The Unfathomable Tragedy

The unfathomable tragedy Sunday that took the lives of nine people, including NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter, Gianna, is every bit the horrid event the news has portrayed it to be.  An American icon has died with half of his life ahead of him, and took with him a beautiful girl whom he dearly loved, who had her entire life in front of her.  No less tragic is the loss of the other seven, non-famous people on board.  Parents. Teenagers.  No one having lived anywhere near a full life.  A tragedy of unspeakable proportions.

Our little community here in Newport Beach is stepping up in a big way, as any community rocked by such tragic losses should do.  The various connections in Newport and Orange County to every single one of those passengers is extraordinary, and I believe it will take a long, long time for our community to heal.  Understandably, the national focus is on the loss of such a famous and iconic person in Kobe, but embedded in the other losses of the not-famous passengers is the greatest sadness one can imagine in life.  Thoughts and prayers, a thousand times over.

I have struggled since Sunday to articulate my feelings about Kobe’s passing.  It feels impossible to isolate my response to the fact that Kobe is gone – because that awful occurrence is not isolated to just itself, but carries with it the loss of all the others, and then of course the unspeakable loss of his 13-year old daughter.  I am positive there are countless others out there who, like me, can barely even let it all process through their head – it is easier to just change the subject mentally and not let the story carry through in one’s thinking.  The agony poor Vanessa is feeling surely exceeds anything I can imagine for anyone in the world.  No words.

And yet beyond the sadness and mourning appropriate for the entire situation and for everyone involved, there is a sort of processing I want to go through around the life and death of Kobe himself.  I frankly have wondered if it is even appropriate for me to feel the affects I feel in his passing, because, well, he wasn’t my friend, he wasn’t in my life, he wasn’t a “loved one.”  And while people get affected all the time when famous people die, I generally don’t.  Other than sort of noting with interest the various celebrities who die, either because of self-induced behaviors, premature tragedies, or the realities of old age, my response is usually somewhat callous – at the most merely making mental note of it, without a lot of emotional affect.  I’ve lost too many people who were actually in my life to exert emotional energy on people I didn’t know – or something like that.

But this feels different to me, and perhaps this writing is just to rationalize why I am so impacted by the death of someone who was a public figure, not a personal friend.  I met Kobe on multiple occasions, most notably around a real estate transaction I quarterbacked in which, by the grace of God, the high school I co-founded in Newport Beach bought a building from him.  Kobe’s decision to transact with us rather than other options he had available to him will be something I am grateful for, and something I think our community will be grateful for, generationally.  But again, I believe there is something more personal, more significant, and more noteworthy I want to share in this feeble effort to honor Kobe.

One gets the distinct feeling that what Kobe Bryant was going to accomplish in his post-basketball life was profoundly different than what many ex-NBA stars go on to do.  There is nothing wrong with just being rich and retired from a pro basketball life, and there is nothing wrong with becoming an ESPN broadcaster, or pursuing coaching, or whatever.  But of all the various options available to former playing stars, especially ones in the highest echelon there is of NBA greats, it looks obvious that Kobe was not interested in or headed down any of those paths.  From his entrepreneurial efforts, to involvement with his daughter’s basketball, to his Oscar-winning documentary efforts, to his creative vision around story-telling, to the fact that he and his wife had a brand new daughter just seven months ago, to the diverse and lively portfolio of assets and endeavors he was assembling, Kobe’s post-basketball life looked more like a brand new life forming than it did a “final chapter.”  He was just beginning, not wrapping up.  He had the energy and focus and hunger that transcended a famous person trying to stay relevant (you may have noticed Kobe was not exactly always fond of the fame that came with being one of the greatest pro athletes in history).  His existential purpose in post-basketball life was every bit as exciting as what he had done from age 20-40.

I remember hearing Kobe speak at a lunch at a hedge fund conference I attended in Las Vegas a few years back. There may not have been a total crystallization yet about what he wanted to do and where he wanted to take things, but there was a sort of infectious energy around parlaying his fame and fortune and brand into a truly dynamic second career.  It was not around fear of boredom, as it almost always is with “regular people.”  This “extraordinary person” had an obvious burning need to excel in his second life.  To achieve.  To be creative.  He was different than most “type-A” dominant athletes.  That “creative” piece is intriguing.  He wanted to excel, and many successful athletes have wanted to be successful entrepreneurs.  But he seemed to have an authentic love around “creativity” – around doing something beautiful.  There was a longing for craftsmanship, for handiwork, when he described his artistic visions.  It was as mysterious to me as it was inspiring.

