The news arrived via Twitter, and so it was immediately taken with some degree of skepticism.
But as additional reports came in from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD that NBA legend Kobe Bryant had died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Southern California, sports fans began to contemplate how to process it all.
Shock. Sadness. Disbelief. Even denial.
It can’t be true.
Then we think about his family, his wife and daughters, his mother and father, and how their profound grief far exceeds anything we could comprehend as sports fans.
Authorities — who Sunday afternoon declined to confirm reports from TMZ and other outlets, including the NBA, that Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gigi were among those killed — say nine people lost their lives in the crash.
Kobe was not only one of the biggest stars in NBA history. His sudden death punches a hole in all of sport — in American pop culture, really. Here is a guy whose drive and determination — his “Mamba mentality” — took him to the pinnacle of basketball (five NBA championships) as well as the pinnacle of film (an Academy Award for “Dear Basketball.”) There’s no telling what else he would have accomplished in life. At 41, he was taken far too soon.
Please forgive the notion of comparing tragedies, but many times the way we cope with loss is to sift through our own histories, our own experiences, in hope that perhaps we can assign our feelings an appropriate measure.
For some sports fans, today might feel like an all-too-painful confluence of past events:
- Baseball great Roberto Clemente died in a 1972 New Year’s Eve plane crash while taking off in Puerto Rico to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
- In August 1979, Yankees captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash — during the baseball season — while practicing maneuvers in his single-engine craft in Canton, Ohio.
- In November 1991, right before the NBA season began, Lakers great Magic Johnson shocked the world when he staged a press conference to announce that he had HIV and would be forced to retire.
- And in June 1994, we watched in disbelief as aerial news coverage out of Los Angeles flooded our TVs throughout the day with stunning images of O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco.
The parallels are irrefutable: Men who transcended their own legend in sport, thrust into the news, shockingly, suddenly — the air disasters, the Lakers legend, the non-stop helicopter footage on a Southern California icon.
They’re not the same, of course, but they do evoke similar memories, similar emotions.
Today feels bigger, what with the instantaneous and continuous news cycle, the immediate outpouring of surprise and disbelief and love and sadness on social media and elsewhere. And while Magic’s zest for life was extended and O.J. continues to soil his own legacy, Kobe is gone, ripped away from us. It hurts, and it’s not fair.
To be sure, Kobe is no O.J. To compare them in 2019 would seem a disgrace to Kobe’s legacy. But take yourself back 25 summers and you’ll feel the shock again: “Oh no. Can this be true?” The comparison here, of course, is more about the news coverage of a Los Angeles sports idol who had transitioned to Hollywood, and the disbelief we all felt as new information trickled in. Like today, it was a horrifying day that will be forever burned into the memories of those who watched it unfold.
Also, Kobe’s death isn’t the result of self-absorbed overindulgence, like Magic’s HIV. But that both were Lakers legends, and that the scope of today’s news coverage reached so deeply into American culture in both coverage and influence, is inescapable.
Munson, a seven-time All-Star and AL MVP, was the last Yankee captain before Derek Jeter (who only just last week was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame), so the impact Munson had on a championship organization was immutable. Same with Kobe.
And Clemente, a 12-time All-Star, NL MVP and World Series MVP, literally died helping people — he spent his own money on gathering and transporting relief supplies and was going to stand up to corrupt Nicaraguan politicians and military leaders to ensure his deliveries reached the people who needed them — but his tragedy occurred decades before camera phones and social media could record his every interaction like we’ve seen today from Kobe fans worldwide. Everyone, it seems, from celebrity to man on the street, has a Kobe story.
Other icons of sport who died prematurely and left us stunned us include Steve Prefontaine, Reggie White, Len Bias, Hank Gathers, Dale Earnhardt, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Payne Stewart, Derrick Thomas, Sean Taylor and Junior Seau.
That’s some list. In one measure or another, each one shook us.
We elevate our sports heroes today beyond mortal status because, like Hercules and Odin and Gilgamesh, they do things we can only dream of. As children, we climb imaginary mountains and fight off imaginary hordes and slay imaginary beasts just as we throw imaginary touchdown passes and hit imaginary home runs and bury imaginary jump shots.
They live on, forever immortal, first around the campfire or in iambic pentameter, then on magazine covers or posters on our bedroom walls, and now on our 70-inch HDTVs, or on YouTube or Instagram.
And when their mortality proves them just as frail as the rest of us, we are taken aback, jarred to the reality of the human condition.
We don’t believe it. It can’t be true.
Sadly, it is true.
What is also true: Kobe Bryant will be — around our campfires and on our walls — forever young, forever dropping 81 on the Raptors, forever holding up his fifth Larry O’Brien Trophy, forever thanking the Academy, forever chatting courtside with Gigi.
Kobe will live on. His legacy in basketball, and beyond, will endure.
Today’s news hurts no less.
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.