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What do celebrity deaths tell us about ourselves? – The Mercury News

“Kobe Bryant killed in crash with eight others.”

So read the shocking headlines here and around the world. We soon learned among those “eight others” was Kobe’s 13-year old daughter, Gianna. A day later, we knew the names of everyone who plunged to their deaths into a Calabasas hillside on an eerily foggy Sunday morning.

It is not Kobe’s fault his fame hogged the headlines, that eight lives were reduced to “others.” While we tell ourselves, “every life matters,” in reality, some lives matter more than others.

It was not easy writing that last sentence.

It seems wrong to say out loud what the social compact tells us to keep under our hats. Yet, it has been ever thus. Celebrity deaths have fascinated mankind for time immemorial. The passing of a King, a Czar, a military hero, a Pope, a painter or a poet moves us because their lives seem larger than our own.

We may like our dry cleaner or mail carrier but do we love them? Probably not, unless he’s your husband, your mom, or your brother or sister. Our lives matter greatly to us and those closest to us. The rest of the world, not so much.

As the FAA investigates the cause of this terrible accident, it’s worth considering why we place such a premium on fame. Why is it the death of a man most of us never met can cause such sadness?

In a media dominated culture celebrities hold a special place in our hearts. If an actor, singer or painter doesn’t connect with his audience chances are you’ll never know their name. To be great, artists must move us emotionally.

Kobe was an artist with a basketball, he moved us emotionally and physically with last-second buzzer-beaters that had us jumping out of our seats. The only time Uncle Carl made me jump up from my seat was to get him a second slice of pie.

There’s a popular meme floating around, it shows up regularly after some movie star mouths off about politics: “I’ve needed a doctor, I’ve needed a teacher, I’ve needed a farmer, but I have never, not even once, needed an athlete, a singer, or actor.” But this is not true. We humans do need singers and actors and artists of all kinds. It’s why every culture in every era of history has produced them. It’s what makes us human.

Kobe Bryant was human. He made mistakes. One night in Colorado he may have done something worse than a mistake. Still, we are more than our darkest moment. The totality of Kobe’s life was tremendous. He grew as a person. He became a champion for girls, his own and others. His loss at forty-one seems incalculable.

Now, Bryant joins the roster of secular icons; Nipsey Hussle, Prince, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, JFK Jr., Princess Diana, Robert Kennedy, MLK, Jack Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Ritchie Valens, James Dean, Hank Williams, Rudolph Valentino — forever young, forever in the full-flower of their talents, robbed of those later years that can lead to wisdom, perspective and the inspiration of experience.

Over time, even icons fade and become images rather than flesh and blood people. The Hatfields and McCoys are a synonym for “feud” while Marilyn Monroe has become a cartoon sex goddess.

Inexplicably, Che Guevara represents peace for millions. The real Che was a killer, a serial abuser of women, an avowed Maoist who wanted to incite World War III, but he got all the best songs in “Evita” so people still wear his face on their t-shirts. Fame is fickle.

And fame is fleeting. Hours after Kobe’s death, the music industry gathered at Staples Center for the GRAMMY Awards. The show featured the traditional “In Memoriam” tribute to musicians who died the previous year.

One of those commemorated was Doris Day. For all of one second. Blink and you missed her. Doris Day had been an enormous star, the world’s #1 box office attraction with a voice that sold millions of records. Ms. Day’s mistake was living to age 97. The world weeps for the young.

Kobe Bryant was a Los Angeles Laker. But in Orange County he was a husband, a father, a neighbor, a friend. So too were Gianna Bryant, John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Ara Zobayan, Payton and Sarah Chester. They were not famous. They were simply loved.

Now they join the ranks of the unfortunates who met their untimely end in a car accident, plane crash or some other tragedy while in the company of a celebrity, casting them forever in the role of “with others.”

Does anybody remember the man who piloted the plane, “The Night the Music Died?” His name is Roger Peterson. I had to Google him.

Who will Google us?

Every single day teachers, doctors, nurses, cops, firefighters, buck privates and undoubtedly dry cleaners and mail carriers live honorable, sometimes even heroic lives, and we’ll never know their names. They don’t do what they do for fame, it’s just who they are. For those of us who can’t act or sing or shoot a basketball like Kobe Bryant, flaws and all, there is still room for us to leave the world a better place.

Doug McIntyre can be reached at:


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