It feels strange writing a tribute to a man you don’t know.

You only know of him. You know a lot about him.

Yet, he never knew you.

Oddly, there’s an undeniable truth that he left you – and literally millions of others – something. A lot, in fact.

If you ever gave a damn about the game of basketball, the news of Kobe Bryant’s death arrived as a shock on a somber Sunday morning. You didn’t believe it. You didn’t want to believe it. You certainly didn’t care that he wore the purple and gold of the Lakers… the hated Lakers in many instances, especially here in Denver, Colorado. How does one boo someone in life, yet cry for the same person in death? How does an arena once scorned chant the scorner’s name in unison?

Life is funny, fragile.

Sports are only that. Just sports. Inconsequential by definition.

That Kobe Bryant was a father trumps any shot he ever sunk.

Kobe Bryant terrorized us Nuggets fans; there’s no doubt about that. If you want to know exactly how badly he it was, my friend Andrew Feinstein provides this comprehensive retrospect, but the Cliffs Notes version reads like this: Kobe owned the Nuggets. In the playoffs, he regularly broke our hearts; his Lakers never lost a series to Denver. He went 12-5 in the postseason against the Nuggets, when it mattered most.

Damn that guy.

Forget, for a moment, what Kobe gave us. Think about what he took from us. In Denver, during the Carmelo Anthony Era (when the Nuggets had a legitimate shot), the Western Conference went through either San Antonio and L.A. While we criticize Anthony for never getting Denver over the hump, we forget that he – like so many of the era – had to beat one of the best every year. Kobe Bryant literally robbed Denver of wins, playoffs series, maybe titles.

Forgive and forget.

In fact, don’t you have to love him for that? There are no hard feelings toward someone who did – always did – what they do best, even if it comes at your (or your team’s) expense. That’s why you paid extra for the Lakers game, right? I have a drawer in my house, right when you walk in, that’s filled with ticket stubs from all the games I’ve attended in person. I started this practice, ironically, around the time Kobe Bryant entered the NBA. You better believe there’s a stack of Nuggets vs. Lakers tickets in that drawer. Who would you pay to see play? I paid to watch Kobe, and never once felt gypped. Joe Dimaggio famously once said, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.” That was Kobe.

Denver’s own Chauncey Billups, who battled Kobe for years, confirmed yesterday what was evident to anyone who ever watched: Kobe never took a day off. As a paying customer, what more can you ask of an entertainer? He gave us everything, every time.

Amazingly, effort was only part of why we loved Kobe Bryant.

I loved him more because he was clutch.

After writing about sports for almost two decades, it’s the one athletic quality that’s still immeasurably special – the clutch gene doesn’t find anyone. It finds very few, in fact.

Lots of athletes have talent. Plenty of players have statistics. But few – very few – are clutch. In my mind, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are two of the most clutch athletes who ever lived. They’re easily the two most clutch basketball players ever.

LeBron James is amazing; Kobe was more clutch.

Forget about sports. What more do you want in a human being? When the chips are down, when the pressure is at its highest, when the outlook is bleak, who do want in your corner? You want the person who seizes the moment – who’s bigger than the moment, who embraces the moment – and responds accordingly. That was Kobe. Always big enough for the moment. Always wanting the ball when the stakes were highest.

I can only imagine, as the helicopter plummeted to the earth, that Kobe Bryant had the same ice in his veins. I can only imagine that he somehow summoned the perfect words for those on board. I can only imagine he did the exact right thing to comfort his daughter, Gianna, who also died in the crash. I can only imagine that the basketball court, when the clock wound down, wasn’t the only place and time where Kobe Bryant was clutch.

“We were lucky to have seen him play,” I texted Jathan Campbell, longtime Mile High Sports photographer (who took the photo at the beginning of this column) who knows the NBA better than most and who photographed Kobe every time he was in Denver.

“It sucks,” he responded, putting aside all the times Kobe broke our heart.

To write about a man I never knew feels strange, almost like it’s not my place. But whether he knew me or not, he gave me joy. As a Nuggets fan, he gave me pain, too. But that’s what he was paid to do; that’s why arenas across America sold out whenever he was in town.

I didn’t know Kobe, but I know I’ll miss him.