As is the case on many Sunday afternoons, I had aspirations to get a lot done yesterday. My wife and I had just gotten home from our friends’ baby’s baptism when I received a text from a friend with the report.
It couldn’t be real.
I turned on the TV and continually refreshed Twitter.
For much of the rest of the afternoon and evening, I was fixated on the news and social media.
I have been thinking a lot about NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and the other seven passengers who tragically perished in a helicopter crash yesterday morning outside of Los Angeles.
When Kobe was drafted in 1996, I was 7 years old. When he retired in 2016, I was almost 27. As a Boston Celtics fan, he was never on my list of favorite basketball players, but few athletes were such an influential part of sports and culture for nearly the entirety of my childhood and into my adulthood. Kobe was in that extremely rare echelon of individuals who could be referred to by first name only, and his impact extended far beyond the NBA.
Kobe inspired an entire generation of athletes, and it was especially heartbreaking to see the reactions of current NBA players, many of whom fought back tears on the court. Some people were awed by his basketball talent. Some people were inspired by his legendary work ethic and incomparable competitive drive. Some people were moved by how he bounced back off the court, moving on from his transgressions and sexual assault allegations in 2003, and recommitting himself to his wife and family.
Watching and reading yesterday’s coverage was tough. Nine lives were lost far too soon. Somehow though, it was almost therapeutic and heartening to think about how one athlete could have an impact on so many, for a multitude of different reasons.
Sports aren’t perfect. Kobe wasn’t perfect. But the tweets and tributes and highlight reels reminded me how grateful I am for sports. Sports have a unique way of uniting us — beyond politics, beyond religion, beyond race. Yesterday, I texted with several friends as we mourned the loss of one of the all-time basketball greats. Next week, some of those same friends and I will gather in celebration for Super Bowl LIV. That dichotomy can be difficult to process, but it’s a good reminder of how sports continue to bring us together.
Just a couple of nights ago actually, I was commenting to a friend about how I did not think there were many notable Catholic athletes. I took to Google, searching “famous Catholic athletes” and was surprised at what I found. In what certainly were some of the lowest moments of his life and his marriage, Kobe had turned to his Catholic faith.
In the hours since his passing, there have been countless stories of Kobe-the-basketball player and Kobe-the-person mentioned on social media. Numerous individuals have shared memories of seeing him at Mass regularly, including yesterday morning, before he boarded that fateful flight.
In this social media age, we have a tendency to sensationalize the news, and especially celebrity deaths. And the tragic, unexpected circumstances here can certainly amplify that reaction. In the middle of it all, we should remember his wife, Vanessa, and their three surviving children, too. They have joined two clubs that no one wants to ever join — on the same day, in the same moment. Their parting yesterday morning was probably routine — Vanessa said goodbye to her husband and likely wished her daughter luck. Perhaps she hugged them both.
The spotlight is on #24 right now and it is a huge loss for so many. But for her — her family is splintered. Our hearts are with her. Our prayers are with her. We are thinking of her now and will be praying for a broken family and a grieving city in these coming days.
To many, Kobe was invincible. He was a larger-than-life figure, especially in Los Angeles, where he played his entire NBA career. But Kobe wasn’t superhuman. He made mistakes. He had his flaws. He was a sinner, just like the rest of us. It’s comforting to know that he repented, and not just in those dark days, but in the weeks and years following, Kobe leaned on God.
The Gospel reading at Mass yesterday described Peter, Andrew, James, and John leaving their nets to follow Jesus. It seems that Kobe understood this call, too. May we always strive to be Christ’s light for others, and to bring comfort and hope to those who are suffering. And may we pray for the repose of the souls of all who perished in that accident yesterday, and for strength for their family and friends in the unimaginably difficult days and years ahead.