Famous, revered public figures dying unexpectedly is not uncommon. Often, it happens multiple times in the same year. There is, however, something exceptionally tragic and unexpected about the untimely death of Kobe Bryant alongside his daughter and seven other victims on board a helicopter last Sunday.
What can I say that has not been said better a hundred times over in the days since, especially by those who had a personal relationship with Kobe or the other victims of the crash? Of course, nothing. Yet I feel compelled to put down a few thoughts, in the hope to sort through the bleakness of the event and find some kind of speck of light in the aftermath.
There are the obvious tragic facts of the incident. Kobe was 41, just two and a half seasons removed from playing in the N.B.A., and had been highly active since. Already he had won an Oscar for his involvement in Dear Basketball, an animated short film based on the “love letter to basketball” he wrote at the time of his retirement. Though Kobe was retired as a player, and had established his legend on the court over 20 seasons with the L.A. Lakers, he was likely only mid-way through his life’s work. As Obama eloquently put it, Kobe was “just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act.”
Then there is the heart-wrenching fact of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant being a passenger on the helicopter and dying in the crash with him. Gianna shared Kobe’s passion for basketball, and Kobe hoped for her to carry the Bryant legacy into women’s basketball over the coming decades. The short clips Kobe shared on Instagram of his daughter playing are enough to see the potential she had to follow in her father’s footsteps and deliver on that hope. Gianna’s death takes what would be a terrible loss for the Bryant family and the basketball world and makes it a loss that is difficult to comprehend.
Countless tributes and heartfelt statements of condolence have been made since Sunday. With N.B.A. games starting shortly after the news broke, it quickly became clear how many people Kobe had profoundly inspired, and formed meaningful relationships with, in the basketball world. Commentators found their voices faltering, coaches struggled to get through post-game interviews, and players and staff visibly struggled with shock and grief as the games went on. Many teams paid tribute through planned 8 second and 24 second violations, symbolising the two numbers Kobe wore as a Laker. The Lakers vs. Clippers game scheduled for Tuesday night has been postponed. For many in the city and the organisation Kobe devoted his playing career to, this loss will take time to come to terms with. The pain felt throughout the sport is without precedent. And naturally, the devastation felt by close friends and family will bear no comparison.
Almost separate from the tragic event itself, there is something particularly disjointing about the death of Kobe Bryant, specifically, which I think points towards a rare character quality he possessed. Kobe was someone who seemed alive to an unusual degree. That may seem like an odd thing to say, but it is the only way I can think of to express the thought. He was simply, unusually alive. He was a highly energetic, ultra competitive, master of focusing on future success, pursuing a clear path towards it, harnessing every ounce of his drive, and bringing it into reality while tuning out obstacles that would interfere with its realisation. His attitude towards life exposed a bright, electric energy that can be found within it when it has clear goals and purpose. He was something of a life force, you could say, which I think partly explains why “Kobe Bryant dead” strikes so many discordant notes. It invites disbelief.
The death of an individual tends to clarify the kind of impact they had on the world around them during life, and what became apparent almost immediately after Kobe's passing, seeing the scale of the outpouring—from the public, athletes from all over the sporting world, musicians, and even U.S. presidents—is how instructive it was to so many people to see an individual in the public spotlight devote themselves to their dreams, take a preternaturally competitive attitude to the achievement of those dreams, and then see it resulting in consistent success, confirmed hundreds and thousands of times over years. In that way Kobe set a powerfully instructive example that exemplifies one of the highest purposes of professional sports.
Even without even considering themselves fans — and I was never a Lakers fan —, witnessing that kind of talent and fierce competitive drive on display is enough to adjust your conception of what is possible, and in a real sense model your expectations based on the example. Kobe Bryant reached a level of achievement where he becomes, in some sense, the teacher of everyone who saw him play.
Perhaps then there is hope something positive can come from the tragedy, if the untimely loss of Kobe Bryant acts as a catalyst to many, spurring those who were inspired by him to adopt the same kind of attitude and energy towards positive life goals Kobe demonstrated on the court, and use it to drive themselves forwards towards whatever brilliant goals take form in their hearts and minds.