Photo Credit: plavevski/Shutterstock
All the instruments we have agree, the day of your death was a foggy grey day.
The day before you died, I was rescuing my sister-in-law from her drug dealer’s house. It was very early in the morning because addiction is never convenient. On the 5 Freeway as I drove past where your helicopter would circle and briefly touch tarmac before lifting off again, I thought that there must be a fire in the Santa Monica mountains. The air was so thick it looked like dirty whipped cream. The next day, the day of your death, would be no different.
Let me tell you about the day you died.
TMZ broke the story. People did not believe it, but I did. I worked at TMZ in a past life when I was lost. I know they are excruciatingly careful and they wouldn’t mess around with your death. Your end was a helicopter crash into the side of a mountain.
You must understand that at first, I thought you would just move the white-hot wreckage off of your body and walk away. Your body was never like other men’s after all. Why would this be any different? Later, I saw your autopsy sketch. Your broken body had no chance.
Clichés are the truth so often repeated that they deaden language. But the truth of it is that I did feel punched in the gut, and like an actress in a bad tv soap opera, I actually did fall to my knees. I doubled over in pain, my hand stifling a sob. I was disgusted with myself: I became for some time all emotion without reason. Then it was reported that Gigi, your thirteen-year-old phenom daughter, died with you. Release me, I thought. I don’t want to be in a world anymore where my hero and his little girl could be snatched away.
The day was all reports and Instagram posts and tweets. And I thought of the passage in the Aeneid where Virgil characterizes Rumor as a monster with many tongues flying from home to home, spreading the news of Dido’s death. In 2020, text messages flew. My phone was flooded with sympathies and questions. The world had tilted. Unnamed primal things were sliding off.
Staples Center became a place for the shocked citizens of Los Angeles to come and bring trinkets, write their condolences, and cry. I cried alone. I cried for your soul mate Vanessa and your remaining daughters, Natalia, Bianca, and Capri. And I cried for me because something shattered and splintered inside of me and I did not know what could bring it back. And how could I explain my strange pain to others?
I thought about the moments before the crash. Was Gigi asking you if you were safe? And did you lie to her? Did you know better and hide it? And worst of all, I asked myself, did you tell the pilot to keep on pushing through the fog?
Now cracks my heart. Goodnight, sweet Kobe.
And who am I?
I was an unlikeable kid, Kobe. I was the only child of very well-off parents living in Los Angeles. I was defensive and antagonistic. I used my intelligence as a weapon. I would come home from school and tell my parents that every other kid was mean and horrible. And they asked, could I be the problem? I hated the question because the answer was yes. So, I got to work. I studied life like you studied your game. By my senior year in high school, I was class president.
You were unlikeable too. You were too young when you came into the NBA. You were a kid who grew up in Italy only to be dropped into Philly. You didn’t know how to relate to your peers. I got that because I didn’t know how either. In high school, you got the attention of the basketball god Jerry West. I didn’t mind your faults—your over the top, unnecessary showmanship—because you were on my team.
I am not a sports person. I watch the Superbowl for the ads. I sprint from any room where soccer is on the TV. But there is an exception: Lakers basketball. My father programmed me early.
One of my first memories: It’s 1991 and I am three, sitting on my father’s lap. My father is sipping on a Tab. Playing on a small TV is a basketball game. Grainy men in purple and yellow dash across the screen.
“That,” my father says, “is Magic Johnson. He is one of the greatest basketball players to ever live and it is our privilege to see him play.”
The greatest. Our privilege. Magic.
My father doesn’t speak too loudly but when he reaches into the depth of his lungs, he can scare the shit out of you. My father would yell as you made shot after shot that shouldn’t be possible. And there was a lot to yell about in the early 2000’s. Three back-to-back Lakers Championships. Shaq and Kobe.
And what rough news, its hour come, slouches towards my heart to be born?
