Kobe Bryant and the vicious cycle of tragedy in the sports world

Kobe Bryant Pro Basketball Hall of Fame
Sandy Hooper-USA TODAY

Even those of us tasked with writing for a living were left helpless late Sunday morning. News came trickling in that NBA legend Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter accident in Southern California.

It wasn’t real. Fake news. TMZ Sports would retract its original story. The mixed range of emotions were as human as it gets. Confirmation came. Kobe and his young daughter Gianna were among those who died.

The cruelty of this story. Bryant, the always attentive father that he was (the “was” making this so surreal), bringing his teenage daughter to a basketball game. Nourishing and feeding her love for a game that made him the larger-than-life figure.

We questioned everything. How in the world was Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, doing? What about their three other young daughters, a new-born included? We already knew the answer. Those who have been struck with similar tragedies already knew the answer. Death is the burden of the living. Vanessa lost her rock of the past two decades. She lost a sweet, happy and smiling daughter.

Even those who didn’t know the family dealt with a wide-range of emotions. Grief, sadness and anger. Pleading for this to be a bad dream. Questioning everything we believe.

It’s what makes us human. It’s what made Trae Young and his mother human ahead of Sunday’s game, mere hours after Bryant’s passing was reported.

A man that was seemingly untouchable. Larger than life to millions of basketball fans. Bigger than the entertainment industry he helped erect in Southern California.

The anger and emotions gave way to a belief that if Kobe can meet his demise in such a violent and tragic fashion, no one is immune from it.

We will pay our respects to Kobe’s life in the coming weeks and months. A hole will be left in our hearts.

Those who grew up on him knocking down fade-away jumpers and teasing opponents. Those of us who became NBA fans at a young age while watching the end of the Jordan dynasty and a young man from Philly taking over the hardwood.

From our formative years as teenagers to growing up with Kobe and seeing him mature into the man he became. All of that coupled with Bryant’s untimely passing puts a hole in our hearts. It makes us question everything. Vanessa having to grieve for her husband and daughter. That adds the human element, one that is sometimes too devasting to bear.

It’s not that Kobe’s passing wasn’t tragic. It was. It’s not that he wasn’t a flawed man. He was. We look at this accident and the nine lives it cost in a vacuum. We shouldn’t.

This is the human experience, one we’ve dealt with countless times in the past. One that we will, at some point in the future, deal with again.

The world was seemingly Jose Fernandez’s oyster. The then-young Miami Marlins pitcher was among the best players in the game. Dominating from the mound. An electric personality. A kid playing a kid’s game.

Fernandez passed away on Sept. 25 of 2016 at the age of 24. The Cuban was finishing up just the fourth season playing a game he loved. That’s when we all woke up to news on that fateful Sunday morning that Fernandez had died in a boating accident off Miami Beach in Florida.

Some of us were tasked with covering that day’s NFL football action. Maybe it would act as a way to get our minds off one of the best young stars in sports meeting a tragic demise that’s still almost too surreal to believe.

Alas, it wasn’t. Twenty-four years old. His whole life in front of him. One accident. One decision. The end of his time here on earth. How is that fair? Who let that happen?

One decision. Giving up millions playing a game to enlist in the United States Military shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. By now, Pat Tillman’s story is well known.

Just 25 years old. A $3.2 million contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals waiting for him to sign. Tillman was not having it. He wanted to make an impact far beyond the gridiron world.

Less than two years after enlisting, Mr. Tillman died in a friendly fire incident while fighting the War on Terror in Afghanistan. That’s the human experience? Going from the riches of playing in the NFL to dying on a battle field clear across the world.

Tillman’s death shocked a nation and left a family unraveled. It stirred controversy. It brought to light the sacrifice that had defined previous generations of Americans. It left a hole in all of our hearts.

These lives, legacies and deaths come full circle. They are not singular moments in the vast expanse of the human experience. They tell us that life is precious. Larger-than-life figures are not immune from the tragedy that this life and world brings.

MLB great Kirby Puckett dying of a massive hemorrhagic stroke mere years after his retirement. Roberto Clemente passing away at the age of 38 in a plane accident as he was simply looking to provide needy people in Nicaragua basic life instruments after a devastating earthquake.

He was looking to help others less fortunate. This one singular decision. A devotion under the guise of altruism. This led to the death of a man long before he should have met his demise in this life.

A lesser-known football player by the name of Joe Delaney dying at the age of 24 as he played the role of a hero in saving a boy from drowning in a creek in Louisiana. His whole life ahead of him. A tragic death. A family left wondering what could have been. An empty void.

Kobe’s death brings all of this back up again. It’s now on the front burner, and has shocked a people. All walks of life. Sports fans and non-sports fans alike.

I will always remember where I was when learning of Kobe’s death. In a line at a grocery store, upset that they didn’t open up another register.

Hearing some talk about a helicopter accident. Pulling out my phone and realizing it was Mr. Bryant. Blurting it out to those behind me. The gasps. Heads on hands. Kobe. Known by his first name. Strangers sharing in the same human emotions.

Everything else was trivial. The long wait did not matter. It was about embracing your loved ones. Embracing strangers. Remembering that we’re in this together.

If nothing else, Kobe’s death could teach us this lesson at a time when we’re so darn separate from one another. Embrace those around you. Put down the phone at dinner. Have real conversations, like the one we saw between Kobe and his daughter, Gianna, mere weeks before their tragic deaths.

That’s the human experience. That’s what Kobe has taught us over the past two decades. It is what will be the defining legacy of Mr. Bryant and other sports stars who met their demise with an entire life seemingly in front of them.

One last life lesson from the Black Mamba. One last lesson that could help us change our ways in a world that is seemingly now more lonely than ever before.

One last life lesson.