Kobe Bryant died yesterday, January 26, 2020 at the age of forty-one. He died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna Maria. They were reportedly flying to a travel basketball game with another player and one of her parents.
When celebrity deaths happen suddenly, they can feel seismic, and the reverberations of their loss spread around the world. Kobe was a stranger to most of us, but like Michael Jackson or David Bowie or Mary Oliver before him, he inhabited a world many of us lived in, to the degree that we felt we knew him. Chances are even if you didn’t grow up watching or playing basketball, you still ball up an old receipt and yell “Kobe!” as you toss it toward the trash bin. His loss is felt.
I watched Kobe Bryant incessantly growing up. VHS tapes of NBA highlights, live games on Saturdays or Sundays, and then eventually YouTube clips of his eighty-one-point game. He never claimed the spot as my favorite basketball player, but I still looked up to him. And in all honesty, I did so in part because he jumped straight from high school to the NBA, and middle school Brad was certain I would follow in the same path. So I watched his every move for tips and worked to emulate the mechanics of his jump shot. I wore an old pair of my dad’s Adidas KB8s while I shot around in the driveway, trying again and again to release the ball as far above my head as Kobe. I practiced his fadeaways, his crossovers, his midrange game. I dreamt of draft night.
Kobe Bryant was more than a basketball player; that much has never been in doubt. His life was complicated—very complicated—and his legacy will always carry Colorado in 2003. I do not know what sort of person he was, and I’m really not that interested, right now anyway, in making a guess. I do know he leaves behind his wife Vanessa and three daughters, including a little one born in June 2019. That is devastating.
The musical Hamilton is in town, and Gwyn and I are going to see it on January 30. We’ve seen it once before in Chicago, but for this performance I needed to brush up on the soundtrack, so I’ve been listening to it intermittently over the past few days. There’s a line in the Aaron Burr soliloquy “Wait for It” that I’m returning to over and again in the wake of Kobe’s death:
“Death doesn’t discriminate / Between the sinners / And the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes / And we keep living anyway”
We keep living anyway. Next time I find myself alone on a basketball court, I’ll dribble to the elbow and pull up for a jumper, the ball released high, like Kobe. I’ll spin on the baseline and fade away, and then, if the shot goes in (maybe even if it doesn’t), I’ll turn toward half court with a pumped fist. I’ll throw up a three pointer with the clock winding down and say softly under my breath: “Kobe!” I’ll remember what it was like to dream.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.