Kobe, in eighth grade you and Shaq split up. In my health class I learned that our parents had sex for other reasons than to procreate. Sex was also for pleasure and intimacy, the teacher said. She covered all of the platitudes you tell wide-eyed, sheltered girls still grappling with their own bodies. It was unsettling and disgusting to me—the thought of my parents making love in the home we shared.
“You have to promise me you won’t ever have sex with Dad again,” I instructed my mom with sophomoric chutzpah.
“I can’t promise that,” my mom said unsettled but also amused.
In ninth grade, a year after trying to police my parents’ sex life, I was driving with my mom listening to AM radio. Kobe Bryant was involved in sexual allegations relating to rape. Rape. I was still uncomfortable about sexy sex. But rape? I am not sure if I understood the violation at that time: what, when a woman is raped, is taken from her.
I remember being in that car, bending forward. My heart felt weighty, I could not sit up carrying the burden of it. Questions danced in my brain. What did this mean? For the nameless woman? For Kobe? For me who loved you so? What did it mean that I was devoted to a possible rapist? How could there be such a beast inside my prince?
A part of my innocence died that day.
I asked my mother, “Do you think he did it?”
My mother, a lawyer, said, “I don’t know. It’s for the courts to decide. I don’t want it to be true.” She could see I was fragile.
I processed the news in a clinical, solipsistic way. My soft, girlish brain could only filter the moment so much. I turned to what I knew. I studied Latin throughout middle school and into high school. We would get vocabulary pages at the beginning of each week with new words to memorize. In the car I remembered one of those sheets:
Rapio, rapere, rapui. raptus–to snatch, grab, take away
The word was brutal. The act unconscionable.
I am no judge, nor jury, nor executioner. I am not that naïve middle schooler. But I am still in a muddle eighteen years later. Beware of muddle. And I forgave you Kobe. You had been on my team; and I was still on yours. But I melted away. Quietly we both went to work on ourselves. You could say we lost touch.
Death, be proud, for look what you can do.
Before you died, the last time I met death I was sitting Shiva in Beverly Hills. That death was long and slow. It was an intimate scene. Someone would walk in, take a seat, perhaps a plate of food. I had been prepared for that death and that grief was ours—those of us taking up camp in various parts of a 1920’s Spanish house.
This grief, grief over you, belongs to the world. I share your death with millions. Driving in Los Angeles, I see you everywhere on t-shirts, jerseys, and murals.
Samuel Johnson put it best—as he almost always does—when he wrote, “For sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.”
We always remember when and how we learned someone who was deep inside our hearts died. We replay the moment in our heads over and over because in the seconds before we received the news, we were living in a different world. The world before death becomes in our minds romantic and blissful. It is a time which we will forever wish we could claw our way back to. Then there is the world which comes after and it is hell. It is irreversible, irrevocable and unable to be reconciled in the mind.
How can someone be and then not be? How can the dead leave us behind? How could you?
It does not matter if the living saw death coming or not, they will wish for one more chance to tell the dead how much they were loved; how much the dead were cared for and that their lives were not in vain. The dead mattered to the living. The dead and the living had their time together and that is the only comfort those left behind can ever get. It is a cold and shallow consolation. The living will see the dead in their sleep. But those dreams are a cruel mirage. The living search for the dead in every nook and cranny of their own existence but the dead are still missing. Where did they go?
The laws of the universe cannot be repealed.
Kobe, you are gone. But life beats on, and, Kobe, the world mourns for you.
Why so many people? It is because you transcended being an athlete. You were a living fable and, for many, a living aspiration.
After your last game, when you said “Mamba Out” and gently put down the microphone on the same court where you had hobbled to the free-throw line with a torn Achilles, no one could have predicted this.
If I should die, remember to think this of me: I will always have a fondness for Kobe.
I left LA for a small college on the East Coast. I had conquered high school but now I found myself, an only child who grew up with the best weather in the world, in the snowiest part of the country amongst old school WASPs and people from “fly-over country.” I didn’t know how to talk to my roommate form Ohio. I was lost. Again.
