The day after Kobe Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash in California, Justin Hirschbuhl didn’t show up for training at his workplace, Main Attraction Barber Shop in Overbrook.
Then he skipped work the following day. A diehard fan of the Lakers star, the 32-year-old father of two daughters spent the day at home watching YouTube videos of Bryant.
“I never cried about a celebrity before. I always used to be, like, ‘How can you cry over somebody you don’t know?’” Hirschbuhl said Saturday night as he trimmed a client’s hair at Main Attraction.
But Bryant’s death, he said, “kind of messed me up.”
I’ve been a columnist for a while. I’ve covered all kinds of tragedies — quadruple homicides, shootings of babies, celebrity deaths. You name it.
But I have never seen a story that brought so many black men to tears as the deaths of the 41-year-old Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
African American men aren’t known for showing emotion. For a variety of reasons, the culture historically encourages them to mask their feelings. “It’s a macho thing,” said Derek Lee, owner of D&J Costumes in the Northeast. “We don’t want to seem weak.”
Black men don’t cry in public. Yet there was Shaquille O’Neal on TV with tears running down his face over the loss of his “little brother.”
“We don’t cry. We don’t really show our emotions,” said Momoh Pujeh, 32, of South Philly. “We are kind of conditioned not to show any emotions whatsoever. This broke that facade in a lot of people.
“I think that is a transformative thing, for black men to be allowed to cry and show emotion in this way.”
Lakers star LeBron James gave an emotional tribute at the Staples Center and got a tattoo in Bryant’s honor. Grammy Award winner Brian McKnight wrote a beautiful, emotional song. Even 50 Cent weighed in, saying he’s not going to beef with people anymore and will “deal with it another way if there’s a problem.”
Closer to home, political strategist Will Mega went to work wearing a suit and a pair of Bryant’s signature sneakers. The next day, Mega took a mental health day and went to Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Germantown.
“A group of black men gathered around the coffee bar and talked about who the NBA greatest-of-all-time players were,” he recalled. “We subconsciously knew this was a way of us coping with Kobe’s death, but no one would really mention it.”
Clients brought up Bryant during every counseling session that Argie Allen conducted last week.
“It really created this paradigm shift,” Allen, a relationship therapist, told me. “When I looked at some of these men, the big, burly athletic dudes on TV like Shaq with tears rolling down his face saying, ‘I’ve got to do better’ — this messaging has been like a conductor. It has gone through the artery of our humanity. It’s caused people to really rethink how they’re engaging in relationships.”
Bryant’s image as the doting father of four girls has been inspirational as well. The hashtag #girldad quickly became a thing as fans posted photos of daughters with their dads in homage to Bryant, who had been on his way to his daughter’s basketball game at the time of his death.
“If anything, he’s caused me to want to have a family and want to be present in my family,” Pujeh said.
Hirschbuhl feels similarly.
“His death kind of motivated me a little bit. It motivated me as far as being a parent,” he said. “I see the dad that he was and how busy he was, and he still made time for his kids. The whole reason why he was catching helicopters was to spend more time with his daughters.”
Let’s be honest. Despite his tremendous success, Bryant wasn’t the most popular NBA star. He was charged with raping a teen in 2003, a case that was dropped before trial, then settled a lawsuit brought by his accuser. He created his ferocious Black Mamba alter ego to help himself get through.
Still, the emotions shown by so many black men in the wake of his death are real — and frankly, they are refreshing.