February 13, 2020
As a non-sports follower, I initially found myself confused by the overwhelmingly emotional response to Kobe Bryant’s death. My boyfriend called me in tears, struggling to comprehend how Kobe could die so unexpectedly in a helicopter accident. I wondered why he appeared to be experiencing the five stages of grief for someone he’d never met, someone who knew nothing of his existence. At the same time, I was riveted by the outpouring of emotional Kobe-related posts all over social media. As a prospective Psych major, I wanted to understand why Kobe Bryant’s death sparked such a widespread, national response, temporarily drowning out even news around the then-ongoing impeachment trials. And so I set out on a Feb break research project, largely consisting of a very long phone call with my boyfriend. I then tried to finalize my theory. I synthesized my boyfriend’s understanding of Kobe’s significance to him personally, and broadened his thoughts about the event to gain an idea of the cultural significance. After much thought, I have come to believe Kobe’s death hit a national nerve because he helped to create a collective ideal. He not only made us part of his successes that often pushed the limits of the human mind and body, but his death has served as a reminder of our own mortality.
Kobe united much of the nation, and his reach extended beyond the world of basketball. I was initially confused why other recent celebrity deaths, while shocking, did not spark such a collective outpouring of grief. We loved Mac Miller and Juice Wrld, but we didn’t aspire to live like them. People aspired to be like Kobe. Kobe was the player who was mentally tough enough to shoot two key free throws with a torn achilles to help the Lakers win before limping off the court. He was a self-actualized star, a positive role model and a true team player. Few people get tweets from both Trump and Obama when they die. In many ways, Kobe transcended politics, serving as a commonality in the rapidly decreasing common ground between members of opposing parties. He unified millions in a positive celebration of the feats of the human body and mind, which have a universal appeal and surpass the confines of political beliefs that deeply divide our nation.
I would like to note that there is one much less unifying facet of Kobe’s life. Kobe allegedly sexually assaulted a woman in 2003. Interestingly, my boyfriend avoided this topic to me when explaining Kobe’s legacy. I have noticed a similar trend in most media as those mourning Kobe fail to even acknowledge this allegation. Notably, the Washington Post suspended a reporter who tweeted about Kobe’s alleged assault upon his death — an example of an active effort to silence those who question his generally positive legacy. While I do worry about the implications of such silencing for the “Me Too” movement, I refrained from further exploration of this area to focus my investigation on fans grieving Kobe who remained radio silent about the alleged assault. It is certainly difficult to reconcile that someone so nationally adored may have used his power for abuse.
In the face of Kobe’s relentless drive and unparalleled work ethic, his death served as a staggering reminder that even those who exceed what most other humans achieve in their lifetimes are subject to forces outside of their control, which can end their lives in an instant. His death served as a staggering reminder of our own mortality. Kobe’s achievements themselves felt larger than life. At nineteen, Kobe became the youngest player to ever start an NBA game. He had an outstanding career, made millions, and had a beautiful family with whom he was intimately connected. Kobe appeared to be above it all. He gave people an aspirational goal for themselves and for the capabilities of the human body. As a result, many people projected aspirations onto Kobe and felt personally invested in his success. Kobe’s death reminded us that our success and our dreams can all disappear at any moment.
Even though I (obviously) am not very into sports, I find it moving how much the nation has come together to grieve Kobe. Perhaps this solidarity in support of a national hero can be channelled into other avenues — as our nation remains fundamentally politically polarized. Further, perhaps a reminder of our own mortality will encourage us to value those relationships that we are often inclined to take for granted.
Anna Kim is a member of the class of 2023.