Kobe Bryant’s Death Strikes at a Parent’s Worst Fear
I first learned the news of Kobe Bryant’s death, just minutes after the story first broke, in a text message from my friend Murph. “Is this Kobe news real?” he asked. I had no idea what he meant. I was at a restaurant, with a playground in the back, throwing a football to my sports-obsessed 5-year old. I immediately went to Twitter and typed in Kobe. “Holy shit,” I replied to Murph. “I hadn’t seen.” I threw my son a few more passes and struggled to figure out my reaction.
I was never a Kobe fan. He was a Laker. He was not as good as MJ. I liked T-Mac more, then LeBron more. That “Mamba Mentality” always seemed fake to me – it always struck me that he was not a sports “killer” like MJ, but felt like he needed to be, and it seemed insincere. He gave himself nicknames, for heaven’s sake. He was also credibly accused of rape, and it’s never ceased to amaze me how quickly people chose to ignore that. But upon hearing of his death, I was still in shock. This was Kobe. He wasn’t MJ, but he’s a top-10 player of all-time. He was still so young and vibrant. And now he’s dead?
Right about that moment my wife walked outside from the restaurant; she and her friends had heard the news from one of the employees while awaiting our food. They asked me if it was reported who else had died. A few seconds later I read that Kobe’s 13-year old daughter, Gianna, was also killed in the crash. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Over the next 24 hours I read thousands of words on Kobe. Many articles focused on Kobe the basketball player; others on Kobe the person after basketball; others on Kobe the accused rapist; perhaps most were on Kobe the dad.
By all reports, Kobe was a doting father to his four daughters. When he died, he was taking the helicopter with Gianna, along with her teammate and the teammate’s parents, to Gianna’s basketball tournament. He had become a champion for women’s basketball – encouraged by Gianna’s love of the game, he even said recently that two or three specific WNBA players could play in the NBA right now. It was Gianna’s death, and his death as a father not as a basketball player, that I kept coming back to.
I was struggling to verbalize my thoughts. And then I found this article by Henry Abbott. Abbott was one of the original basketbloggers. Abbott started True Hoop in 2005, which was later purchased by ESPN. In that role, Abbott covered Kobe quite a bit, including once when he really angered the Kobe stans in 2014.
But Abbott didn’t write about Kobe the basketball player. He didn’t even really write about Kobe the father. He wrote about how for Henry, as a father himself, Kobe’s death helped crystalize how becoming a parent, and the fear of losing your child, changes a person so fundamentally. Coincidentally, that very morning, Henry had read an article about the very subject by Claudia Dey, in the Paris Review. From Dey’s article:
No one had warned me that with a child comes death. Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child—this is how the death presence makes you feel. The conversations I had with other new mothers stayed strictly within the bounds of the list: blankets, diapers, creams. Every conversation I had was the wrong conversation. No other mother congratulated me and then said: I’m overcome by the blackest of thoughts. You? This is why mothers don’t sleep, I thought to myself. This is why mothers don’t look away from their children. This is why, even with a broken heart, a mother will bring herself back to life.
I read that excerpt and realized immediately why the Kobe news affected me: not because a famous person died; but because an innocent young girl lost her life, a father lost his life, and three daughters and a wife were left forever changed. The lives of the surviving family will never be the same. As Draymond gets at below, as a parent, this is your worst fear shoved right in your face.
I have been a dad for 5 years, and three times in those 5 years I’ve thought my oldest son might die. First, in a scary few minutes during labor. Second, when he was two and fell down a few stairs, seemed fine, and then coincidentally had a febrile seizure three hours later, brought on by a mild virus. Third, about eight months later, when he fell head first out of our second story window while chasing a ball, somehow landed in a flower planter barely wider than his body, with bricks and cement on either side. He managed to land on his upper back, but not his head or neck, and on the dirt, not on the cement or bricks.
I’ve seen the video of that last one. We have an outdoor camera that caught it all. The window screen pops off. A ball bounces out. And then a tiny, half naked body tumbles down. It’s disturbing and eerie and I sometimes wish I’d never seen it. But it was immensely helpful for the doctors, who were able to see exactly what happened.
I thought of that day when I heard the news that Kobe’s daughter died with him. I’ll never forget the terror I felt when our nanny called me, as I emerged from the BART station by our house, and she sobbed out what had happened. I’ll never forget wanting to scream at the Uber driver to hurry the hell up because my son had fallen out of a window and I needed to get home. I’ll never forget not being able to get ahold of my wife, who was at a work event, and texting “911” to her. I’ll never forget, when I got home, running across the street, up to the house and looking up at the open window, sprinting over the screen lying across the front entry stairs, terrified about what I was about to walk into.
