Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Remembering Kobe: Sports and Spirituality Style

It takes a lot for people to look up from their phones, talk and interact with one another in today's world—especially, if you are in line at an airport. Five minutes before boarding my flight to LAX, a man turned to those of us standing behind him, ear buds removed and said with an ashen face: "Kobe Bryant died." Silence. Shock. The incomprehensible. I imagine you have your own story now, too. "His helicopter crashed," he said. Someone replied, "It is unconfirmed." No, I thought—this is most likely true. I have often joked about my desire to travel by helicopter to work in the way Kobe did. I immediately thought of my friends who who love #8 / #24. I thought of the strong opinions many hold for and against Kobe. I recalled that every year, I tell my Sports and Spirituality class the same thing: I want to be more intentional about including the Mamba into the curriculum. I sat on the plane heading to the very place he lived and left a legacy and I cried. Here are but a few reasons why...
Kobe was a man of faith
Kobe was many things—father, son, husband, athlete, champion, Hall of Famer, Academy Award winner and a devout Catholic

I first learned that Kobe took his faith seriously when I read Kobe Bryant: Formed and Saved by his Catholic faith. I might not have believed what I read were it not for my friend Bob, a parishioner at St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point (the church where Kobe and Vanessa got married). Bob noted that he had seen Kobe at Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach. I looked for Kobe the three times I attended Sunday mass at this beautiful parish. I never saw him; I have a feeling I will continue to look for him when I visit in the future...

Kobe lived Sport and Spirituality
ESPN Daily is now at the top of my Listen Now podcast list. Mina Kimes, the host of the show interviewed ESPN NBA Insider Ramona Shelburne, who covered Bryant for 15 years! 

Shelburne said Kobe, daughter and the other passengers "were on their way to a basketball event. And this is just like a Sunday with the family, for a lot of different families here." 

When I heard her words, I thought to myself—well, not my family. Growing up meant Mass on Sunday, and still I know the world is a much different place today. However, this morning a friend sent an article from the New York Post: Kobe Bryant and his daughter reported going to mass before fatal helicopter crash. 
Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, went to church just hours before dying — along with seven others — in a helicopter crash on the way to the teen’s basketball tournament, a report said. 
The two attended 7 a.m. Catholic Mass and received Communion at the Cathedral of Our Lady Queen of the Angels in Newport Beach, a church spokesman confirmed to the Daily Mail. 
At Mass, the NBA icon would keep a low profile by sitting “in the back of the church so that his presence would not distract people from focusing on Christ’s Presence,” Freyer wrote.
They lived their life in a way I aim to; he practiced his faith and his game....from one priority to the other.
Kobe died knowing the sweetness of victory.
Yes, Kobe has five NBA Championship titles, two Olympic gold medals. He was no stranger to winning. However, the ardent sports fan in me takes comfort in knowing he was able to celebrate a Super Bowl Championship of HIS team during his lifetime.

No, that is not a typo. A native of Philadelphia, Kobe was a lifelong Eagle's fan. When the Birds defeated the Patriots in the 2018 contest, his reaction—shared via Twitter (and now reposted many times) was among my favorites.

In our loss and grief, it's funny to learn where and how we find comfort and peace. For example, when my friend Courtney's brother, Josh died suddenly and 
tragically in 2013, I wrote a tribute: The Balm of Sports. No one was a bigger White Sox fan than Josh. 

In 2005, his team won the World Series. For those of you who know what loyalty, waiting, hoping and believing as a sports fan is all about—I have a feeling you get it. No one expected the Eagles to beat the Pats. They did and that joy remains....it lives....it is what makes victory so sweet.

Now that I think about it, Kobe was a great sports fan. I loved seeing what events he would show up to at the Olympics. I will miss the way he gave support to others—through his presence.
Presence and Presents
As many people know, Kobe was an avid women's basketball fan. He went out of his way to congratulate WNBA players, he was fiercely loyal to the UConn women's basketball team and committed to the development of his own daughter's game. In a recent interview he shared, "my friend said you and V have got to try to have a son so he can play like you...and my daughter Gigi said 'c'mon Dad, I got this'." 
Shelburne added that they often joked Gigi had already verbally committed to UConn.

On Good Friday, 2018, the Notre Dame women's basketball team defeated Kobe's team. The athlete who made the winning bucket—Arike Ogunbowale—wore #24 for her hero. Though her three-point shot meant an early exit for the Huskies, Kobe, who was at the game reached out and tweeted mad congratulations. The camera caught Arike and her teammate gazing total disbelief what he had written. UConn and Irish fans could agree it was a special moment.

