When Kobe Died

“You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

James 4:14


“Dad! It’s Mom!” Grace yells with eyes wide open, stretching out her clutched phone while sitting on the bleachers.

“What.” I reply, not asking a question, but letting her know I didn’t want to talk. We just finished a game and I wanted to wipe off with a towel and get a drink from the water fountain.

“Kobe died!” Grace shouts.

“Are you serious?” I take the phone and put it up to my ear.

“Matt, Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash.”

“You’re joking,” I pause, waiting for her to say, “Gotcha!”

“I’m not joking at all! He’s dead!” Jennifer replies.

After saying, “Oh my goodness, that’s terrible,” I look at Grace and slowly hand her back the phone. Shocked, thinking, This ain’t real. It’s gotta be a gag, I step back down the bleachers and head onto the court. The other eight men were waiting for Grace and me to start the next game.

“Kobe just died,” I informed them. They all paused and slowly turned toward me, one by one. I continue, “Yeah, in a helicopter crash.”

“Oh my gosh.”

“No…”

“He was my favorite player.”

“You gotta be kidding me!”

Each man had something to say, Grace then joined us and we played the next game, sorta in a haze. It was weird, and it was definitely my last game for the day.

Every Sunday afternoon Grace and I go to the Civic Center to practice and then run full court with other grown men for a couple hours. But this day was like 9/11, seared into my memory forever.

I could tell the news of Kobe’s death really hit Grace hard, especially when we were leaving the gym. We found out Gigi died too, one of his daughters, along with several others.

Grace and I have a relationship like Kobe and Gianna in the fact that we bond over basketball. She and I both follow Kobe and Gigi’s activity on Instagram, along with Vanessa, Kobe’s wife. They’re always sharing videos of Gianna playing ball, and Kobe goes to all these different games with her, sitting sideline and enjoying daddy-daughter time. It warmed my heart to see these occasions they spent together, especially because of Gigi being close to the same age as Grace.

So after stopping to get a shake, Grace and I rode home. I tried to talk to her about the tragedy because I could see her mind was racing. It was really sad to see Grace sad. When we got home she went to her room and Jennifer and I watched NBA TV for the rest of the night in dismay and sorrow. It wasn’t just my wife and I who were in shock, it looked like the whole world.

I normally post a few times a day on my social media pages, but I couldn’t pull myself to do it. Facebook and Instagram had become memorials and there was no way to not see how terrible this day was.

I used to hate Kobe Bryant, not as a person, but as a basketball player–and not hate as in “I wished him harm”–but his Lakers were so unstoppable. Nobody was even close. That bothered me because I didn’t live in L.A., I grew up watching MJ and the Bulls, and here comes this cocky teenager who mimicked every single move of Michael Jordan’s down to the way he chewed his gum. He was just so darned talented! Talented like Mike! We all wanted to be like Mike from the first time that Gatorade jingle was played, but Kobe actually did it! And we were jealous! The whole league was too!

I’ve been an NBA fanatic since the sixth grade, 1992. I got a poster of Michael Jordan from Walmart when I was in a Boys Home in Palatka, Florida. I hung it up next to my bed and would stare at it for what seemed like hours. He was in the sky with clouds around him, and Michael was floating…

Gazing at MJ in my room while laying on my bed, when I was normally in trouble, I became infatuated with everything Jordan. I daydreamed about how good he was and the things he did on the court. Michael Jordan was an escape for me while I was in the custody of the State. For a time, Mom and Dad both lost guardianship of us kids. We were all split up, and in pain. At that young age a month seemed like a decade and my soul hurt most of the time. Misbehaving was how I coped. I was furious, heartbroken, I didn’t like the other boys, and I felt all alone.

After discovering MJ’s superpowers, I got every book I could find on him from the library. When the Scholastic Book Fairs would come to town, I’d beg for some money to get the latest Chicago Bulls books. I collected all things Michael. Cards, newspaper clippings, figurines, cereal boxes, anything. He was the escape from my reality of being the foster kid from the Boys Ranch.

And then Kobe happened in 1996. I already knew about Kobe Bryant because I had the USA Today of the top high school players from that year; a picture of him was in it. I also watched the press conference where he declared his eligibility for the NBA, therefore bypassing college. I had also seen SportsCenter footage of him massacring his high school competition. He was nothing like other NBA players and he’d not yet played a single NBA minute–and, he was only 17.

What made him so special was nobody had ever emulated Michael Jordan with such intricate detail. Now this is what bothered me so much about him. The footwork, the fadeaway, the killer instinct, the way he attacked the basket with all ferocity. He was Mike–reincarnated it seemed! To make matters “worse” the most dominant center of all time, Shaq, joined him!

