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Mourning in America: Kobe and Me

When a sports legend dies, the emotional and political aftermath can speak volumes. For some like me, the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant along with his daughter and seven other souls in an LA-area helicopter crash on January 26 feels a bit like losing a close friend. That sounds confused and confusing. Bear with me.

I never met the man, who bypassed college hoops for the NBA, won Olympics gold medals and propelled the LA Lakers to multiple league championships over a 20-year career. Nevertheless, working people like me came to know him as a clutch performer, one who rarely failed to deliver wins for his teams no matter the opponents’ advantages. Playing in the film capital of the world helped to amplify such athletic achievements.

In brief, watching Kobe-led victories on the hardwood over the years brought me closer to him, if that does not sound too odd. I doubt that I am alone in such a sentiment. Maybe I am wrong. In any case, somehow, in the passive act of sitting and viewing Kobe playing basketball at a very high level of skill, I became more and more familiar with him as an elite athlete because or despite that fact.

All of which adds to the reality when the death of a person who is close, family, and friend or in Kobe’s case, an idolized basketball superstar, one’s own mortality drives to the fore, no pun intended. When s/he/they die, the cold sober reality that our lifespan is finite seems to expand from the back of the mind outward. Living with the shadow of such a death can make one reflect on the temporal nature of life.

When a widely revered athlete like Kobe dies, the intense outpouring of grief provides a lens into the whys and wherefores of fans’ deep emotions. We have seen the public grieving process on display. We have seen Kobe’s former teammates and coaches express their grief.

The aura of sports superstars in the digital age of instant communication allows ordinary people, I think, to live a bit through these elite performers. They perform and we watch in awe. The end of our vicarious living through them in part leaves us to mourn publicly but also privately. Part of this emotional mix is the loss not only of the departed star but the end of an aspect of our personal identity as fans.

It is also hard to miss that Kobe’s untimely passing has spurred saturation coverage from corporate media. There are for example, elements of mystery, a reason to follow this story. What caused the helicopter crash? Was it the weather? Was it the pilot? Was it a mechanical failure?

The phenomenon of a celebrity culture marinated in reality TV is on full lurid display in the aftermath of Kobe’s demise. We cannot look away. One other thing seems clear. If he was larger than life on and off the court, his death at the age of 41 eclipses even that.