Life is such a funny thing. There are events that are really common, in that they happen often around the world, but in the right context are quite exceptional. Every day people are born. But try to tell any parent the birth of their child is “ordinary.” It may be ordinary to the rest of us, but it is anything but ordinary to the parents of the child who is born.
People die everyday too. In fact, paying attention to the news in even a casual way and we hear about death far more often than birth. And yet, when the death of the person is someone we love and care about, it is far from “ordinary.” The loss of a loved one is painful. We never really get over it completely, though we learn to move on.
But then there are events where someone dies, and we are impacted and we are not sure why, because we did not even know the person who dies. Some of these are big events. Who could not be moved by the deaths of September 11, for example, or a shooting like the one in Newtown, Connecticut? These events shake us, touch us, deep. We are not the same. These events change the way we see the world.
The death of Abraham Lincoln was like that. He was a pretty unpopular president until he was assassinated, and in words from the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, “it was as if everything Lincoln became a relic.” There is a generation of people who are defined by a question: “Where were you when Kennedy was shot.” Millions of school kids in the 80s will remember watching the Challenger blow up with a schoolteacher on board. Most old enough will never forget where we were when we learned of the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
While perhaps not the magnitude of these events, the news yesterday that Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others died impacted many, even those who were not basketball fans. Why?
Even if we are not big basketball fans, we can appreciate the talent of Kobe Bryant. During his twenty-year NBA career, he was an all-star 18 times. He won five NBA Championships. For much of his career, Kobe was “the man.”
It almost wasn’t so. In 2003, Kobe was charged with sexual assault. Had he been convicted his career was over. The charges were dropped, and a civil suit was settled. But the event had a profound impact on Bryant. In an interview with GQ Magazine in 2015, Kobe said this,
““I started to consider the mortality of what I was doing,” he says. At the time, he was 24. “What’s important? What’s not important? What does it mean when everybody loves you, and then everybody hates your guts for something they think you did? So that’s when I decided that—if people were going to like me or not like me—it was going to be for who I actually was. To hell with all that plain vanilla shit, just to get endorsement deals. Those are superficial, anyway. I don’t enjoy doing them, anyway. I’ll just show people who I actually am…. The [loss of the] endorsements were really the least of my concerns. Was I afraid of going to jail? Yes. It was twenty-five to life, man. I was terrified. The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest. It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ’Did you do it?’ And I say, ’Of course not.’ Then he asks, ’Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ’Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ’Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point.””
His wife had filed for divorce, and this event, for better or worse, will be high in what is written about him. He is forever connected. But Kobe and his wife worked on their marriage. Two years after filing, his wife withdrew her filing for divorce. He and his wife Vanessa started the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, which helps kids develop social and physical skills, as well as working with the homeless. He goes to Mass not only on Sundays, but also sometimes during the week.
Perhaps his own mistake made him realize that life is not neat, simple, or easy. This article describes his visit with a 58 year old man who at one time had been only 135 pounds. ““He’s a 60-year-old man, extremely articulate, had a great life, made a poor choice and ended up on the streets. Now he feels like he’s there for good and his weight is back up to 235. He’s 58, actually, but he’s in better shape than I am.”
And maybe it is this realization that we all sensed in Kobe Bryant. While we may not have known he was serious about his Catholic faith, we knew something of his inner core, even if only by an inside hunch.
He reminds us of the importance of finding meaning and purpose.
“You have to do something that carries a little bit more weight to it, a little more significance, a little more purpose to it. My career is winding down. At the end of my career, I don’t want to look back and just say, ‘Well, I had a successful career because I won so many championships and scored so many points.’ There’s something else that you have to do with that.
This issue is one that kind of gets pushed on the back burner because it’s easy to point the blame at those who are homeless and say, ‘Well, you made that bad decision. This is where you are. It’s your fault.’ In life, we all make mistakes and to stand back and allow someone to live that way and kind of wash your hands of it … that’s not right.
Kids touch all of our hearts probably a little even more because it’s like they were born into this situation; they don’t have the opportunities that we had, We all had dreams, we all had goals, we all had aspirations and for them not to have that, it’s just not fair. We have to do something about it.”
Kobe Bryant’s death touched me because as I learned about more about him, I realized that his story is our story. We mean well. We screw up. We start over. And we can start over because of God’s grace. Kobe’s “motto”, or the way he sums up his purpose comes from Spiderman. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Not at all surprising Kobe would choose an idea from Luke 12:48. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
His Eyes Are Fire by Loewenklang