I struggled and I let the likeable parts of me slip away. I dressed in all black. I wore sunglasses in the dim light of an East Coast fall crumbling into winter. This was all a part of my plan. You see, Kobe, I was going to be the cool girl from LA, unimpressed by it all because my world back home was so much bigger than my classmates. I was more fashionable. The only freshman with a Blackberry phone. You belong to a country club? How embarrassing. I go to movie premieres and know the Spielbergs. I pushed people away, scared to confront an old phantom, snarling, looking to consume me. I forgot what I had taught myself.
My dad called me often. He suggested that I should find a friend and invite them to watch a Lakers game on the TV in my dorm. It was too personal, to ask someone to watch the Lakers with me. I couldn’t explain to anyone new, anyone not from home what we had already gone through together. It would sound so hollow and trite. Alone, sitting on my crappy dorm bed, you appeared on my small TV. You were passing the ball more, rebounding more, and your assists were up. You had grown up without me and I felt a bit awkward coming back into the fold, so to speak, because of course I became a Lakers fan again. Of course, I did.
Seeing you again, it was like reconnecting with a friend whom you had fought with but it didn’t matter anymore because you were both different people. On your jersey, your familiar number 8 was gone and here was Kobe Bryant, number 24. Blazing on your chest you were saying, the old Kobe is dead.
In my freshman year, on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, I saw a girl whom I found upon first blush to be aloof hiding tears as she ran to her bedroom. I checked on her. She was embarrassed because she had gone to see the school’s Mental Health Services because she was so homesick. “Jane,” I said, “I’ve had a therapist since before I can remember. In LA it’s weird if you don’t.” We laughed and the ice thawed. Friendships came. I was back.
When I used to tell my personal allegory, of how I worked so hard to change myself, I left you out of the story. Because before you died it sounded so silly that a basketball player whom I never met made me take stock of who I was. Your death is letting my secret loose. You said, I will be better. And I answered, I will too.
My memories are graveyards. I visit the memory of how I lost my mind when we won the 2009 Championship and find a monument. I like to visit these memories to torture myself. Because if the pain is fresh, it means you were only just here. I feel I am getting used to your death and what I feared is coming true: you are becoming a tragedy.
And I have one more secret. I had thought that because I loved you so very much from such a young age that I would someday meet you. One day I would thank you. I would spill my guts. I would tell you that you pushed me into being a more disciplined person. I would thank you and tell you how it was my privilege belonging to you.
Kobe, I want my prose to be perfect but it can never be so. Then I think about what you said. Wake up. Grind. Repeat. Become better. There is no lesson to be learned from your death. The only thing I will do, is to try to be more like you.
Let us talk of Los Angeles as the mourners come and go.
We in Los Angeles have been fearing “The Big One”—a tremendous earthquake—for years. But when you died another kind of fault line split open. Your death tugged the back of the collars of our shirts. The worst had happened. I thought of when the concrete buckled and the water burst through the St. Francis Dam in 1928, killing hundreds of Angelenos. When you died the city felt suffocating.
Would you have guessed how lost we felt when you smashed into that mountain?
The buses flashed RIP KOBE. The Metro signs blinked platform information and a graphic dedicated to you. And the murals. Oh my God, there were beautiful murals popping up everywhere. Downtown, men peddled memorial shirts. Pictures of you and Gigi hugging each other. And on the 405 a Bryant Jersey hung from a crane. The garish colors of purple and gold were everywhere, lighting up buildings and the color of our mourning clothes.
Los Angeles is a complicated place. There’s extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It’s a place where people judge harshly. You must have a car. Everyone really is working on their screenplay. It can be exhausting.
