Usually I end up brainstorming a topic to write about before settling in and beginning to type. Occasionally, the topic is chosen for me.
I wish it hadn’t been on Sunday.
After meeting a friend for lunch in Birmingham, we made our way to the Apple Store at the Summit, as I was due for a 2:15 p.m. appointment to get the camera on my iPhone fixed. The store was crowded, something I assume is the norm on a Sunday afternoon, so I decided to do what pretty much everyone does who has a smart phone: look at my various social media accounts.
At first, I figured the headline about the sudden passing of five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant was from one of those fake news sites, the ones who have had former “Home Alone” child star Macaulay Culkin dying on multiple occasions. (He’s still alive as of this writing.) But then various reputable media outlets started showing the same story about a helicopter crash in which the former Los Angeles Lakers star was a passenger.
My friend met me at the Apple Store, and I immediately shared the news. When the Genius Bar technician was going over the initial protocols with my phone repair, I was discussing it with my friend and, having already heard the news, chimed in as well. Later on, as we were walking outside while the phone got repaired, his father called him to share the news.
By the time the facts were confirmed, it was learned that in addition to Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna was also onboard. A total of nine people died in the crash, including Orange Coast College baseball coast John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa. Gianna and Alyssa were teammates on the youth basketball team Bryant coached. Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and three other daughters; Altobelli is survived by his daughter Lexi, a high schooler, and son, J.J., a scout with the Boston Red Sox.
It’s difficult to wrap your head around a world without Kobe Bryant. It’s even more difficult to wrap your head around the tragedy of the loss of life in one helicopter crash, especially when you consider the loved ones the departed leave behind. When someone is a larger-than-life figure like Bryant, it’s almost like the whole country stops and mourns.
I wasn’t yet born when Paul W. Bryant died; tragically, it was the same day as Kobe Bryant death, only in 1983. I’ve heard stories, however, from my loved ones who were alive at the time how difficult that death was to process. I remember the suicide of Robin Williams hitting me very hard, as it was a bitter pill to swallow that someone who brought so much laughter and joy to so many ended their own life. Musical sensation Prince was another death that felt like a dagger through America’s soul.
Even though most people reading this probably never met Kobe Bryant, a great deal many felt some sort of connection to him. Athletes as accomplished as Bryant, as talented as Bryant and as relentlessly competitive as Bryant earn, at worst, our begrudging respect, and it’s only begrudging if these athletes are denying our favorite teams a berth in a championship game or series. I doubt many Celtics fans particularly liked Bryant when he was a player, but I imagine many of those same fans shared the disbelief and the numbness the rest of us felt when they heard the news.
Bryant’s accomplishments in the NBA were so significant that it feels like he wasn’t just a great athlete, but a part of American lore. So many people felt that connection that it stings to know they’re gone. Then when we get past that, we have to deal with the tragedy of his 13-year-old daughter, who had WNBA aspirations, also dying in the same crash. We have to deal with the three members of the Altobelli family perishing — and those are just the ones we know by name at the moment. It’s not just America losing one of its heroes, it’s people losing their lives suddenly and tragically, and their loved ones being left behind to grieve.
If you live long enough, you experience loss and grief. Sometimes life gives you time to prepare for it and process it; other times life is cruel, and death is sudden. Our country lost an icon, a wife lost her husband and daughter, three children lost their sister and father. A school lost a baseball coaching legend; a son and a daughter lost their parents and a sister. And none of it is ever going to make sense.
If there is a silver lining, it’s a quote from the HBO show “Westworld” that’s always stuck out to me: “You live as long as the last person who remembers you.” Grief never truly goes away, but neither does our love and connection to those we lose. Whether it’s NBA fans, Orange Coast College baseball fans and alumni or the loved ones of those who perished, I pray their memories provide comfort and smiles over the course of time.
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor at The Meridian Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.