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Opinion

The Whiteboard Jungle: Larger-than-life Bryant will remain forever young

Remembering Kobe Bryant
Fans gathered near a memorial for Kobe Bryant at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. “If someone is larger than life, we fool ourselves to think that they can’t die, and if they do, most definitely not when they are young,” columnist Brian Crosby notes.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“Hey, Dad, you won’t believe who just died,” my oldest son shouted from a neighboring room.

I immediately thought of someone famous who I admired who was elderly.

“Vin Scully?”

“Kobe Bryant.”

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Given 100 guesses, Kobe’s name would not have been on that list.

Barely two weeks have passed since the tragic helicopter crash on Jan. 26 that killed nine people including Kobe Bryant, his daughter and a mother, father and daughter from one family.

Of all the ways to die, dying via an accident must be the worst way for a life to end. The people who die in accidents had plans later that day. The victims’ families had plans later that day. The last text, phone call, spoken words were not supposed to be the last ones.

This wasn’t like Alex Trebek’s yearlong battle against pancreatic cancer, allowing fans to savor each of his “Jeopardy!” appearances, nor was it like 103-year-old Kirk Douglas drawing his last breath.

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Those who know they are about to die from an illness or old age have the opportunity to say their final goodbyes, for closure of some kind, before leaving the living behind.

What makes people react so deeply to the death of Kobe Bryant is that he was larger than life, a worldwide icon. And if someone is larger than life, we fool ourselves to think that they can’t die, and if they do, most definitely not when they are young.

Unlike Elvis Presley (42) or Michael Jackson (50) who died from self-inflicted means, to die in an instant via an accident that comes out of nowhere shakes our foundation of life.

He didn’t make it to his imminent Hall of Fame induction this August.

He didn’t make it for the unveiling of his Staples Center statue.

He didn’t make it for any of his children’s high school graduation ceremonies.

Some other celebrities who have lost their lives in aircraft crashes include:

• Jan. 16, 1942 — 33-year-old actress Carole Lombard whose plane leaving Las Vegas crashed into the mountains killing all 22 on board. Because of the fear of a Japanese attack, safety beacons lighting the mountains were turned off.

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• Dec. 15, 1944 — 40-year-old bandleader Glenn Miller with two others disappeared in foggy weather flying over the English Channel from England to France to entertain the troops in newly liberated Paris; a faulty carburetor may have been the culprit.

• Feb. 3, 1959 — Rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly (22), J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (28) and Ritchie Valens (17) died in a Beechcraft Bonanza shortly after taking off from Clear Lake, Iowa.

• March 5, 1963 — 30-year-old singer Patsy Cline and three others died in a small Piper Comanche aircraft 90 miles outside of Nashville due to inclement weather.

• Dec. 10, 1967 — 26-year-old singer Otis Redding died in a Beechcraft H-18 with six others flying in rainy and foggy weather just 4 miles from their destination in Madison, Wis., crashing into a lake; one person survived.

• Dec. 31, 1985 — 45-year-old actor/singer Ricky Nelson along with six others died in a DC-3 near De Kalb, Texas; both pilots survived the crash.

About the only positive that comes from such horrible events is that it reminds us of how precious our limited time is on Earth.

One of the poems I teach to my 10th graders is A. E. Housman’s 1896 ode “To an Athlete Dying Young.” The poem centers on an athlete who dies while still in the prime of life. Because of an early death, he will always be remembered in people’s minds as that sparkling youth forever, never withering.

That is true of Bryant, who now will forever remain 41 years old.

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