Like a lot of people across the United States and the world, I spent most of the day on Sunday crying as I mourned the death of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant who lost his life in a horrific helicopter crash on the hills of Calabasas, California. Kobe was 41 years-old.
Sunday, January 26, 2020 will go down as one of those, “Do you remember where you were when this happened?” type of days. For me, I was at home watching TV when one of my former players called me and asked me if it was true about Kobe. Not knowing what he was referring to, I asked him what happened. When he told me I immediately started searching ESPN, Fox Sports, CNN and other media outlets to see if there was any mention of it. When I saw nothing I told him I didn’t see anything and hoped for the best.
Then the news started to slowly come in from one station to another. With each new development, the shock and horror started slowly setting in. I had to call him back and tell him it was true. Kobe was gone. As a basketball coach, fan and one who values the game and what it has done and will continue to do for young African-American boys and girls, I was in disbelief. One of the greats was gone. In the debate of who’s the greatest basketball player ever, I’m Team Michael Jordan all the way. But Kobe Bryant was the closest thing to MJ that my eyes have ever seen. A near carbon copy of His Airness, Kobe was just as competitive and accomplished as Jordan. During the span of his 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant racked up 5 NBA championships, 2 Finals MVP’s, 1 NBA MVP, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, 18 All-Star game appearances, 4 All-Star game MVP’s, 9 time All-Defensive 1st Team selections, and up until a couple of days ago when he was passed by current Laker LeBron James, he was the 3rd on the NBA All-Time scoring list.
After a while my tears subsided and I began to compose myself. Just when I thought the waterworks were finished, the gut-punch hit me and I resume crying. It was now being reported that not only was Kobe gone, so was his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, affectionately called Gigi, and seven other people as well. Those seven: Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, basketball coach at Harbor Day School and with Mamba Sports Academy; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton; and the pilot Ara Zobayan.
Vanessa, Kobe’s wife, must now cope with the unimaginable task of going on without her husband and daughter. I don’t even want to think about what she’s going through right now. Mauser leaves behind a husband and three children. The Altobelli’s leave behind two other children and left to mourn Chester are her husband and two sons. My heart is filled with sorrow right now for all the families and I pray that God gives them the strength to make some sense of it all.
As a teacher and coach for the past 17 years, the loss of Gigi, Alyssa and Payton hit me the hardest. I don’t want anyone to leave this earth in a seemingly untimely fashion, as these adults did, but when a young person who has so much life ahead of them dies, it strikes a deeper blow with me.
The group was en route to a travel basketball game where Kobe and Mauser, Mamba Sports Academy coaches, and teammates Gigi, Alyssa and Payton were scheduled to play. I believe this is why I feel so much pain right now. One of the few things that Kobe and I have in common – it sounds funny to even be saying that – is coaching youth basketball. My thoughts immediately turned to the countless number of trips I have taken over the years with kids Gigi’s age doing exactly what she and her father were doing: heading to a basketball game. We load up vehicles, kids hug their parents and say goodbye as we embark on our journey never expecting to not return home. Each and every time I ask God to give us traveling grace that we may arrive at and return from our destination safely. So the mere fact that these lives were lost doing exactly what it is that I do on an almost weekly basis hits home. I can’t imagine the thoughts that were going through Kobe’s and those other parents’ minds as that chopper was going down. Every time I think about it I began to tear up. So rather than dwell on the tragic moments that marked the end of his life, I try to focus my mind on his 41 years prior to Sunday’s events.
As far as Kobe is concerned, his reach extends well beyond the game of basketball. He was a global icon who meant so much to so many. He introduced the world to Mamba Mentality, which basically is about striving to be the best. It’s the indomitable will to be great, legendary even. It’s about pursuing your passion with everything you have. Kobe could have easily leaned on the God-given ability he was blessed with and called it a day, knowing that would be enough to make him great. But he wanted to be legendary. So he worked his tail off and became what was described as a “supremely talented overachiever”. He worked like he was the last man trying to make the roster, not one of the most athletically blessed people we have ever seen. That was Mamba Mentality. It’s what led him to be, what some regard, the greatest basketball player ever. Since retiring from the NBA, it was Mamba Mentality that earned him an Academy Award in 2018 for his Best Animated Short Film “Dear Basketball.” It was Mamba Mentality that allowed him to start production and entertainment companies and various business investments that had him poised to conquer the boardroom just has he had the hardwood.
But perhaps the most indelible lesson we can take from Kobe’s life was his devotion to his family. It was clear the love he had for his wife and four daughters, Natalia, Gigi, Bianka and Capri. When we saw Kobe and Gigi sitting courtside at a game, sharing laughs, smiles, hugs and thoughtful conversation, you could almost feel the bond they were building through the game of basketball. All the pictures and images I’ve ever seen of him with his wife or girls shows what a loving father and husband he was. Was he perfect? No. We remember the mistake years ago, but that’s what endeared him to so many. Like us all, he had his imperfections but he worked to redeem himself. I truly believe he was on track to do more special things in this world. That’s why it’s so hurtful and hard to believe that he’s gone.
When tragedy like this strike, it is human for our first reactions to ask “Why?”. It’s difficult to find reasoning behind such tragic events and while we can never second guess God’s will, what we can do is try to learn something from events like this. Maybe parents, and more importantly black fathers, will follow his example and become more active in their kids’ lives, like Kobe was. Maybe we’ll all embrace the Mamba Mentality to go after what it is we want in life with a laser-sharp focus, belief in self and tireless devotion, like Kobe did. Maybe we learn that life is fleeting and that each day is a blessing so we should make the most of every opportunity we have, like Kobe did.
Whatever the lesson each one of us takes from this tragedy, one thing is for sure: Kobe Bean Bryant was one of the greatest to ever lace up a pair of basketball sneakers and he was on his way to becoming one of the greatest off-court success stories we’ve ever seen. The legacy and lessons he left behind will never be forgotten. So, I’ll end this column fittingly with the words of the legend himself:
August 23, 1978 – January 26, 2020.