Kobe Bryant dies at 41: the life lessons we remember in tragedy

Lakers at Wizards 12/2/15
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons @Keith Allison

NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13 year old daughter Giana, and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California today.

I’ve been struck by the widespread response online.

Undoubtedly, it’s a tragedy that nine people died. But Bryant’s death has seemed to strike a cord with our society, even from people who aren’t basketball fans (or sports fans).

I see the genuine emotion from people over this tragedy.

I think we tend to view athletes as these larger than life figures. We see the athleticism and they almost seem like superheroes. People have remembered Kobe for his greatness on the court, his competitiveness, the titles he won.

Be it sports, film, or music, it’s rare to see an iconic figure die so young. Often times when people do pass on before their time, there’s an element of seeing the potential for what they could have been had they lived.

But as a basketball player, Kobe’s career had ended. His legacy was already cemented as one of the all time greats. He was in the entertainment capitol of the world. He was a Laker, the best known brand in the NBA. These add to the mystique.

All time greats don’t usually die at 41.

Kobe had just been in the news. Yesterday, LeBron James surpassed him on the NBA’s all time scoring list (in fact, the last Tweet Bryant ever made was congratulating LeBron for surpassing him).

But in an instant, he was gone. I think of other celebrities who passed away at young ages. Kobe wasn’t using drugs and contributing to his own death. He wasn’t being reckless. He was simply on a helicopter ride.

I think it’s hard to not imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes in aviation accidents, because the idea of being in a crashing helicopter seems so terrible. I think the story touches a nerve because we know that he died with one of his daughters, which only adds to the tragedy.

In some ways, it reminds me of when Dale Earnhardt died in 2001. It’s obviously not exactly the same as Earnhardt died during a race. But he too was an iconic figure in his sport. And when he died, it overshadowed Nascar. I feel that Kobe’s death will cast a shadow over the rest of the NBA season. Teams tried to find ways to memorialize him today. The NFL Pro Bowl honored him with a moment of silence. I’ve seen talk of if the NBA should retire Bryant’s number throughout the league, if the NBA All Star teams should wear special jerseys to honor his memory.

In the social media era, I struggle to think of another incident that compares to this.

In less than 24 hours, Kobe Bryant’s death has resonated with our culture. I’ve seen people talk about forgiving people for small things. I’ve seen people say to hug your loved ones closer. I’ve seen the grief over the loss of someone who most of us didn’t know personally.

No matter how loved we are, no matter how wealthy we are, no matter how popular we are, life is finite and fragile. Tomorrow is never promised. We should appreciate today, what we have, the blessings we have.

Far too often, it takes a tragedy to help put that back in perspective.

Condolences to all of the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy.

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Josh Benner is the pastor of Christian Bible Church in Cissna Park, Illinois. He has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He has an awesome wife named Kari.