Image: A mural depicting deceased NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna is displayed on a building in Los Angeles. Mario Tama, Getty Images
By Rochelle Leon
If you had asked me a few weeks ago what I knew about Kobe Bryant, I would have told you he was a famous basketball player. That’s pretty much all I knew. I wasn’t a basketball fan, I had never watched a Lakers game and I don’t think I’d ever even seen Kobe Bryant play, except perhaps catching a highlight reel while waiting for the sportscaster to throw it back to the anchors. And yet, on Sunday January 26th 2020, I found myself glued to the TV, heartsick and weeping as I heard about his death and the 8 other souls, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan, who perished in the helicopter crash earlier that morning.
Tragedies happen all too often and you would think as a culture we might start to become immune, but thankfully, we have not. And on this terrible day, when a helicopter fell out of the sky with 9 people on board, WE collectively mourned, all of us, the whole world, together. You could feel the universal swell of empathy and compassion and it felt like a spotlight on the best of humanity.
That night I had a dream about Kobe Bryant. I dreamt that he and I were having a conversation and he talked to me about success, faith and love. When I woke, I was a little rattled, because it was one of those dreams that seemed so real and so clear. Don’t worry, I didn’t think it meant that Kobe Bryant had just spoken to me from the great beyond, but it did make me realize that I had been genuinely affected by what happened and that I couldn’t just dismiss that.
It seemed wrong that I knew infinitely more about Kobe Bryant’s death, than I did his life, and all the other lives lost that day, so he next morning I turned on the TV to learn more about them. The first news story I saw was of course about Kobe. The reporter was interviewing someone who worked at the church he had attended. He spoke of the fact that Kobe Bryant was a devout Catholic. He went on to say Kobe had attended church by himself the very morning of his death, as he would often do, as to worship without being a distraction to the other parishioners during Sunday services. Hearing this did send a shiver down my spine. I just had a dream where Kobe Bryant talked to me about God! But until this moment, I had no idea he was a man of faith and honestly, I would not have assumed that. Which made me think, why wouldn’t I have assumed that?
Another news story I heard later that day focused on exactly that type of unfair assumption. The kind we all unfortunately have a tendency to make, shifting that spotlight now from the best of humanity, to the worst of it.
The story was about a video that had been recorded by one of the students at a local high school, taken the Monday morning after the helicopter crash. It was of a teacher speaking to a sea of Lakers jerseys and sad faces, and he was shockingly going on an angry and judgmental tirade about Kobe Bryant. He referenced the controversies and scandal surrounding his life and career and his words were the polar opposite of what you would imagine grieving, emotional students needed to hear. It was appalling, insensitive and insultingly ill timed! How dare he??? I was incensed! My first thought was, this sorry excuse for a teacher is an uninformed, judgmental, small-minded imbecile who should be fired and never teach again!!!
…But then, wasn’t I doing to him, the same thing he had done to Kobe Bryant? The same exact thing I had been so incensed about?
What if this rant was this teacher’s most shameful, most regrettable moment of his career? Perhaps his greatest mistake? We all make them. He is a teacher after all, is it possible that he has nurtured, supported, and encouraged hundreds of students for years and that this was just one isolated incident? On an ordinary day he could have been caught imparting wisdom, inspiring his students, and teaching invaluable lessons? Should I be assuming whom he is from this one news clip, judging him without having all the facts, projecting my own anger and preconceived notions upon him? Should this 10 second video be what defines this man? I didn’t even know what he said 5 minutes before the video or 5 minutes after!
This realization prompted me to re-watch the video. To my surprise, I wasn’t re-watching it at all, I actually watching it for the first time. You see, the section I had seen on the news was all of about 10 seconds and the video clip in its entirety was 4 minutes and 20 seconds. So in fact, I could hear what he said minutes before and after. I was very glad I listened.
He did in fact say some very harsh, very controversial and completely speculative things about Kobe Bryant. Things I definitely did not agree with or approve of him saying to High School students, especially in their raw emotional state. However, if you listen closely (and I can promise you I did), you’ll see he was also using this tragedy as a teachable moment. He was extending warnings to his students about carefully choosing your heroes and openly speaking your mind, even if your views may be unpopular. He cautioned that if any one of them in that very room were to be accused of the things Kobe had been accused of, they would probably go to jail and that money and power can get influential people out of a lot of precarious situations that ordinary people cannot get out of. He informed his class of the dangers of traveling by helicopter, explaining that they are one of the most dangerous types of transportation. He talked about how just because you have the money and means to do something, doesn’t always mean you should do it. And he warned that making selfish decisions could hurt those you love and those who love you. I didn’t agree with the way he was doing it, but I could clearly see his intentions were good and that his advice was honest and sound and valuable.
From everything I could tell, he was genuinely trying to reach these kids and help them to prevent making mistakes by idolizing someone who, though a beloved sports figure was, like all of us, in no way perfect.
Ummm… who was the uninformed, judgmental, small-minded imbecile now? Spoiler alert – it was me! I normally consider myself to be an open-minded, accepting, respectful, fair and kind person, so what in the world was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking – I was assuming! I judged him rashly and without all the facts. Who am I to decide who he (or anyone else) is, based on hearsay or sound bites? And yet, that’s exactly what I did… and that’s exactly what he did! And sadly, it’s what we ALL do, so much of the time!
Think about it, when you see a car swerving all over the place on the freeway, what is your knee-jerk reaction? “That idiot” (because they’re always an idiot! or moron! or maniac!)… “That idiot is texting! Or drunk! Or both!” How many times has your first thought been, “Gosh, I hope he’s alright! Maybe he’s having a heart attack or there’s something wrong with his car?” For whatever reason, it’s human nature to automatically assume the worst. And the saddest part is, it’s so ingrained in us, that most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it! We go through our whole lives this way. But if we could only wake up to this backward way of thinking and focus on it just long enough to reverse our natural response into one of compassion and of giving the benefit of the doubt, it could literally, make all the difference in the world!
Simply put, what we do matters. Who we are matters. Whether you are an NBA super-star, a 13 year old girl, a mom, a dad, a coach, a pilot – all of us – we all matter. And how we treat each other, matters.
I’ve learned a lot about Kobe Bryant over the last week, but the thing that strikes me the most, even more than what an exceptional athlete he was – one the greats of all time or how he has inspired millions of people, was simply that he was just a man, a man who was deeply, deeply loved. Deeply loved by his family, friends, teammates, fans and the world. To fill the world with that much love in a lifetime seems like the best way I can think of to spend it.
Now, when I see the numbers 8/24, they hold a new and deeper meaning for me. They represent that extraordinary, sweeping kind of love – to give it, show it, receive it, enjoy it, and be grateful for it. And further, those numbers will always be a reminder to be kinder, more aware and more accepting… to be the very best we can be, separately and together as a team.
A few weeks ago, I hardly knew anything about Kobe Bryant other than that he was a famous basketball player. I know so much more now.