I’m too old to have been one of those kids who shouted “Kobe!” whenever they took a fallaway jumper. My boyhood heroes were Magic and Bird, and before them Dr. J, John Havlicek, and the long-forgotten Dave DeBusschere, whose Sports Illustrated profile taught me how to draw fouls. Still, I was stunned to sadness Sunday afternoon when my daughter told us Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter accident, twelve hours after he congratulated LeBron James for passing him on the all-time scorers list.
Mourning Kobe comes naturally to any lifelong basketball fan. He belongs on everyone’s short list of the game’s greats. His career stretched from 1996 to 2016, and his stats and achievements speak for themselves: MVP awards, NBA championships, Olympic medals, scoring records—including 81 points against the Raptors in 2006. He brought it to an end in 2016, with a season-long farewell pageant capped by yet another 60-point performance in his final game against the Utah Jazz. Someone said on Twitter that his premature death is the worst tragedy ever in professional sports. That seems right.
The grief is partly a feeling of unrealized promise. Kobe’s sports career was behind him, but he had high ambitions for life after basketball. He already starred in a series of Turkish Airlines commercials with soccer great Lionel Messi and a self-mocking Nike commercial in which he conducted a coliseum of fans singing their hate for Kobe. He met his wife Vanessa during a short-lived side career as a rapper, and he taught himself to play the piano. His animated short film Dear Basketball won an Academy Award in 2018. Some sports legends slip into oblivion. It looked as if the multi-talented Kobe would be around to entertain us off the court for decades to come.
Every great player is larger than life, inspiring millions who don’t know him or her. Kobe’s style, though, seemed uniquely revealing. In his Oscar-winning love letter to basketball, he reminisces about rolling up his father’s tube socks to shoot imaginary game-winning shots. For young Kobe, “one thing was real: I fell in love with you, a love so deep, I gave you my all, from my mind and body to my spirit and soul.” He spent his life running up and down every court he could find, chasing every loose ball, because Basketball called him: “I did everything for you.” In the cult of Basketball, Kobe was a willing high priest.
Not everything he brought to the court was wholesome. In the 2015 documentary Kobe Bryant’s Muse, a remarkably self-aware Kobe says he realized as a teenager that working on his craft wasn’t enough. Basketball called him to sacrifice friends and family and leisure, to start earlier and practice more often and more intensely than his rivals. He also learned he could make his “darker emotions” work for him on the court. Sad and enraged by multiple moves, loneliness, and academic problems, he learned to push the eruption to the side so he could detonate on court. Once basketball became a theater for his rage, his game became transcendent. And, as he says, he “f*cking loved it.” Opposing fans didn’t understand him. An outsider all his life, he thrived on their boos and insults. Their hostility was his comfort zone.
You didn’t need to watch his “therapy on film” to see the rage. No doubt it’s part of the background to the upheavals in his marriage, which nearly ended in divorce after he confessed he was regularly “committing adultery.” The rage is there in the primal screams and the chest-pounding, in the iconic pictures of Kobe tearing his jersey, in the ferocity of his face and his play, in his adoption of the “Black Mamba” moniker, in his determination to play through pain and continue playing as his body broke down. It’s there in his tortured relationship with Laker teammate Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq accused Kobe of being selfish (he often was), while Kobe countered that Shaq lacked intensity. By Kobe standards, he did. So did everyone else. Not everyone made Basketball an object of utter devotion.
Mass grief is made possible by mass media, heightened in recent decades by social media. We follow LeBron on Twitter and feel as if we know more about his opinions and life, his menu and habits than we know about our neighbors. We feel particular intimacy with sports figures. It’s common to deride this as a “false intimacy,” but that’s too facile. Actors are larger than life, but they’re screened by the role. Even when they appear “in person” on talk shows, there’s an agent behind the curtain carefully managing the soul-baring. But sports stars succeed or fail live on the screen in front of us. We see the joy of victory and the agony of defeat in real time, and if we’re fans, we experience the joy and agony as well. We didn’t just watch Kobe’s triumphs and failures. We lived them alongside him.
As his basketball career wound down, Kobe relaxed. According to his biographer Jeff Pearlman, it became apparent that he was, “despite reports to the contrary, human.” Pearlman attributes Kobe’s softening to marriage and family, but perhaps there was more to it. Fox News reported that Kobe and his daughter Gianna had attended Mass before they climbed aboard for their last helicopter ride. We can hope Kobe found a rest for his soul greater than Basketball. There are no better parting words than those of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s poignant tribute: “Rest in peace, young man. Go with God.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.