What do we think about when we think about death? I suspect that the closer we are to it, the less complex such a question becomes. For those who are left with a physical sense of loss, the reconciliation process is a matter of filling the void, or accepting that it exists. Someone who once was there and now is not.
For Tobias Harris, that means there will never be another summer workout with one of the greatest players in the history of his sport. For Brett Brown, it means that he will never again host a living legend in his office for a 45-minute conversation about hoops.
On Monday, as the Sixers gathered at their training facility for a late-morning practice and together began the process of processing Kobe Bryant’s death, the emotions they spilled were grounded in a concrete reality. The memories they discussed were direct, visceral, acute.
“Basketball has always been a peaceful place for me," Harris said. “Even being out there today and practicing, it was kind of relaxing to just get out there and compete, and I believe it was probably the exact same way for Kobe. Just to be able to go out there and be around teammates and use that competitive fire. … It’s always good to play the game and love the game on top of that stuff off the court.”
It’s within the rest of us where the curiosity lies. The further removed Bryant was from the fabric of our lives, the more complicated the act of processing becomes. I think that is why the last 48 hours have unfolded as they always do, with a cavalcade of remembrances from anyone whose orbit ever so much as grazed the path Bryant followed from the schoolboy courts of suburban Philadelphia to his perch aside the gods atop the Olympus of his game. Ballers and scribes and pundits and fans and former high school teammates all suddenly in the thick of a heavyweight bout with questions that none of us can truly comprehend.
What is life? What is greatness? Where does legacy begin and end? Would we rather the world remember us as it remembers the greatest of its fallen, or are we grateful for our current chance to still affect how our histories are written? I think that maybe the thing that unites us in these moments is the way they instill in us a sense of need to grapple with their implications.
One moment, we would trade anything we have, all that we’ve accomplished, to be the man with that helicopter, and the world beneath our feet. Or to be one of those people in the company of that man, basking in the warmth of the glow of individual greatness.
Yet greatness is a complex thing. Kobe Bryant was a father, a brother, a son, an artist, a coach, a benefactor of kids. And yet, to the majority of us outsiders, he is measured first and foremost for his ability to deposit a round piece of leather inside a round piece of steel. It might sound silly when you think about it that way. But, then, maybe it should. Maybe that’s the way all of our exploits sound when reduced to their fundamentals.
And maybe that is why it hits us as it does, the death of one whose exploits we deem worthier than the rest. The notion that any of us can be who we are, however we define that, and then cease to be that thing is a reality too daunting to carry it with us within that conscious piece of ourselves. It is only in moments such as this, when the image of a father, a daughter, a helicopter, a cloud, a hill, becomes too real for us to ignore that we are finally forced to contemplate what it really means to be who we are. Maybe it is in those moments when the greatest become real.
Or do they?
At some point in the coming hours or days and weeks, the inevitable reaction will arrive. Someone within the public sphere will decide a saturation point has arrived, and the pendulum will begin its physically mandated swing in the opposite direction. Perhaps the downward shift has already begun, as euphemisms like “complicated” and “tricky" give way to specific examinations of Bryant’s public warts.
But wait, they’ll say. Let’s pause for just a minute here and consider the other side of the equation, which to date has been populated exclusively with the variables in his favor. That hotel room in Colorado. That slur. They might have happened long ago, in age less progressive and a softer technological glare. But didn’t they happen? And if they’d happened in this current era, how would we speak about him now?
The problem with these examinations is that they will be conducted in such a way that supposes the existence of a choice. It seems an inescapable part of our nature, this need to divide our spheres into a good side and a bad. You can hear echoes of it in every obituary ever written. Lionize, demonize, or apologize, one must choose among the three.
But here’s the interesting thing, and perhaps it is the one worth impressing above all the others. The closer your relationship to a fellow human being, the harder it is to accept the need to reduce a life with such clean definition. The closer you are to another’s orbit, the more familiar you are with the forces that propel him, and the easier it is to accept the imperfections in the path that he follows. You see him not as the embodiment or opposition of some universal ideal, but as an organic being who lives and learns, and atones and grows, and is not held captive by his retrograde motion.
To some, such a characterization of the sexual assault charges he faced in 2003 will seem offensive in its oversimplicity. (The charges were dropped in 2004 when the alleged victim declined to testify, and the accuser’s civil suit was settled out of court in 2005.) To others, it will seem offensive to even mention them with his name. In the end, Kobe Bryant was different things to different people. To suggest that either one should invalidate the other requires a level of moral certitude that I cannot summon.
What I do know is that when Kobe looked in a mirror, he saw the same person he’d seen each previous time he’d looked since the first time he picked up a ball. What we saw were mere snapshots of a journey that each of us endures, and I think that it might be a mistake to judge those moments as static exhibits behind glass walls.
I also know this: The greatest thing that any of us can hope to achieve with any single moment is for that moment to intersect with some other person’s moment and enhance the meaning of that life. On Monday, the Sixers sat down as a team and took turns sharing with each other such moments.
“In our room, you span generations,” the head coach said later. “And you span the globe. You have ‘Brazil’ talk. You have ‘Turkey’ talk. You have ‘Australia’ talk. You have a 19-year-old talk. You have a 36-year-old-talk. And so, you really hit different perspectives.”
And perhaps what is left is what always remains, an overwhelming appreciation for the impact of a life.