But what I walked into was a miracle. He was, somehow, fine. Scared, shaken, but fine. The doctors thought he had a little whiplash, and he had some bruises on his upper back. But he more or less walked away from an incident that would have killed him, if he had fallen an inch or two to the left or right.
An inch or two to the left or right, and our family is the Bryant family – devastated, forever changed, possibly disintegrated. I live with that thought every day. Every single time I look at that planter, I think about how close we came. As Abbott emphasizes, as a parent, that fear of an inch or two to the left or right never goes away.
For Abbott, the hours after he heard the Kobe news illustrates that:
The drive home from the rock climbing gym is only a few minutes. We stopped at Lowe’s …. It seemed like all the cars in the parking lot were some mix of dads and moms and daughters and sons and jeans and shopping carts and conversations, all on their way to patching up little broken things. We crammed the new toilet in the hatchback and made our way home. I tried to concentrate on the road as my learning-to-drive daughter drove (more vigilance!), but my mind wasn’t much on cars. It was swirling with helicopters. Circling death.
A few hours earlier, Kobe was a Sunday dad, bopping to a sports thing with his young teenager. Terrible questions emerge about the deadly sequence. Did the helicopter first have trouble? Were there terrifying minutes, when those poor nine people grew increasingly sure they might die? Did father and daughter hold hands? Would you? What would you say? Is it enough to just cry and cry and hug and say I love you? Is there something more momentous?
Or was it all instant? What’s better?
I don’t know what’s better. I don’t know how many times Kobe almost went down in a helicopter. I don’t know how close the pilot was, this time, to preventing this crash; to hitting that inch or two to the left or right that had everyone on that helicopter walking away safely, exhaling deeply, and telling the story for the next few decades of the time they were all worried they were about to die before they didn’t.
But I do know, for all his triumphs, for all his flaws, the news of Kobe’s death hit me hard because it reminded me how fragile life is, and how terrifying that is for a parent. I feel for Vanessa Bryant, who will never be the same, having lost a child and a husband; I feel for their oldest daughter who will forever miss her dad and her sister; I feel for their two youngest daughters, aged 3 and 0, who will never know either. -TOB
Source: “This Is Why Mothers Don’t Sleep,” Henry Abbott, True Hoop (01/27/2020);
PAL: When a public figure dies suddenly, the initial reaction is out of your control. I had no particular interest or fandom of Kobe Bryant, but I will remember where I was, how I found out – sitting alone on our stoop, stunned. That haze stuck with me into the next day, and then I was wondering why. Again, not a Laker fan, not a Kobe fan.
And, just as Abbott describes above, I realized I was on the worst of it in the helicopter, and trying to imagine being a father in that moment. I couldn’t help but picture it, and I couldn’t help seeing it. I mentioned it to Natalie, and she stopped me mid-sentence.
It’s the father and daughter dying together in such a scary way. It’s got very little to do with their names.
And I just want to mention on our little site – and I’m not saying others haven’t mentioned it – but this is every bit as terrible for the Chester, Altobelli, Mauser, and Zobayan families. Send a little love their way, too.
Over the last day or two, my mind has shifted to Bryant’s wife. Man, Abbott isn’t lying when he says, “It’s Vanessa Bryant who just took the first step in a devastating ultramarathon.”
And one other line from the Shea Serrano’s article referenced later in the post:
Death arrives by generation, I’ve told myself. They go and then we go, I’ve told myself. That’s the order, I’ve told myself. That’s how it’s going to go because that’s how it’s supposed to go, I’ve told myself.
But no. That’s not true either.
TOB: I just wanted to add – shortly after my son’s fall, we installed safety bars on all the windows on our second story. I highly recommend them if you have young children and live in a house with more than one story.
Best Super Bowl Story I Found This Week
A lot of profiles and backstories about players leading in to the Super Bowl this week – Mahomes’ legendary high school pitching duel, George Kittle and his dad’s pre-game letters – but this one is by far my favorite.
How about this Super Bowl history, per Benjamin Hoffman of the NY Times:
Super Bowls are typically littered with tales of random connections, but few can match a parallel between this year’s teams: Both the 49ers and the Chiefs have starting left tackles who were first-round picks out of Central Michigan, and both gained more than 75 pounds in college to make that happen. It is just the second time in 54 Super Bowls that both starting left tackles came from the same college, a rarity made especially surprising since Kansas City’s Eric Fisher and San Francisco’s Staley are the only first-round picks in Central Michigan’s long history.
Second time in history, and they come from Central Michigan? Crazy! Or is it?
[I]t was no coincidence that Staley and Fisher had gone through such radical transformations during their years in Mount Pleasant. As a Mid-American Conference program that did not have the recruiting machines of college football’s heavy hitters, Central Michigan had to look for players who had the frame for a position, even if they were still lacking the necessary bulk.
