It's November, 1996, and I'm 13 years old. My father and I are sitting court-side at the Los Angeles Forum as the Lakers take position.
"Keep an eye on this kid," my dad says, nudging me to glance up from my hot dog and peanuts. "He's gonna be a star."
Dad is talking about Kobe Bryant, the 18-year old wunderkind who, standing only about five feet from where I sit, looks to be about three times my size.
"Just out of high school," Dad continues. "Can you believe it?"
No, I can't believe it. Bryant's magnificent height and build make him look older to me, but his face is boyish and sweet, bearing a puckish grin. The crowd is going crazy and suddenly, so is my heart: it dawns on me that Kobe is the most beautiful boy (for I cannot yet see him as a "man") I've ever seen.
I actually don't remember much of Bryant's first game, performance-wise; but I do remember how his sweat laced around his temples, and glistened on his cheekbones and that, at one moment, he was so close to me, I felt the hot wind surge off his body. I also remember (though admittedly, this may have happened later that season) that another player soared over me after the ball and, with his enormous foot, conked me right on the head. As people in nearby seat huddled around me asking if I was OK, my sole concern was whether Kobe had seen the embarrassing incident.
I never met Kobe Bryant, but I felt like I knew him, in fact, felt like I loved him, and when I learned that he died (along with 8 others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna), my stomach lurched with the bad kind of butterflies and my eyes welled. I spent much of the day in bed, reading story after horrific story on the helicopter crash that snatched those beautiful lives away but an hour from where I was lounging around like it was any old Sunday morning in Los Angeles.
I was surely not alone in my despair as people around the globe took to social media to share their shock and dismay. Gay L. Polk-Payton, an attorney and judge in Mississippi who named her 21-year old son Gaybriel Jekobe (French for “I Kobe”) Payton, after Kobe Bryant had hardly gotten out of bed since she heard the news.
“I lost it when I found out he died,” Polk-Payton tells me, choking up. “And then when I found out Gianna was with him, his baby girl he nurtured so much and who idolized him, I just lost it all over again. I had to take [Monday] off of work. I’ve been in the same clothes for two days. I’m just a mess.”
This grief is valid and the worst thing you can do is deny it
Polk-Payton is giving herself the time she needs to mourn and accepting that this is a real loss. Her way is the healthy and healing way to go about it, according to therapists.
A loss must be grieved whether it is a personal relationship or whether it is a relationship from a distance.
“This loss is very real because Kobe Bryant was a real person whom we all feel like we knew at some level,” says Tami Frye, a licensed master social worker and faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Social Work program. “He met a need for most of us by providing entertainment and by giving us joy. We pulled for him when we watched him play and we were saddened when we saw him lose. We felt in some way we were part of his life and he was part of ours. Now that part is over. An ending like this must be grieved. A loss must be grieved whether it is a personal relationship or whether it is a relationship from a distance.”
A mortality wake-up call that challenges our sense of normalcy
Much like fellow NBC News BETTER contributor Vivian Manning-Schaffel did upon the death of The Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, I found myself wondering if I was really mourning Bryant, or if I was mourning those bonding times with my dad watching a legacy unfold on the Lakers’ home court. Such nostalgic melancholy certainly may play a role, but what’s perhaps more devastating, are the tragic circumstances around this particular kind of death — and the beaming potential of those who perished.
“There’s a huge sense of loss when people who are young and really excelling in life are stripped away from us out of the blue,” says Lauren Cook, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University. “It’s really triggering as it’s a stark reminder of life's unpredictability. We tend to go through our days with a sense of normalcy that we can take it for granted. A loss like this is something that humans, who crave homeostasis, find tragically alarming.”
Additionally, while we may have intellectually known that Kobe, like all humans, was not immortal, we may have never really considered his mortality before given his towering celebrity.
“Celebrities’ lives are always on display, and they always seem ‘larger than life’,” says Natalie Mica, a licensed professional counselor. “Their presence almost seems immortal, and their death destroys that illusion and puts us face to face with our own mortality as well as the loss of the illusion that life is safe and predictable.”
Mica adds that when a beloved celebrity dies, this loss of illusion happens on a collective level, which adds to the complexity and intensity of grief. “It is no longer an individual's personal grief over loss, but ‘our’ grief,” Mica says. “Adding to this is the fact that each new loss can bring up the memory of prior losses. So, as we collectively mourn the loss of a celebrity such as Kobe, the pain of other losses can seep in as well. As we feel these losses together, a thread emerges that recognizes how precious and fragile life is. For a time, this grief gives us full contact with our shared humanity despite our differences.”