“Not fair!”

I was a Laker hater in the fullest. I’m not gonna lie. I couldn’t stand how good they were! I wanted Reggie to get a ring! I wanted AI to get one too! And Mutombo! Mark Jackson! I loved the Fab Five and Kobe robbed Jalen of a championship and he dropped 81 on him! How disrespectful!

“Nobody can stop Kobe and Shaq but Kobe copied Michael and can’t win without Shaq!”

I was a member of Laker Hater Anonymous, but I wasn’t anonymous about it. I couldn’t stand seeing them on all the magazines and I really couldn’t stand Rick Fox with his lush, curly hair and Hollywood grin. But the truth was, I couldn’t stand how dominant they were.

When the Pistons finally beat them in the Finals and that team dissolved, I was ecstatic! I know I wasn’t alone. When you see a team so good and win so much, and they aren’t your team, saltiness is typically your flavor of choice. I wouldn’t admit it back then, but I’d take that team, the Lakers from the early 2000’s, over the 95-96 Bulls. Kobe and Shaq? Forget about it. Greatest duo of all time.

Like Mike and Scottie did to so many NBA teams in the 1990’s, Shaq and Kobe did the following decade. Charles, Pat, Karl, and John, they would’ve all gotten their rings but Mike was too great. Same with Kobe and Shaq; and then Kobe did it again, twice without the big man, proving his dominance in the game and elite status.

The older I got–and the older Kobe became as well–I started to like him, a lot. Whereas he seemed to be an assassin with no regard for human life on the court, off the court, he was genuine, friendly, funny, and inspirational. Recently I learned on the court he was kind as well. Even Jalen Rose said, “When he scored 81 on me, he never trashed talked one time. He was respectful and just went about his business.”

The interviews, the time he spent teaching younger players, and the joy he expressed, I became a Kobe fan. No longer was I disliking him but appreciating him as a person.

He was unstoppable, even a busted Achilles couldn’t hold him down. Kobe Bean Bryant was poetry in motion, and graceful–not like Mike but like himself. For 20 years I got to witness this fascinating player whom I had animosity toward because he was marvelous, like my childhood hero. I wouldn’t say this in the barbershop as Luke cut my hair, but after his last game in 2016, going out with 60 points and then thanking Vanessa for holding down the fort all those years–I loved Kobe.

Kobe was a top three basketball player who ever lived. Arguably the best.

However, more than anything else–more than any breathtaking highlight I ever saw of Kobe’s–the most amazing sight I witnessed?…Watching him with his family on Instagram. The way he doted on his wife and children was the most poignant, meaningful thing I ever saw from him. No iconic basketball moment compares. Whereas so many professional athletes fall off the deep end after retirement–or do so during their career and are forced into retirement–Kobe loved his family, even to the end. The glow on his face when he played with his girls or spent time with his wife was greater than the glow he had while receiving any of his five rings.

What was he doing during his last moments on earth? Taking his little girl to go play basketball. That’s what Grace and I do…

I can’t imagine the helplessness he felt as he knew the helicopter was going down, clutching Gigi I’m sure. I can’t imagine the Altobelli’s, the Chester’s, Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan–the instant panic they faced…and I don’t want to. If anything positive could come of this crash, it’s that they didn’t suffer. It was an instant death for them all. I’ve seen the footage and there’s no way they felt a thing.

So today, my friends, know this: Life on earth is but a vapor. We don’t get to take anything with us to our next life except for people, so express Jesus when you get the chance. With all of Kobe’s accomplishments on the basketball court, being a loving leader for his family was his life’s pinnacle. He had just taken Gigi to church that morning and he was a believer. In an interview with Stephen A. Smith in the mid-2000’s, after his rape charge and family problems, he told Stephen A., “God is good.” Kobe also said he let Jesus carry his cross for him. Now this is what saves. That is, letting Christ do what we can’t, by grace through faith. We Christians will all see Kobe and Gigi again.

A prayer for Vanessa, the Bryant girls, and the families of the victims: Heavenly Father, right now, I lift up these dear people directly to you. The pain they’re feeling, I cannot even understand, but you can. You feel their pain, I know you do, God. Jesus showed us this. Today, I ask for you to let them know you’re there. I ask for you to comfort them on the deepest level possible. I ask that you remind them of your great love, and the promise of reuniting with their loved ones in the future. Through faith in Christ we’ll all meet again one sweet day. No more death. No more mourning. No more tears or pain. Strengthen them with your grace. It is sufficient for all our needs. Amen.

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Categories: DevotionalsTags: , ,
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