This Is Not a Tribute to Kobe Bryant
When I found out who Fred Noonan was — that Amelia Earhart didn’t disappear alone — it made me feel less secure of my grip on reality. I was a child who never believed in Santa Claus, and so I never experienced having that illusion broken. Finding out about Noonan was as close as I’ve ever come in my life to having something that I believed to be true so shockingly shattered for me. I wonder if children ever resent the grownups who colluded to keep them believing in Santa Claus. I certainly felt betrayed by all the accounts of Earhart that I’d encountered to date. In almost four decades of living, I’ve heard Amelia Earhart and her fateful journey mentioned countless times. And not once (not until a few years ago while listening to a podcast) had I ever heard reference made of anyone else being in that plane. Not once had I ever heard or read “Amelia Earhart and…” I was shocked. And I wondered how the Noonan family felt about it.
So when I heard that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, confident that there must have at least also been a pilot on the aircraft, I listened for the “Kobe Bryant and…” It was there sometimes, but it didn’t always come. Many accounts spoke of his death as though he had died alone.
I understand that Kobe will almost always get top billing when this sad story is told. His name is globally recognizable. He literally has fans all over the world. But (at least in my opinion) none of his accomplishments and accolades increase his intrinsic value. He is still a man — a mere mortal like all of us. His talent, fame, and wealth does not mean his life or death matters more than any other death or life — not more than the others on that star-crossed flight — not more enough to eclipse even the mention of them. His life, as any, meant a lot — everything, in fact — to those who actually knew and intimately loved him. Not the fans. Not the millions he entertained or inspired, but the people who called him friend, father, son, or husband. It is everyone who knew and loved someone on that flight that I feel for — everyone.
Each life lost on that helicopter will be mourned just as acutely. Their names might not make the news. Their photographs may only be recognizable to a modest few. But the grief felt by every parent, sibling, spouse, confidante, and otherwise significant relational connection that this accident severed is just as severe. And when those people speak of this life-ending event, it is their loved one(s) who will receive top billing, because that is the loss that most impacted them.
I became keenly aware of this on a personal level after 9/11 — that mass mourning doesn’t always outweigh the personal. At the time, I thought hijacked planes flying into buildings and killing so many was the worst thing that could happen. And certainly, especially from a news/history/world events perspective, it was a big deal and left a massive wound felt around the world and across our country — a wound still claiming and adversely affecting lives. But then my mother passed away thirteen days later, and that was a bigger deal to me. Sad as it was (and terrifying), I could have recovered from 9/11. But losing my mother engendered an existential tantrum. It starved my sense of security and fed my depression. And now I look back and think about everyone who lost a loved one on 9/10, 9/12, or 9/13. And I wonder how they weigh the toll of their personal loss against our national outcry and pain.
That’s the thing with mass casualties and fame, they can sometimes distort our appreciation of the value of each person or discount the hundreds of unpublicized losses that happen every day. I believe that each and every life is of equal worth — and each life lost leaves loved ones behind to mourn. And while not every death makes the news and while the number of those who grieve may not always be great, that has no bearing on the depth of their pain.
That is not to say that each life reaches as far, or accomplishes as much, or becomes as well known. There are those who save lives and those who torture and take them. There are those who live in near anonymity and those who divert the flow of history. It is true on every level — even personally. There are people it has been nice to know, and then there are people whom I love deeply. There are those who barely left an impression and others who changed my life’s direction. Perhaps they encouraged me over one of life’s challenging mountains or helped me up from a hole of depression. In much the same way, some celebrities transcend their sport, genre, or industry. But no matter how great their influence, fame, or wealth, each is a person worth no more or less than any of us.
That’s why this is not a tribute to Kobe Bryant. This is simply the turn my thoughts took after I heard the news. I understand that fans will feel compelled to comment and commemorate in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death. People who never met him will mourn him like they knew him, because that is how deeply some feel connected to their favorite celebrities. I do not begrudge the posts and stories and bites of news that will report on his death or remember his life or try to define his legacy. I just really appreciate each account that includes a “Kobe Bryant and…” — each account that doesn’t imply, even if unintentionally, that he (or he and his daughter) died alone — each account that acknowledges all the lives that were lost. Because while only one of the nine was tremendously famous, each one of the nine was tremendously loved. You don’t have to be an icon or a megastar to have your life greatly missed once you’re gone.
This piece also appears on the blog Write Away.