Why do celebrity deaths stop us in our tracks and shock us so deeply?
Kobe Bryant is dead. It feels like a sick joke to type those words, but it’s much worse than a sick joke. It’s real.
I have an old but powerful memory that’s making it feel unreal.
In 1997, I ran a 2-on-2 basketball tournament where the winners’ prize was to meet Kobe and take a few shots with him during his off-season tour of Australia. The event with Kobe was held in a small high school gym in the inner city of Sydney. Probably 40-50 people were there on the day, and maybe 6 or 8 people had the chance to play against him for various reasons. We all figured Kobe would glide in, fulfil his obligations, smile for a promotional photo, and glide out again as quickly as possible.
But we didn’t know Kobe.
When he arrived, he said a few quick hellos, then asked who he was playing against. He wanted to play some ball.
For the next hour, Kobe went one-on-one—and mostly two-on-one—against anyone and everyone, and he went hard. He kept score. He stared people down. He talked trash. When one guy had the temerity to make a three against him, Kobe instantly demanded the ball and started launching 35 footers. He made about five in a row, yelling “Bucket!” while the ball was in the air and glaring at the poor guy.
We watched, amazed, as Kobe worked himself into a lather against nobodies, to impress nobody. Simply because he loved basketball and he loved competition.
And when it was finally time to leave, he flashed that winning smile and high-fived everybody. He charmed the whole room. We all fell in love with the guy.
Kobe Bryant was the second-most competitive athlete I’ve ever seen (behind Jordan), one of basketball’s all-time greats, a force of nature, and an utterly captivating human being. But more than that, he was a husband and a father. Abu El Banat.
The thing is, as I think back to that day, I can still see the sweat pouring down his face. I can see the intensity in his eyes. I can remember watching the way he elevated on every jump shot and thinking, “My gosh, I didn’t know it was possible to elevate that high on a jump shot!” I can remember sensing the raw energy that emanated from him.
If you’d asked me to make a list of people who seemed invincible, Kobe Bryant would have been right near the top of the list.
He made up his mind that he wanted to be an all-time great basketball player, and by force of will (and, yes, with more than his fair share of God-given athleticism) he spent 20 years making his ambition a reality. He conquered that world. And with all he’d achieved in the short time since his retirement, it seemed as though he’d conquer every other world that he set his sights upon. “If you can dream it, you can do it” is nonsense, but Kobe Bryant was the kind of man who made you think twice before being sure that it’s nonsense.
Then he died.
There is something about the sudden death of iconic public figures that hits us extremely hard. The most impactful ‘celebrity death’ in my memory is surely Princess Diana, but there are so many others: John Lennon (who died when I was four), Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Steve Irwin, Robin Williams, and Whitney Houston, among many others. Kobe takes his awful place on that list.
These deaths leave us feeling rattled because they remind us that nobody—absolutely nobody—is invincible. We set those people apart to live the dream, but their dream (and our dream) turns into a nightmare. Every earthly dream has its limits because death lurks, almost sniggering at all our achievements. As has often been said, the statistics are overwhelming: one out of every one people will die. Wealth, power, beauty, fame, royalty, philanthropy, popularity, artistic or athletic talent—none of them provide us with immunity against our worst and greatest enemy. “Man who is born of woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not.”
I can’t imagine that any culture in history has done more to ignore death, to keep death at arm’s length, than 21st century Western civilisation. When the heroes of our culture—the people that we all know, admire and perhaps even love—are taken away from us suddenly, it strikes a blow to our collective consciousness and forces us to confront our greatest fears, even if only subconsciously. It’s unwelcome proof that so much of our lives and so many of our dreams are built on shifting sand.
But, of course, celebrity deaths aren’t the only ones that are shocking.
Last August, my father passed away. In many ways, his death was the complete opposite of Kobe’s. My dad wasn’t famous, and his death wasn’t sudden. He was 86 years old, had been in poor health for many years, and left no one saying, “He died too young”. Because he’d lost most of his ability to communicate, we’d effectively said ‘goodbye’ to the man we knew and loved a long time before he died.
And yet his death still left us grief-stricken and unsettled. The world carried on unmoved, yet the people who knew him were deeply shaken.
Death is an unwelcome intruder—no matter if it’s Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, or John Robson. Whether you’re a frail old man, a teenager packed with potential, or a middle-aged multi-millionaire with the world at his feet, death stings like nothing else.
It will always sting, but maybe one of the reasons it stings so badly is that we spend so little time preparing for it.
Funerals, while terrible, can ultimately be good for the soul. Maybe the silver lining of the invincible Black Mamba’s perishing is that somewhere, someone will be moved to consider their own mortality—to ponder whether they’re ready. It’s certainly done that for me.
We’re all mortal. Please be ready.
You could start here—ask why there are people in the world who manage to look death in the eye and proclaim these words:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Victory. A word that defines Kobe’s sporting legacy.