A friend texted me. “Kobe’s dead?”
Even in a small, bright Portland brunch spot, news of Kobe Bryant’s death sent a murmur rippling across the tables.
It took me a second to understand what those two words could possibly mean together. That’s how invincible professional athletes seem. When someone is so fast and so strong that people will pay to watch them be fast and strong, death seems an unworthy opponent, especially before time has drained their vitality and reshaped their appearance.
Who’s Kobe? I wondered. Because there is only one Kobe, and he can’t be dead. So, which Kobe was my friend talking about? But there’s only one Kobe. Okay, well then what does ‘dead’ mean? Because, while there is only one Kobe, there are many kinds of death.
And after digesting the words, and the inconceivability, and then finally accepting what it truly meant, I said it out loud to my wife, our friend, and our friend’s cousin. At another table someone said, “See? They heard it, too.”
I’m not the person to talk about Kobe’s career or impact on the game. I’m a very casual consumer of professional basketball who grew up in an NBA desert where NCAA basketball rules. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to follow the NBA since I had no one around to indoctrinate me. I was 13 when Kobe entered the league. Young enough to still be awed by adults demonstrating feats of physical excellence, but old enough to understand that one of the best basketball players ever could be seen on my TV.
Eventually, death comes to usher all of us through a darkened door into an unfamiliar room. Kobe’s death, in particular, reminds us of what death can steal from us because we did not have time to brace for it.
The future is what death can steal from us. Losing the memories we thought we would get to make is angering. Having that snatched away is what leaves us feeling stunned.
Even though I’m not a regular consumer of the NBA, I knew for a fact that Elder Statesman Kobe was going to be fun to watch. Gray-haired Kobe, softened by age, laughing on the sideline or holding up a score while judging the dunk contest is something that death took from fans. We lost the chance to see him become what Bill Russell is now.
It draws up those feelings of loss that we know we’ll experience from those who are close to us. And it’s scary. Because if someone that we’ve only seen on TV or from the cheap seats can be taken away in the middle of their lives, then so can someone who we see and care about from up close.
That’s why strangers on the internet or a restaurant full of people can be stunned and saddened by the death of someone they’ve never met. This collective moment hurts us all in the same way. It’s human nature.