Not on my radar before Sunday afternoon. I’m a basketball fan, but not of the NBA variety. I haven’t watched a game since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retired.
I did watch Kobe play on the 2008 Olympic basketball team that he captained and was impressed by his skill, of course, and his drive and leadership — and that great smile.
I knew peripherally about his five NBA championships, his love/hate relationship with Shaquille O’ Neal and his place among the elite players of the past quarter-century. I was shocked to hear of his tragic death Sunday, just as I would have been shocked to hear of any other well-known celebrity figure’s tragic death. The fact that it was in a helicopter crash, on an outing with family and friends, made it more disturbing to me.
Too often when those in the public eye meet an early demise it is through self-destructive behavior. This was certainly not that. This was a good guy doing a good thing and meeting a horrible, untimely death. At one point a national news service jumped the gun on social media and announced that all four of Kobe’s children were in the helicopter with him. That was more horrific than anything I can think of. I was glad it wasn’t true. But the fact that his 13-year-old died with her dad tormented me.
As did the deaths of John Altobelli and his wife, Keri, and his daughter Alyssa. It was so awful. So tragic. So unnecessary. I thought about all the family outings I have been on with my kids — and there have been thousands of them. I thought about the excitement and the joy and the anticipation and to have it end so suddenly and so permanently is almost beyond comprehension.
I felt the same for Christina Mauser, the coach of the club team that Kobe Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, and John Altobelli’s daughter, Alyssa, played on. Headed out to take part in the game she loved. The same goes for Payton Chester, another member of the team, and her mother Sarah, who was along to show love and support for her daughter as she pursued her passion.
And the pilot, Ara Zobayan, who had logged hundreds and hundreds of hours in the air, but perhaps not under the foggy conditions that greeted him Sunday.
I hurt for all of the victims and for all of their families. I wasn’t glued to the news for hours at a time, but I did watch some of the coverage, off and on, throughout the day and into the evening. I was impressed by the ways the NBA teams found to honor the late superstar. I saw multiple players, on news highlight shows, wearing Bryant’s familiar 8 and his 24. He was so good he wore two jersey numbers over the course of his career and had them both retired by his team, the Los Angeles Lakers. I saw several teams begin games by taking intentional 8-second backcourt violations, followed by the opposing team taking intentional 24 second shot clock violations.
I saw the reactions of the greats of the game, and of other sports figures.
And I saw a lot of disturbing negativity on social media, with people who seemed to resent the fact that a large portion of the country was collectively grieving the death of Kobe Bryant and wondering why? They seemed to want to equate his death with that of service members and police officers and wondered why this event seemed to loom larger in the public’s psyche.
It’s simple, really. While every loss of life is tragic, most soldiers or policemen or mamas, daddys, sisters and brothers and friends down the street aren’t well known. The grief is great, when such a person dies, for those who do know these people. But Kobe Bryant was such a larger than life figure that millions of people felt like they knew him. All the people mourning Kobe Bryant are people who identified with him and were touched by him. That’s all. There is no disrespect to anyone else. It is just human nature. It was the same when Princess Diana was killed. It was the same when Elvis died.
In 1959, people who lived in the Newton County area will remember when basketball great Billy Dean Rutledge drowned. He was only 18. It was the most traumatic event I had ever experienced at the time, and the outpouring of grief in Porterdale and the surrounding area was epic. Take that grief and extrapolate it to the nation, and that’s what we had Sunday.
But none of the above is what I pondered the most as I reflected on the events of the day. I preached Sunday, at Shiloh UMC, in the Almon community. As part of my sermon I reminded the congregation that none of us is promised tomorrow, or even our next breath. Each day and each breath is a gift and is precious and we should appreciate each one and we should be ready to go when our time does come.
That’s what I thought of most when I heard the news about Kobe Bryant.