There are some people who are immediately identifiable by their first name. Tiger. Serena. Kareem. Michael. LeBron. Kobe. And yet, when I received a text message yesterday afternoon that read, “Kobe died!!!”, my initial response was, “Bryant?”
I couldn’t believe it.
Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others – died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Kobe leaves behind his wife, Vanessa, and their three daughters.
Also involved in the crash were:
John Altobelli (Orange Coast College Baseball Coach)
Keri Altobelli (Mother to Alyssa)
Alyssa Altobelli (Gianna’s teammate)
Sarah Chester (Mother to Payton)
Payton Chester (Gianna’s teammate)
Christina Mauser (Basketball Coach)
Ara Zabayan (Pilot)
My heart breaks for all the families and friends affected by this tragedy.
They were flying to one of Gianna’s basketball games. When he played, Kobe took a helicopter to his home games at Staples Center. The time he saved in not having to sit in traffic, allowed him to spend more time with his family.
There is a dark irony to all of this that is just too sad to think about.
I had simultaneous flashbacks to the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and the Roy Halladay plane crash.
What stood out to me – and it’s what I found most relatable – was that a parent was taking their child to play a sport.
For the five years I played softball as a kid, my Dad took me to every game and practice. The anticipation and excitement that came with getting in the car and driving to the diamond, would be bookended with a post-game recap on the ride home.
I couldn’t wait to get to the field. I’d rush him through dinner, just so we could arrive an hour early and play catch, or hit the ball, without anyone else around.
In hindsight, those were the special moments. Not the games.
So, when I heard the helicopter crashed on its way to one of Gianna’s games, all I kept thinking about was how excited she must’ve been to be flying to a game. How excited she must’ve been to be playing a sport she loved. How excited she must’ve been to be spending time with her Dad and making him proud. How these moments would be the ones they’d reminisce about, twenty years from now.
How all of it was taken from them so quickly.
It’s not fair.
Kobe Bryant has been a cultural icon since before I knew what a cultural icon was. I knew he was someone important ever since I got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas in 1999 and saw him on the back of the box, with other video game characters.
That box is still in my room. I made sure to look at the back of it today.
Side note: If someone shoots a paper ball into the garbage and yells your name, that’s also a pretty good indicator that you’re an icon. “Kobe!”.
Growing up, the kids on the playground wanted to be Vince Carter, or Kobe Bryant. Those were the superstars my generation idolized. Vince redefined what was physically possible on a basketball court, while Kobe brought an intensity that was unmatched.
Kobe looked intimidating on TV. I can’t imagine what he was like to play against.
His Mamba mentality inspired a generation of athletes, across all sports. Just look at your social media feed, the tributes are endless.
So, too, are the videos of NBA players taking the floor, mere hours after finding out that one of their own has been taken in one of the most tragic ways imaginable.
The sadness, despair, and empty feeling that emanated from those arenas and permeated through the television screen, is exactly how fans were feeling at home.
This affected all of us.
At times, athletes don’t feel real. Do you know what I mean? They’re just a person we see on TV, three to four times a week, playing a game they’re really good at. The odd time, we’ll be in the same arena as them, watching from our seat in Section Two Forty Far Away.
It’s like they live in a separate world from the rest of us. A world where they live forever.
And then in the moments where they meet fans, sign autographs, or give high-fives, you realize they are a real person. They wear shoes, just like us.
But the relationship between fan and athlete is still very much one-sided. We know everything about them, but they hardly know anything about us. Sure, they know we exist, and that we buy their jersey, but that’s about it. There are too many of us. Millions, in some cases.
These athletes give us so much – memories that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives. From afar, it sounds silly. But when you’re a fan, sports figures become a part of your identity, which is why you’ll see a lot of people on Twitter saying that Kobe was their childhood.
To the non-sports fans, it’s like when you hear a song and it takes you back to a certain time in our life.
In the sports world, fans see players enter the league as rookies, reach their prime, and slow down, before retiring. Then, they come back as alumni for the next few decades. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
So, when that doesn’t happen – when Kobe Bryant dies at the age of 41, in a helicopter crash, it’s shocking. It doesn’t feel real. It’s the reason why I said, “Bryant?” when I was told Kobe died.
In a weird, unrealistic way, I expect athletes to live forever. Kobe Bryant was supposed to live forever. He didn’t. His time was cut short.
All we have now are the memories.