, or when he went on a wicked tear at the end of the 2012-13 season, playing 40-plus minutes every night, to will Los Angeles into the playoffs before tearing his Achilles’ tendon. Or how in his final NBA game, when he inexplicably scored 60 points in front of his home crowd — including 13 points in the last 2 minutes, 16 seconds to rally the Lakers from down 10 to victory.

That was Kobe.

Watching his last game back on Sunday, it was obvious just how much Bryant had left in the tank at that contest’s conclusion — nothing. Which was such a fitting end for such a great career. He gave basketball everything he had, every single night, playing with all the passion, fire and determination he could muster, and demanded those around him do the same. It’s what the game deserved.

That’s all anyone could ever ask for. Whether you liked him or not, Bryant’s unparalleled love for the game probably, in some way, grew yours.

Even after retirement, Bryant continued to be a champion for the game with his insight and support, including for the women’s game. He was the idol of former Gophers star guard Rachel Banham, and Bryant went out of his way many times to acknowledge her major achievements.

Moments in which Bryant shared his love and knowledge for the game with his daughters have been well documented. By all accounts, he attacked fatherhood as fiercely as he did his profession.

That was Kobe.

Bryant was a great ambassador for the sport, and a living reminder of the manner in which it should be played. That should have been the case for many, many, many years to come.

The fact it won’t be leaves us all shocked, devastated and, at at the moment, numb.