It was a bit of a shock, for the whole nation, to learn of the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash that took nine lives.
The common lamentations came quickly: “Forty-one is so young.” “His daughter was with him.” “LA is in mourning.” “Mamba forever.”
Those who don’t follow basketball or pop culture may wonder who Kobe was and why the world seemed so shaken by his death. Wikipedia and social media can fill them in on his stats and history, but to get at the root of why Kobe’s death mattered to people who did not know him, it perhaps helps to think of three distinct ideas he embodied that can speak to all of us:
You Are More Than What You Do
During an interview, Robin Roberts tried a little word-association exercise with Kobe: “What one word comes to mind when you hear this word?” Then they volleyed words back and forth:
[Lengthy pause and sighs.]
Afterwards, Roberts later recounted, Kobe had told her, “There’s a difference between what you do and who you are.”
A very true thought, one worth pondering in our own lives, for Kobe Bryant was about more than just basketball. He is remembered for his life on the court, an insane work ethic, setting records, and growing into a team leader during his twenty-year career. But his life off the court was what set him up for such success, because the person that decides to do must first decide to be. Action must flow from being.
Kobe’s action (playing basketball) became legendary because of his life off the court, because of his habit of being. Talent brings accolades. Hustle wins games. But if action is not rooted in being, then it is largely for naught. Interest in his life began because of the basketball, but the questions kept coming because of his family life, his faith, and his philanthropy.
You might say Kobe Bryant “led with beauty.”
Your Vocation Matters
Failure and even scandal are a part of Kobe’s life too. Suffering is a quick litmus test of what lies underneath all of the talent. In another interview, Kobe spoke about how he found his faith after dealing with some serious allegations of sexual misconduct. He said, “You can know [that God is great] all you want, but until you have to pick up that cross that you can’t carry and he picks it up for you and carries you and the cross . . . then you know.”
After that incident, Kobe and his wife Vanessa struggled and nearly divorced, but managed to overcome hardship and stay together. Embracing his vocation mattered. He wore well his vocation to marriage, his vocation to fatherhood, and towards the end of his life, his vocation to holiness, remarking in one interview that as he dealt with the fallout of the scandal, meeting with his priest is what saved his life.
Many of us watched a high-school-aged boy become a star on the professional basketball court. We watched a lad grow up, fail, rise again, recover from injury, fail and rise again as he became an adult, a husband, a father. We watched a life lived in a constant forward thrust of growth.
Death is Transcendent
Bryant’s death has pushed many of us into a sort of communal mourning. From his home of LA to the Philippines, from the basketball courts to the soccer fields, among the old and among the young, we mourn. More often than not, our own brokenness is what draws us together, particularly when we share in mourning because death seems to be, as Henri Nouwen put it, “the most radical manifestation of brokenness.”
In the stories rolling out about the lives lost on the edge of Laurel Canyon, we hear about a pilot encouraging a flight student to not give up (“If you love this, then nothing will stop you”); a mother “you could always count on” and a daughter who “always had a huge smile on her face”; the family who were staples at Orange Coast College in California; and another mother, a talented basketball player and a coach, recruited by Kobe for his daughter’s team. Each of their stories shouts into our mourning with the same melancholic refrain: “Remember your death.”
Far from being morbid, the sentiment—communicated so often through our saints—is really no different than “carpe diem,” or “life is short,” or “don’t take life for granted.”
Or “live each day as if it is your last.”
When one dies, the ripple of that grief goes forward and never ceases. Kobe Bryant’s death changes the lives of everyone who knew him and even those who simply knew of him. His death has given strength to those with stories to tell that had no validity until now: how he encouraged a new mom by extolling the greatness of daughters; how he greeted an opposing player’s parents after his own team had lost; how he went from telling his teammates “give me the ball” to teaching them how to be all-around better players and human beings.
Kobe Bryant’s death has made his game a mode of remembrance. His legacy lives on the court, in the pews of Our Lady Queen of Angels, in the faces of his daughters, in the heart of his wife, and in the memories of perfect strangers who grew to love him through sports. This is the transcendence of death. It has been conquered, and because of this, a life transcends the finality of earthly time. Kobe may be gone, but his impact on the world is now more pronounced, and the world will know even more about him in the years to come.
It has been confirmed that Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna attended 7 a.m. Mass prior to their planned trip to Mamba Academy via helicopter. In a few short hours, the summation of his life was played out: being, vocation, death, and legacy. He received Christ in the Eucharist while on a journey to his love for basketball, and I imagine that he died with his arms around his daughter. He died as a father, as a husband, and as a child of God.
What are the three important takeaways from Kobe’s death?
The world needs who you are.
Your vocation can change the world.
Remember your death.