Makes perfect sense. Out of necessity, an mid-major needs to look for athletes and a frame, not a finished product. Staley was a tight end and sprinter. Fisher was a skinny wide receiver coming out of high school. Add weight to the athlete, and now you’ve got a chance at a special lineman.
It’s no joke. Staley was a friggin’ sprinter in highs chool (dude ran 200 in 21.9 seconds in high school!). Or how about this:
It is not all talk. At his pro day in 2007, Staley’s 20-yard split in the 40-yard dash was just 0.01 of a second slower than the one recorded by Kansas City’s Travis Kelce in 2013, and just 0.08 slower than the one recorded by San Francisco’s George Kittle in 2017, despite the 305-pound Staley’s outweighing both All-Pro tight ends by 50 pounds.
I knew none of this, and I find it so impressive. O-line: studs. A fun, light read this week. Needed it. – PAL
Source: “Central Michigan’s Left Tackle Factory (Some Assembly Required)”, Benjamin Hoffman, The New York Times (01/29/2020)
Other Articles on Kobe I Liked
“Kobe and Gianna,” Shea Serrano, The Ringer (01/30/2020) – Shea Serrano also wrote beautifully on the topic of how being a parent made the Kobe news hit especially hard. This was my very favorite, but I had already done my story above before I found this.
“Kobe Bryant’s Death Hit Me Hard, and Even Worse Because of What We Had in Common,” Marcus Thompson, The Athletic (01/27/2020) – I read this almost immediately after finishing what I wrote about Kobe, and Thompson echoes many of my sentiments.
“‘It’s a Loss That You Can’t Replace’: On the Legacy of John Altobelli,” Fabian Ardaya, The Athletic (01/26/2020) – on John Altobelli, the father and baseball coach also killed, along with his daughter and wife, in the crash.
“In the Wake of Tragedy, I Turned to Jerry West to try to Make Sense of Kobe Bryant’s Life and Legacy,” Sam Amick, The Athletic (01/26/2020) – Amick, who covered Kobe for years, on Kobe’s life legacy, the mistakes he made, and how he tried to atone for them.
“Two Things Can Be True, But One Thing Is Always Mentioned First,” Jeremy Gordon, The Outline (01/27/2020) – In the wake of his death, how we talk about Kobe, the 2003 rape accusation against him, and what it all says about us.
“Remembering Gigi Bryant,” Molly Knight, The Athletic (01/26/2020) – A memoriam for Gianna the person, not the daughter of Kobe Bryant.
“A Wake Held in Blissful Ignorance: Appreciating Kobe’s FInal Days,” Bill Oram, The Athletic (01/26/2020) – particularly this passage:
LeBron James passing Kobe Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in Philadelphia should have been nothing more than a happy coincidence. Now it’s a cruel twist of fate.
Dwight Howard calling on Bryant to assist him in next month’s dunk contest should have just been another delightful chapter in Howard’s Lakers reclamation. Instead, it’s a reminder that not all stories get to come full circle.
Those moments from recent days now feel like the universe was screaming at us. Grabbing us by the hair and pleading: “Remember this man! Take this moment to appreciate him! He won’t be here much longer.”
Bryant’s helicopter crashed into a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains on Sunday morning, killing all nine people aboard, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. The sudden manner in which Bryant died makes the celebration of his basketball career that played out over the last few days all the more poignant.
Typically, only when a man dies slowly will his final days be filled with eulogies. But it is difficult now not to look back upon the days before Bryant’s death as a wake held in blissful ignorance — a chance to celebrate the man without the burden of grief that will now be impossible to shed.
As James closed in on Bryant’s career scoring total of 33,643 points, clips of Bryant in full poetic motion were dusted off and played on a loop. When James took the court Saturday night, it was with “Mamba 4 Life” scrawled on his sneakers.
In the locker room after the game, James spoke for several minutes uninterrupted about Bryant giving him a pair of shoes when they met for the first time in 2002 at the All-Star Game, also in Philadelphia.
“The story is too much,” James said as he retold it, marveling at the symmetry of their careers.
James idolized Bryant then passed him on the scoring list in a Lakers uniform in Philly. Wow.
“It’s surreal,” James said. “It doesn’t make no sense, but the universe just puts things in your life.”
When Howard, sitting at his own locker, tried to give James his proper due for the achievement, he uttered these chilling words: “We don’t appreciate each other as much as we should as a humanity. And I think something like that should be appreciated. You should appreciate people while they’re alive.”
Oram’s point is a good one – those quotes from LeBron and Howard are from the night before Kobe died, but they sure seem like they came after he died, don’t they? -TOB
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