I’m a one-sport guy. Well, one-and-a-half really. I’ll tune in for the final rounds of major tennis opens. But basketball is my jam. I may or may not have thrown money out the window for a few years subscribing to NBA League Pass. And full confession, when I say I’m a one-sport guy, a watch-one-sport guy is much more honest. It’s a bit inexplicable my obsession with basketball, given the fact I was born in Barbados where cricket and football (aka soccer for you Americans) reigned supreme. Regardless, I fell in love with the game, and that affinity has only deepened over the decades. The sport created one-named global superstars: Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, LeBron, and of course, the Black Mamba, Kobe.
On January 26, 2020 the world was shaken by the news of the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash. Kobe was just 41, and four years into retirement from professional basketball. One year and a pandemic later, it’s still surreal. Kobe still means a lot to many, whether or not we knew him personally. His skill and tenacity were inspiring. He both pushed and pulled the best out of himself and those who shared the court with him. Like all our heroes, like all of us, he was a flawed human being. And like all of us, it is not our flaws that define us, but who we are in spite of them.
I wrote the following a year ago, and it rings just as true today.
Rest In Power Mamba.
“Holy shit Kobe Bryant’s dead!” I exclaimed much too loudly for the serene Sunday afternoon lunch setting. One of my best friends and I were wrapping up a post-church meal at our favorite Thai restaurant when my smartwatch buzzed with the news alert: Kobe Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash. Hours later, to add to the tragedy, we learned his 13-year-old daughter and seven others also lost their lives in the crash.
You didn’t have to be interested in sports to know the name, a testament to his athletic greatness. But if you were a basketball fan, even just a casual one, this was a gut punch. Just a few highlights for the uninitiated: Kobe was basketball’s 2nd coming; the heir to His Airness, Michael Jordan; perhaps the most anticipated prospect to enter the NBA right out of high school; 5 NBA Championships; two-time NBA Finals MVP and Scoring Champion; 18 All-Star appearances; 4th on the NBA total points made list; two (not one...two) jerseys retired; two Olympic Gold medals; the only player to come close to challenging Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 1962 100-point game when he single-handedly decimated the Toronto Raptors on January 22nd, 2006 by scoring 81 points; just so we wouldn’t forget his on-court prowess, he scored 60 points in his last professional game; and oh yeah...after retiring in 2016 he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 for his film Dear Basketball because why not?
Celebrity deaths are a strange thing. I did not know Kobe Bryant. Yet the loss felt personal. Was it because his name floated in and out of the headlines for the last 25 years? Was it because his sheer determination and incomparable work ethic (aka “Mamba Mentality”) was an inspiration for millions around the world? Was it because of the beginnings of a post-basketball career dedicated to family? Was it because he was so young? Was it because it was so randomly tragic and unexpected? Was it because it triggered my own grief from the loss of my wife five years ago when she we 43? Was it because I’m the father of a daughter? Was it because we weren’t ready to let him go yet?
We do our best to find or assign meaning at times like this. If we could make sense of the tragedy maybe it would hurt less. If we knew why it happened maybe we would feel more in control. The difficult truth is that there is no meaning. Birth and death are the sides of the coin of life. We don’t know what our life will be when we are born. We also don’t know when we will die, and this is perhaps why death defines us so much more. We do know we get one shot (apologies to the reincarnation crowd), so as the transcendent (and also recently deceased) poet Mary Oliver invited us to consider, “...what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I would take it a step further and ask, “If you know, why aren’t you doing it?” If there is any meaning we can ascribe to Kobe’s death, it is this: Live life as fully and authentically as you can, and do it now.
As we sat across the table from each other, reeling in shock from the news, my friend asked, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow or next week, what would you do differently today?” She knows me well enough to know that I’m pretty much living the life I want to experience. But I gave it some thought, and shared my only regret would be not having seen more of the world. “Where would you go?” she asked, and I said Australia and New Zealand are top of my list. Turns out they were top of hers too. So in that moment, motivated by Mamba Mentality and mimosas, we began planning our trip. As we stood to leave some minutes later, with a hint of incredulity in her eyes, she asked, “Are we really doing this?” Hell yes we are.
We let ourselves believe that we don’t have all we need inside of us to achieve our dreams. In his relatively short lifetime, Kobe taught us otherwise. He taught us well.