Kobe Bryant and I grew up together

We were both born in 1978, we both played basketball as much as we could growing up, and we both graduated high school in 1996. We both continued playing basketball beyond high school, we both married & started a family, and we both only had girls, almost the same ages. And yesterday morning, Sunday, January 26th, we both woke up healthy, 41-year-olds, figuring out what it means to be a husband, a dad to our girls, a successful businessman & a positive role model in our communities. It’s beyond difficult to comprehend that Kobe would leave this world a few hours later around 10 am PST in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California – a crash that also took his 13-year old daughter Gianna’s life as well, along with seven other souls on board.

I didn’t know Kobe personally – never met the guy – but I felt like I grew up with him. As I graduated high school and went on to play basketball at William Jewell College, I watched the Charlotte Hornets draft Kobe with the 13th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft. And I wondered, “How could this guy be so much better than the rest of us?” He was not only the best high school basketball player that year, but he was also better than every college player that year, including the 12 guys drafted ahead of him. That group included Allen Iverson & Ray Allen, two Hall-of-Fame players in their own right, but Kobe’s career was better.

I became a fan and watched him progress from a good player his rookie year to one of the most dominant players the NBA has ever seen, appearing in 18 All-Star games and winning five NBA Championships. He was relentless in his aim to get better, growing as a player and as a person. Not without his flaws, he never viewed failure as something that even existed, but rather an experience to learn from, and then keep going. Later in his career, he made a remarkable comeback from tearing his Achilles – which is almost always career-ending or, at least, career-altering. Not for Kobe, who would end his 20-year career by scoring 60 points against the Utah Jazz, the most ever by a player in his final game.

Post-basketball, when most athletes struggle to live a “normal” life like the rest of us, Kobe created memoirs, short-stories, animated films that won him an Oscar & an Emmy, two awards that most working in Hollywood only dream about winning. And in what would be his final act, he became a passionate coach and mentor for his oldest daughter Gigi’s AAU basketball team, often being spotted with her sitting court side at Lakers’ games, breaking down plays, players and strategy. It seemed like whatever he did, he was completely focused on that moment, and he did it better than just about everyone else.

As I process the loss of a basketball and cultural icon, I wonder why it seems to hurt more when a public figure is tragically taken from this world too soon? John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Roberto Clemente, Elvis Presley, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Chris Farley, Tupac Shakur, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Whitney Houston & James Dean. Their deaths rocked the world unlike most others, even though most people didn’t know them. People pass away every day – a lot of people – and many of them way too young, often, much closer to us than any celebrity. I wonder why their deaths don’t seem to have the impact of these public figures. The answer for me is two-fold.

First, there is a connection created when someone exemplifies greatness and inspires us to do the same, and this connection can often feel stronger than actual relationships with our family & friends. There is something powerful about experiencing someone perform at the highest level that entices us to became fans and followers of that person, often giving them permission to influence the way we think, act & feel. It’s an incredible responsibility reserved for those in the public view, and when someone does it with excellence, we are captivated by it. This connection makes their loss feel personal and devastating, even without ever saying a word to that individual.

Second, those who are given a public platform and who use it to positively impact others, truly seem untouchable when it comes to the ills of this world. They have all the money they’ll ever need, all the benefits this world has to offer, including the best health care, the best security, and whatever else they need. It’s a shocking reminder that none of us know when our time on this earth will end, no matter what we’ve gained in this life. It’s a reminder to not waste the time we’re given on this planet, to focus on what matters most, and to acknowledge the One who sustains our life and numbers our days.

As I close out my thoughts in this blog, my encouragement to everyone who experiences loss is to do the following every day:

  • remember that tomorrow is not promised for any of us. Each day has the potential to be our last day on this planet, so truly live it to the fullest. Don’t wait for tomorrow to do what can be done today, and live in the present, cherishing what have today.
  • Whatever platform we’ve been given, whether it’s highly visible in the public realm or it’s in the shadows of the common life, use it to positively impact others, to inspire them to greatness, and to encourage them to never stop progressing through life.

Rest in peace, Kobe. Your greatness and relentless pursuit of excellence in every season, phase & aspect of your life will truly be missed.

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