A year later, the tears have not stopped. They flow with an anguish as fresh as that dreadful Sunday when word spread that Kobe Bryant’s helicopter had crashed. They are tears not just for a fallen superstar, however. It turns out that his death presaged 12 months of prevalent despair, a misery from which we have yet to emerge.
Kobe Bean Bryant – who grew up on the big stage, rebuilt his image after shame and created a basketball afterlife that rivaled his superstar playing days – died last Jan. 26 in a horrific accident that also killed his 13-year-old, basketball-loving daughter, Gianna, and seven others. It was an unforgettable tragedy, an evolving icon gone at 41. But in the devastation of the past year, it came to be just the first unshakably bad thing.
The nation mourned for weeks. The Kobe and Gianna public memorial wasn’t until about a month later. Los Angeles, Bryant’s adopted home, continues to weep. Yet there’s still a sense that the grieving process was truncated. There was always someone else to mourn, something else to inspire sorrow.
I planned to begin writing this column Friday. But Hank Aaron died. While searching for words that could attempt to honor the remarkable life of Hammerin’ Hank, I thought about all the tributes to deceased sports figures I’ve written the past 12 months, including local legends John Thompson Jr. and Wes Unseld. I thought about all the tributes beyond sports I wished I had written: for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, Chadwick Boseman, Alex Trebek. I thought about teaming with my brother to write our grandparents’ obituaries, the toughest of all assignments, and I thought about the ordinary people – the ones uncelebrated but essential to a community’s fabric – we lost to covid-19, a number that has surpassed 418,000 Americans.
I thought about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and this entire wave of senseless death and racial injustice. I thought about the five people who died in the Capitol riot, particularly U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, and the treacherous reasons for that conflict. I thought about how damaged and sick we are as a nation – because of the novel coronavirus, racism, delusion, dissension, isolation, heartache and pain – and for all that thinking, it was still an unfathomable experience.
Sometimes, it feels like Bryant died last week. Are we not in a similar emotional place? Every time the air seems breathable again, do we not brace for the next suffocating event? In a sense, our world has been stuck on idle for most of the past year. In another, it seldom has moved so consequentially.
“As we approach his one-year anniversary, it saddens our hearts to actually come to the realization that he’s gone,” Los Angeles Lakers all-star forward Anthony Davis said of Bryant. “I know I still have trouble with it. You still just can’t believe it.”
That helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., erected a signpost: Agony Ahead. For those who grieved Bryant, the tears transferred from tragedy to tragedy. For those who didn’t, life found a way to break them down.
In his first speech as president last week, Joe Biden framed the tribulations well while imploring the country to unite. We are divided, but we’re all dodging misery, a tenacious kind that has seeped into every facet of life. This bonds us, even if we don’t acknowledge it.
“Folks, this is a time of testing,” Biden said during the inauguration. “We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up? All of us? It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And this is certain, I promise you: We will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.”
Before these cascading crises escalated, we were already facing a difficult year, from wildfires in Australia to Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Within 45 days of Bryant’s death, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The long recovery continues, without regard to our fatigue or frustration.
In any other year, it would have been difficult to process the death of Bryant and his daughter, who seemed destined to become a star and add a new texture to the family’s basketball legacy. It would have been difficult to think about all that Kobe wanted to do, with his burgeoning media company, his commitment to uplifting women’s athletics and his interest in reimagining youth sports. But if left to deal with just that loss, the public may have progressed toward closure. Instead, the process seems woefully incomplete.
This anniversary doesn’t take us back to a heartbreaking memory. It reminds us that we remain in it, trapped under the emotional boulder, unable to escape.
“Man, it’s a saying that time heals all,” LeBron James told reporters Saturday night. “And as devastating and as tragic as it was and still is to all of us involved with it, only time. And it takes time. Everyone has their own grieving process.”
Time has only given us new people to grieve and new obstacles to overcome. The process is more complicated than usual. There’s no use predicting how long it will take.
The shock lingers, perhaps because we keep getting shocked. At the time, it felt like Bryant’s death would shape the year. It proved to be a mere prelude to a barrage of complex suffering that defined the past 12 months and threatens all our futures in some way.
On Tuesday, one year since the fiery crash, we remember a celebrity and sigh again about his heart-wrenching demise. Then the harshest realization comes to the surface: The Kobe Bryant tragedy was a beginning, and no one can be certain when this period of misery will end.