And this brings me to what I feel ought to be said about Kobe Bryant, why I think his second life was going to be something special.  Because of what we know about his first life.

Pro sports are filled with hyper-competitive people, just like in the world of business, media, politics, art, technology, and science there are “movers and shakers” – success stories – tremendous talents – etc.  The sort of top 10% of the meritocracy is an impressive group of people whether we are talking about high finance or professional basketball.  But just to be fully precise and totally accurate, Kobe Bryant is not a part of that conversation – he was much more than even the top 10% of the top 10%.  Rather, there was something extra-terrestrial about his drive, his competitiveness, his fire, his discontentment, his pathological hatred for losing.  I have been obsessed with this subject for years of my life – what it is about the most elite of elites (in any field) that is just plain different from the rest of us.  In Kobe Bryant, one has a case study on the rarest of God’s created order, who not only achieve at the highest level, but who prepare at the highest level.

It was not a secret in the NBA or in Southern California that Kobe had almost psychotic habits and commitments.  It was not rare in his playing days for him to be spotted at a weightlifting facility at UCI at 9:30pm on a Saturday night.  Very early in his career he missed a shot at the end of a playoff game that ended the Laker season.  He reportedly spent 14 hours the next day – the next day – practicing that shot again and again.  14 hours.  One shot.  The day after.  Yeah.  We have this habit of uttering a cliché about the elite performers in our society that absolutely infuriates me more than almost anything people innocuously and frequently say – something to the effect of “wow this person oozes talent” – they just “overflow with God-given ability.”  The unintentional statement and meaning is that their story is one of birth and DNA, for how could someone be that good if they weren’t just organically talented.

It’s perhaps the biggest bullsh— mere mortals think about fellow mankind, ever.

Kobe Bryant, like the few other elites in his echelon on this side of glory, was an obsessive workaholic whose practice disciplines came out of his obsessive desire to be the best.  To excel.  To achieve.  To produce.

We have this nasty habit of being impressed by the result of such with famous people (especially famous people who play for our preferred teams), all the while decrying and critically judging the backdrop to their success and achievement.  We float around meaningless terms about “balance” and wonder what is wrong when a high performer may have an off day with the 420th fan they said hello to or waitress they talked to or whatever.  We want them to be Michael Jordan on the court and Mister Rogers off the court.  You can take the “court” analogy into any venue you want.  It just strikes me as insanely unfair, and certainly naïve.  Our society has been grotesquely unfair to people like Kobe Bryant. We idolize them, praise them, and fully breathe in the oxygen of their excellence, and yet somehow believe these high performers can exist in the same social and emotional bandwidth we want from our teachers and therapists and pastors.

Kobe seemed to have become increasingly skilled in the “empathy” needed to be a high profile public person over the years.  He may not have eaten up fame and the limelight the way other magnetic extroverts do, but for an introverted famous person, he came around just fine over the years.  Whenever I bumped into him around town he was friendly as can be, greeting my children, smiling, just exuding joy and confidence and energy.

But I want to honor Kobe in my mourning by saying that Kobe deserves to be remembered for being an absolute assassin.  An incomparable competitor and warrior.  An achiever of the highest order, which flowed out of a sacrificial set of disciplines that inevitably bear fruits in someone’s life and calling.  Kobe modeled a lot of things for a lot of people, and he will be remembered however he is remembered by his hundreds of millions of fans around the world.  But for me, I believe we saw in Kobe a truly special embodiment of the oft-ignored principle in life, that preparation makes the man.  This was a man who oozed with desire, and channeled that desire into preparation.  It was words that led to action.  And out of those actions, came the achievements of Kobe.

The world will never know what four more decades applied to non-basketball activities could have and would have produced.

Too young.  Too sad.  Too early.  Too unfathomable.

But in the time he did have, Kobe Bryant became a legend because he modeled an insatiable willingness to work towards that for which he longed.  He was an absolute beast.  And the world needs more beasts, and less talkers.  We need more Kobes.  Rest in peace, Mamba.