Parasocial interaction is a term that is used to describe the feeling that we know someone, generally a celebrity, even with limited or no personal contact. While that can certainly be taken to unhealthy levels, it generally is simply a normal response to the media culture that we live in. When a famous icon dies however, it also means that there is a sense of mourning and grief in their passing. Sometimes it is difficult to explain and other times it is not. Kobe Bryant, a famous basketball player, has died in a helicopter crash. A simple google search will reveal the details if you are interested or have not heard. This was one of those celebrity deaths that moved me.
While there are a million accolades that Kobe accomplished in the NBA, there are two things about him as a basketball player that I remember the most. He entered the league from high school, skipping college, and found immediate struggle. His first two years he had little success, and was not even a starter, despite a great deal of hype. The criticism was enormous, and it did not take to much time for the chorus of people to begin to talk about how much of a disappointment he would be, how large of a mistake the Lakers made in bringing him in, and how he would not find success. He worked harder and became one of the greatest players in the game. He would adopt the nick name “Black Mamba”, after an assassin in a movie, because at the end of the game he wanted the ball for the kill shot to win. He remembered those criticisms, and made a habit of seeking out those who were being torn down and made attempts to build them up and encourage them. He did not do this in the public eye, but in private. He did not do it for fame, but because he understood better than most that encouragement will always be more effective than spiteful criticism. I dare say that will preach.
The second thing that I remember is watching his last NBA game. The team was bad. Kobe was an aging player at the end of his career on a bad team that was going in the wrong direction. The game was against the Utah Jazz, a playoff caliber team with far more talent than the Lakers. Sometimes though, there are moments that seem like destiny. I am not a big believer in destiny mind you, but occasionally, there are moments that make me wonder. Kobe, a player far past his prime, on a bad team, in his final farewell after twenty years of professional basketball, scored sixty points. It sure seemed like magic. For one last time you got to see him in his prime. It is a game that will live on in NBA legend. In a lot of ways, it cemented him as an NBA icon. His final words as he would walk off the court were, “What can I say? Mamba out.”
Don’t misunderstand me, Kobe was far from a saint. In 2003 there were allegations of sexual assault that were not prosecuted, but did result in a civil suit that was sealed. From comments that he made later, it became evident that while we will not ever know the details of what happened, it was improper and caused great pain for the young woman. Even on the basketball court many found him difficult to play with and had many personality clashes. Even while he was winning, many times his own teammates did not personally like him. He was a flawed, complicated, and often misunderstood. He was my superstar because he reminded me of me, though a whole lot more talented. It wasn’t that he was flawed, it was that he was so publicly flawed you could not help but notice. As he grew though, he salvaged his marriage, became by all accounts a good father. He would write children’s books, have time on television, win an Academy Award, mentor many young male female basketball players, including his daughter, who also died, and become and advocate for women’s sports, particularly basketball. He did not start out perfect, and he did not end that way either, but he did end a lot better than where he began. No one is just one thing, and Kobe famously displayed that for all of us to see. No one is perfect, but you can come back and be better, even from the most heinous of mistakes. He famously showed us that too.
We all have our favorite sports stars, actors or actresses, comedians, etc. We relate to them for different reasons. We may even look up to them for various reasons. Kobe was mine. He was so far from perfect, but he just worked harder. He will be remembered as a complicated person with a more complicated legacy, and despite it all, will be remembered as one of the best. He finished better than he started and really, what more can we hope for? Isn’t that what sanctification is at the end of the day? He left the game scoring sixty in a performance that will forever be remembered and talked about. He left this world in a way that will also always be remembered and talked about, although tragically. It’s sad, but not surprising really. Just like Kobe’s life, his death will be both complicated and memorable. I grew up convinced, and have done all I can to raise a boy who also understands, that no one is just one thing. Kobe lived that in fame and it made it easier for me to live it quietly. He famously worked to be the best so that I could quietly worked to be the best. He was broken and imperfect, just like me. It’s strange, I know. I never met him, never saw him play live. Nothing. I just knew the story, and the story has, for twenty five years, inspired me…I just don’t much like the ending. It will be strange to miss a man I never knew.
What else can I say? Mamba’s out.