“I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died”
— From “American Pie,” by Don McLean
I didn’t cry, not at first.
But I’ll always remember the moment I heard the devastating news that Kobe Bryant had died.
I was eating a late breakfast, reading the Sunday Los Angeles Times. My son called.
“Did you hear?”
By the tenor of his voice, I knew that whatever he was referring to wasn’t good.
A helicopter crash in Calabasas, he told me. He had just driven through that area, and it was foggy. Even so, he asked rhetorically, how could this happen. I felt his sorrow radiating through the phone.
As the drip-drip of information was released, the tragedy was compounded by the revelation that it wasn’t just Kobe who perished in the accident.
Along with him were his beloved 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, a promising basketball player in her own right; Orange Coast College baseball coach and Newport Beach resident John Altobelli; his wife, Keri; and their daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball club team as Gianna; Newport Beach mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester, the latter another teammate; Christina Mauser, the top assistant coach of the Mamba girls’ basketball team, who previously worked at Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar; and pilot Ara Zobayan.
They were all stars to their heartbroken families and friends.
My sons, like so many young men, grew up as Laker fans. They revered Kobe for his dazzling talent; watching him play basketball was like a Fred Astaire dance, Olympic Gold gymnastics, and champion chess match rolled into a breathtaking display of athletic brilliance.
But it wasn’t just Kobe’s natural ability that my sons admired. Talent alone, they learned from him, wasn’t enough. They were most taken with, and influenced by, his burning drive and extraordinary work ethic.
Kobe was Kobe, they believed, because he willed himself to excellence. That is a lesson they have carried with them into adulthood.
That Kobe lived in our hometown of Newport Beach was an added point of pride.
It’s true that many places can rightfully claim Kobe as their own: Los Angeles, of course. His native Pennsylvania. Italy, where he spent part of his youth.
But Newport Beach was where he decided to put down roots and raise his family. He was our neighbor, a valued part of our community, a local dad who was often spotted around town at stores and restaurants, or at his daughters’ school events.
Although no one in my family ever met him, Kobe’s presence was keenly felt. There were the occasional sightings — Was that Kobe’s car that just passed? — his signed photographs proudly displayed in local hangouts, and stories routinely circulated about his graciousness to those who approached him, particularly kids.
We know he wasn’t perfect.
He was criticized for sometimes being aloof with teammates, most notably early in his career. There were some testy exchanges with reporters. Complaints about his supposed on-court selfishness surfaced.
Those perceived failings could be excused, especially considering that Kobe was still just a kid when he joined the NBA. He grew up under the harsh glare of arena lights and the media circus constantly followed him. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for someone so young.
Far more serious was one terrible allegation against him — no need to rehash the details here — which was ultimately settled out of court. The ugly shadow of that episode followed him for the rest of his life, and now beyond, for the incident will undoubtedly be mentioned whenever his biography is written or discussed — an asterisk permanently affixed to his legacy.
But we can always look to redemption and forgiveness, and at least judging by outward appearances, Kobe emerged from his polarizing younger years determined to become a better man.
In more recent times, he was known for embracing his elder statesmen role in the basketball world. And here in the community where he lived, he was seen as a dedicated family man who adored his wife and doted on his young daughters.
Perhaps we saw what we wanted to see, but it couldn’t all have been fantasy. There were simply too many stories of encounters with Kobe in which he behaved just as we hope our icons would, as a genuinely nice guy.
What’s more, Kobe generously threw himself into many philanthropic endeavors, including efforts to alleviate homelessness, help cancer patients and support young athletes.
The proud father of four girls was also known to be particularly passionate about advocating for young women and inspiring them to pursue their dreams.
One of the many tragic aspects to his untimely death is that we will now never get to see what else this complicated, exceptional man might have achieved. Would he have forged a post-basketball career similar to that of another Laker legend, Magic Johnson, who became a successful businessman and community leader?
Certainly, Kobe’s Oscar win for his animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” revealed previously hidden depths. Did he have other surprises in him? We’ll never know.
Kobe’s story, and that of each of the other victims, will forever remain unfinished. We are left only to mourn the day that their music died.
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