I feel better now. Maybe you do, too.
Death has been a close and constant companion all my life: schoolmates, close family, good friends. I was at Lehigh University the day Andy Reid’s son was found dead of a drug overdose, and I knew Garrett Reid very well.
But Kobe and Gigi knocked the wind out of me like nothing else. You too? I don’t know why. I feel better, now, though, thanks to what happened this week. All of the tributes. All the love.
It was almost perfect, wasn’t it?
The numbers games — Kobe’s No. 24 worn by Joel Embiid, usually No. 21, which capped the Sixers’ ceremony Tuesday night;
Gigi’s No. 2 draped on a chair at UConn, her dream school, on Monday; NBA players changing their numbers out of respect, Super Bowlers mourning during the biggest week of their lives, soccer players and pro golfers wearing Kobe jerseys from the Lakers and Lower Merion High School.
We saw Jerry West, who first recognized Kobe’s potential;
and we saw Shaquille O’Neal, who won three titles with him;
and, finally, we saw LeBron James, Kobe’s contemporary and foil, Saturday night in Los Angeles. They all wept for him on a basketball court. Somehow, that helped.
Still, that ache in my belly didn’t make much sense. I’d covered Kobe in high school, in the NBA Finals, and in the Olympics, but I never connected with him on any real level, never admired him much. To be honest, I didn’t really like him.
So why did I feel sick, like West? Why was my heart heavy when I visited the Kobe shrine at Lower Merion High?
Maybe it’s because Kobe and Gianna, 13, and the seven other passengers on that helicopter, were on their way to her travel basketball game, which Kobe would coach.
Or maybe it’s because it could have been us.
When I got the call, I was coaching my own 10-year-old daughter’s travel basketball game. I wrote about the crash an hour later, during my 12-year-old daughter’s travel basketball game. Our 7-year-old plays, too. My wife scored 1,000 points at the University of Pennsylvania, and I lived for basketball in high school; I wore Dr. J’s Converse shoes with the red star and chevron. Basketball is a center for our family, and it’s my favorite part of being a #girldad.
Maybe it’s that, but it seems like there’s more. Maybe it’s because I really did like Kobe; at least I respected the Kobe Ideal.
Kobe was the son of former Sixers forward Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, and he enjoyed a privileged childhood. He wanted to play in the NBA, too, but he was willing to work for it. Not just as a high schooler, who got access to the St. Joseph’s gym from coach Phil Martelli — not to scrimmage college kids, but rather to work with his personal trainer. Not just as a skinny kid, the first guard to jump straight to the NBA, eager to finally crack the Lakers’ starting lineup after two seasons. No: for all 20 NBA years, Kobe rose at 4 a.m., his routine. After he’d won five titles. After he’d won the league MVP.
Perhaps it’s because the Kobe Ideal lasted past his basketball career. He won an Academy Award. He was a Harry Potter nerd, and he wrote two fantasy books targeted at kids. I’m a Harry Potter nerd, and I have kids, but haven’t written two books. And I’m a writer.
I was wretched most of last week, but I began feeling better Friday night when I watched Usher’s amazing “Amazing Grace” before the Lakers resumed their season.
And the chilling Wiz Khalifa/Charlie Puth “See You Again” duet.
Boyz II Men sang the national anthem Friday night, and it was good, but they’d established an impossible bar Sunday night, just hours after the crash, when they began the Grammy Awards with Alicia Keys at the Staples Center — “The house that Kobe Bryant built,” as Keys said — and sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
By Saturday, when Lower Merion High held its Kobe tribute at the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium he’d endowed 10 years ago, I was fine. It took a while. Nothing else ever has.
I never visit shrines, and I never, ever watch tributes. I change the channel. I turn down the volume. I leave the room.
This time I was glad. I needed them. Every one of them. I feel better because of them.
I hope you do, too.