Two days later, Ogunbowale did it again. It what is now known as "the Easter Basket" the Irish defeated Mississippi State for their second national championship. Both endings got so much good press—the cover of Sports Illustrated read "Ice Twice!" that Ogunbowale was invited onto Ellen. And the rest which felt like a dream at the time, can only feel more-so for Arike.

Kobe makes the moment all about Ogunbowale, and he should. My favorite moment however is when he gives Ogunbowale two gifts: a signed jersey for her and one for her dog named..what else? Kobe. This interview is both hard and it's beautiful, in particular when he speaks about his daughter Gianna. His presence and his presents.

Arike I don't need to tell you that you are richly blessed. I would like you to know that we, his fans and yours are too....

Kobe was no stranger to failure—on and off the court. In death, we elevate a person. It must be noted that, as reported in 
Kobe Bryant’s Brilliant and Complicated Legacy
He was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003 stemming from an incident at a Colorado hotel in which Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman who worked at the property as a front-desk clerk. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case when the woman told them she was unwilling to testify. Bryant later issued an apology, saying he understood that the woman, unlike himself, did not view their encounter as consensual. A lawsuit the woman brought against Bryant was later settled out of court.
Kobe's marriage nearly failed. When this story became public, Vanessa filed for divorce. The couple took two years to reconcile and Kobe took responsibility for his infidelity, his selfishness and his sin.

I play golf with the criminal defense attorney who worked closely on Kobe's case. About three years ago, I asked her about what happened and what she knew was true. Out of respect, I will keep the details limited. She often says what is shared on the golf course stays there. However, I came to understand that he did not sexually assault this woman (and I mean that). Believe what you want, but she is a source that I trust completely. Neither one of us would say infidelity is permissible. I am sure it caused all parties a lot of pain. I do however believe in God's mercy and forgiveness and that Kobe earned strived for reconciliation and resurrection.

Growing up and living in the Bay Area, the Lakers most basketball fans  want nothing to do with the Lakers. Before and after Showtime, the purple and gold, the legacy and the dominance—no thank you. Given that he brought five rings to the Lake Show, Kobe could be both respected and hated as a player. Those sentiments are not/were not mutually exclusive when it came to Kobe. This is precisely why I am certain that high school students year after year, LA connection or not would don the Lakers jersey, write about him on that first day of class profile, admit their love for the man unapologetically. I loved this.

Kobe Bryant connected me to students in a way like no other. I was always driven by curiosity. I wanted to know what drove their passion? Why the love? I would ask why they were fans. Their answers told me about who they were and of course who Kobe was to them. I hope I still have students who love the man. 

I don't know how to properly tie this tribute together. There is so much more I could say and would like to share. Please share your Kobe memories. His life and his death inspired words like these from my friend Alex Montoya. I feel the same

Thank you to everyone who sent texts knowing I’m a fan of Kobe and the Mamba Mentality he used to inspire people. I’m grieving not the athlete, but the man, his daughter, their family, the family friends in the helicopter, everyone. Grieve. Come together. Live with your face towards God and love everyone He puts in your life.

Photo Credits
Rise up
Kobe and Vanessa
Kobe and Gigi
Arike and Kobe on Ellen
Remembering Kobe


  1. As a Gen-Z member, Kobe actually started playing in the league before I was born, so my first Kobe memory is actually just hearing people shout "Kobe!" as they would throw crumpled up paper balls into the recycling. I think one of my favorite Kobe moments was his final game in which he dropped an unprecented 60 points on the Jazz. Truly incredible sports moment. And of course, the "Mamba out." I do appreciate what you said about grieving Kobe, the man, though. I came across an Instagram post from @WarriorsTalk (on Instagram and Twitter) that really resonated with me, something that I really like and agree with:

    "It was apparent that after his retirement Kobe was making a strong push to grow the game of women’s basketball.
    This seemed like a passion project he took on especially with Gigi taking a liking to hoops.
    One way to honor Kobe is to continue to support women’s hoops in any way possible.
    Just a thought. Once again, Rest In Peace Gigi and Kobe. ����"

    1. Thank you for your Gen Z perspective, for sharing your memories and offering such a practical and meaningful way to honor his legacy (Women's hoops!) Peace