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Their flesh and blood and lives and dreams were no less, of course, than Kobe Bryant’s. But there is something about celebrity, particularly athletic celebrity, that we are more drawn to despite what would seem a natural proclivity for most of us to connect with those who live, and tragically lose, a life more everyday like our own.
And it is disturbing.
“Our outcry of support for Kobe has a lot more to do with us trying to cope with the fragility of life and the connection of ourselves to the society in which we identify,” Derek Silva, a sociologist at King’s University College at Western University in Ontario, told me Tuesday. “For many, the passing of a sports figure that is viewed as invincible on the court is actually simultaneously reminding them that nobody is invincible — not even those who do out-of-this-world athletic endeavors.
“For the others who were tragically lost, we don’t understand them as ‘invincible.’ They are part of the mundanity of life and death,” Silva said. “The loss of Kobe is more important to us because we value his life more than the common person.”
Silva reached such a troubling conclusion after studying with his colleague Liam Kennedy the reaction in Canada to a bus crash in 2018 that killed 16 players and staff of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team in Saskatchewan and injured 13 other members. There were tragedies before in Canada, of course, but never one that produced the outpouring of grief as the Humboldt hockey team accident. The nation rallied with the largest GoFundMe campaign in Canadian history. Canadians registered for organ donations in record numbers. They turned out at blood banks like never before.
“We know that sport idols represent a very visible public face of the culture that we all live in,” Silva said. “Take the Raptors’ 2019 [NBA] championship as an example. The entire country of Canada came together in so many powerful ways based primarily on one team. In this way, we look to symbols of sport, including athletes, to help us build shared community, shared ideals, shared cultures, shared morals and norms.”
It doesn’t matter that we may never have met them. And most of us, of course, never met Kobe. It only mattered that we felt like we knew him, which is why we were on a first-name basis with him, which is why even two days after that helicopter went down with nine victims who have left behind grieving family members and friends, we all say, “What horrible news about Kobe.”
After all, we witnessed Kobe’s arrival as an athletic wunderkind, an 18-year-old NBA player. We scoffed at what appeared to be an attitude of entitlement he exhibited as only the fifth high school player drafted straight into the NBA and as the son of a former player in the league.
We marveled at his artistry as he blossomed into a star. We dismissed him as the worst example of toxic masculinity in sports when, seven years into his pro career, he was charged with sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman at a spa in Colorado where he was having an injury treated.
Kobe admitted to an adulterous moment that he said was consensual. His accuser eventually refused to go on with the case, filed a civil suit and settled. Kobe eventually stated he didn’t realize his accuser saw their encounter as assault. Companies that contracted Kobe to endorse their products severed ties. But his wife, Vanessa, stayed with him and, we must surmise, forgave him. Time passed, and we began mostly to acknowledge that the Kobe we never really stopped paying attention to was one of the most spectacular athletes ever to grace our games.
The kid we had first seen as spoiled — bickering with established stars next to him to whom we thought he should have shown deference — we saw now as an avuncular figure generously sharing his knowledge of the game with younger players who grew up idolizing his talent.
Some among us even said Kobe matured from misogynist to feminist, or a Title IX dad, like my friend Christine Brennan put it as we discussed his legacy Tuesday on NPR. It was noted that he died with the basketball-playing daughter of his whom he coached and through whom he championed the WNBA in particular and women’s sports in general.
We watched him step into the role of a retired athlete, not commentating on TV, but lending his energy, fame and wealth to foundations to help people in need — kids at risk, veterans struggling to transition to civilian life, and the homeless.
And now we’re about to watch his end, his burial at 41.
Kobe isn’t the first celebrity or athletic star we have witnessed extinguished by an abrupt, tragic end. He won’t be the last. And unlike some others, we did see his full bloom for the reason we came to know him at all — his athletic virtuosity. That isn’t what is most important to observe here.
Instead, it is the reason we find ourselves grieving for this one person in this multiple tragedy, which is that we’ve paid attention to what he appears to have become. And that is a model of what we’d like all our neighbors to be. Helpful, not hurtful. Loving, not loathing. Taking a second chance, whether many among us refused to afford it or not, and earning whatever redemption was received.
We’ve allowed empathy to wash over, if not away, whatever enmity we held for the Kobe of nearly two decades ago. How could we not? Sunday was a tragedy for all the victims in that helicopter crash and their families. Kobe was but one.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.