But there is something about Basketball. Find a hoop and a ball and there the game is. LA loves Basketball because it’s high scoring. We love beauty and there it is in a basketball game: ten men moving rhythmically, making their own type of a waltz. There’s pure athleticism and there’s elegance. More so, there is something about the Lakers. It’s heady stuff, being winners. And the Lakers are winners. There goes Kobe, bearing down and driving to the basket. You just know the ball will make it in. Jack Nicholson would punch his arm into the air as Lakers flags adorned beat-up pick-up trucks on the 101 Freeway. All of Los Angeles had a mythical, magical man whom we adored. You were an athlete who could do awesome things with your body, could play through pain, could blow our minds. And you were ours.
We just want you back. We miss the face of “The Black Mamba” when you would bare your teeth in some evolutionary callback with eyes of steel. The Mamba came out when you were unstoppable. Your fade away jump shot was legendary. You put the ball up and then somehow you floated away so no defender could get in your way. How does he do it? How does he do it? We all wanted to know. And your answer cowed us all.
It was hard work. Twenty years after you started in the NBA you dropped sixty points in your last game. Five championships. Eighty-one points in Madison Square Garden. The greatest basketball player of all time. And you were ours.
I went to your memorial. I won the lottery. Literally. That is how the public got access to tickets. It was agony and ecstasy—this goodbye.
You would have been proud of Vanessa. She spoke about you in such an unaffected way. She talked about how you will never walk your daughters down the aisle. How Gigi will never go to high school. How you won’t be able to give a speech when you are inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The twenty-thousand people piled in and I cried and cried and a faceless someone in the row behind mine handed me a tissue.
Although I went to an all-girls high school, I never paid attention to women’s sports. Just before you died, I was watching Gigi on Instagram and I was joking with a friend that thank god you didn’t have any boys because that could have been a disaster; how could any boy come to know that his father was The Greatest and not be fucked up? You were so happy and comfortable with your girls picking up your torch. It was just another thing to master: make women’s sports matter. You had things to do.
Basketball players do not become renaissance men. They don’t go on to win Oscars or write books to inspire young athletes. They say athletes die twice: once when they retire and once when they shed their mortal coil. But you were going on. We paid attention to young Gigi and saw your footwork in her little legs. In her, there you were. And you two were ours.
Michael Jordan called you the greatest player of all time. The people packed into Staples center gasped. What do you think about that?
This is how your world ended. Not with a parade but with a crash.
Then something peculiar happened. The world became infected and came to a halt all because of some creeping invisible virus. Oddly enough, one of the earliest harbingers of what was to come was the NBA calling off the playoffs. What would you have thought of that?
Covid-19 the virus is called. We had seen coronaviruses before in Swine Flu, SARS, and in 1918. It killed my great-grandmother. When Covid-19 first broke out in China I worried about dense Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul. I didn’t think of how it would weasel its way into my own home. Debilitating my husband and then me.
Your memorial was on February 24, 2020. By the second week of March the USA was shut down. You died just in time. We couldn’t have mourned your death the way we had two weeks before. And as I write this, I watch the death toll rise.
ESPN released a ten-part docuseries about Michael Jordan’s career and the quarantined world watched. You showed up in one episode. Apparently, you had filmed the segment just before you died. Old players who had been young men in their prime came out of the woodwork. You will never become an old timer who’d finally tell us what happened behind the scenes.
My laptop background is my favorite picture of you. It was taken when you broke your index finger and had to train yourself to become a dominant left-hand shooter. Remember that? In the moments before this picture, you had made an incredible shot and you are shrugging with your hands in the air. The bandaged finger sticks out. Your face says, “Sorry I can’t not be the best. Did you think this finger bullshit would slow me down?”
You will be happy to know the Lakers won the 2020 NBA Finals Championship. In downtown L.A., people chanted “Kobe, Kobe.”
Wake up. Grind. Repeat. Become better.
Anna Reagan is a born and bred Los Angelina who, in a previous life, worked in the entertainment industry. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband, dogs, and cat named Hodge. When she is not reading literary fiction and non-fiction, she is watching whatever Bravo is airing. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program. You can find her on twitter @annareagan.