Note: I wrote this, other than the updated intro in italics, on 4/15/2016 after Kobe had his historic career ending game. I haven’t renewed the domain that it used to live on, so it’s shared here via Medium.
It’s a funny thing how people you’ve never met can impact your life, and that you’d feel a connection to them. Kobe was known for his mental fortitude and compartmentalizing tenacity toward his goals, and even as a fan of the Stoic school of philosophy, I’d be remiss to say that watching the story of a guy who in some ways lived up to the arc of a hero, tragic death and all — though fitting for its narrative elements — is less of a story about his drive and accomplishments, and more of a story that even heroes are human.
The trophies get rusty, centuries long forget the heroes of the past, and the status of everyone fades, wiped out with the tides of history. Like it’s said in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Kobe Bryant had a life well lived. He had much more to give, though he gave a lot. But along him in this tragedy are parents, young student athletes, families, and communities that will be just as torn about the loss of their loved ones. They won’t have statues outside of Staples Centers or parades or specials on ESPN. But their lives are just as special, and their absence just as unimaginable.
I don’t think the lesson in this accident is to “get up and grind” like Kobe would. He already gave us that lesson, and it’s the one you’ll see me write about below. I think the lesson is that we’re human, all too human. As long as what’s Providential keeps us here, let us all remember what Dallas Willard said. “The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity.” What we take into eternity is what we’ll have for all time. So let us put that at our center.
Saturday, June 1, 2002:
“I don’t feel good. I don’t think I can play,” I told my dad on the drive to the gym for the opening game of a 5th grade AAU tournament. “You’re fine. Don’t be a wuss,” he responded.
Dad’s currently 66 years-old, and he’s still hooping. He’s always had that bravado. He’s played through just about every injury you could imagine — even a broken nose I caused in the backyard.
I didn’t want to let him down, and as a young male I took the situation as a challenge to prove myself — so we kept driving to the gym.
“Do you want a gummy bear?,” my coach asked when I walked in the gym and he caught wind of my illness. I ate it. I hadn’t eaten anything else that day.
The game began and I sat on the bench grimacing. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t feel good. Coach calls me to the scorers table to check in and I head into the game pretending to be prepared.
The opposing team was shooting free throws. I was the same height I am now and I played the post position. I align myself on the hash marks to box out and get the rebound — and it starts happening.
All over the court.
I had never felt so many eyes on me while I was playing basketball — and this wasn’t for the right reasons.
I exit the game. The crowd was shocked. My dad grabs me from the bench and we head home.
Sunday, June 2, 2002:
I open my eyes in the emergency room. My head is throbbing and I can hardly stay awake. I spent today and the day before vomiting. My blood pressure is 180/100 and some odd, and the doctor’s don’t know why. They can’t figure out what’s wrong and they’re working on admitting me into the hospital.
“The Lakers won,” my dad stands over the bed telling me. They beat the Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to head to NBA Finals for a potential three-peat.
They’re the first team to win a Game 7 on the road. If they can beat the odds — I can too.
The following week was spent in the intensive care unit. I didn’t know what was wrong, and my parents — probably for the better — never communicated the severity.
My blood pressure was extremely high — obtained via kidney infection — through the strep-throat virus.
After 8 nights in ICU, I went home. I had a new sense of appreciation and the Lakers in the NBA Finals to cheer on.
They beat the New Jersey Nets to accomplish the three-peat. The last title they won until my senior year of high school.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
I play the opening night of a high school basketball tournament. It’s senior year, and I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I couldn’t be more excited for the season.
And it’s my birthday.
I jammed my left thumb in practice during the week and I hurt the left side of the same hand. The whole thing’s a mess and it’s painful to play with. I was avoiding using the hand in practice.
I play through the game. I couldn’t do much with the hand. But I try to make it work.
After the game it’s as swollen and inflated as the Hamburger Helper Hand.
Friday, December 4, 2009
“You aren’t worth a damn with one hand, Contreras,” my coach tells me. He suggests I get it checked out. It was early enough in the season that I’d still re-join the team for playoffs if I had to sit out.
I head to the doctor for the news.
The first broken bone in my life.
Senior year of basketball and coach won’t let me play with it.
I worked too hard to get to this point for a broken hand. Seriously? Why now?
I head home after a meal with my best friend to vent. Lakers vs. Heat is on. “Maybe I’ll find something redeemable in this game,” I thought.
Kobe Bryant. Buzzer-buzzer. Bank shot. Game winner.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Our high school basketball team won the summer camp championship. We’re confident. We’re excited. We felt like a deep playoff run was possible.
But we didn’t win the state title. It’s every high school ball-players dream, and we didn’t do it. We had a season plagued with injury. At one point four freshman had to be pulled up from JV to varsity to fill the roster. (I went to a small private school, so we only had the two teams)
Senior year basketball let me down, but I had a hope that the Lakers wouldn’t. They were vying for a two-peat. Kobe and Gasol. This would be Kobe’s fifth title, and they’re playing in game 7 against the Boston Celtics. These were the most anxious 48 sports minutes of my life.
It’s a close game down the stretch. My dad leaves the room every few minutes because he can’t handle to watch.
The Lakers play poorly. Kobe shoots poorly. The Celtics are up the whole game and to start the 4th quarter. But the Lakers rally back. Defensive stops and clutch shots from role players like Metta World Peace seal it.
Our high school team didn’t do it. But the Lakers did.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
It’s been a turbulent few years for Kobe and the Lakers. The Chris Paul trade was vetoed by the NBA. They brought in Steve Nash and Dwight to pair with Kobe and Gasol, and it’s a disaster. Kobe Bryant suffers — for all intents and purposes — what would be his career ending achilles injury. (Kobe as we knew him at least.) Pau Gasol leaves in frustration. Kobe spends the next few seasons injured, trying to become himself again.
Kobe’s left on an island. Young guys. No shot at winning. The Lakers miss the playoffs.
This is the last night of his career. No one really knows what to expect. He’s played horrible the last few seasons. Everyone hopes that Kobe Bryant can put on one, last, magical performance.
I’m a recent graduate. Life is turbulent. Growing up is difficult. There’s adversity. What would Kobe do?
Game go ahead jumper.
23 points in the 4th quarter.
An assist to end his career.
Achilles rides out on his shield. One. Last. Time.
Friday, April 15, 2016
Sports are an analogy for life. They rally cities, communities, and countries. After Hurricane Katrina the Saints gave the city of New Orleans hope. The US Women’s National team’s World Cup win in 2015 rallied both women and the entire country.
These games polarize us — for better or worse.
We use these stories and attach them to the narratives of our everyday journeys to remember that adversity can be overcome, and to find hope and joy in some of our darkest, and most difficult moments.
For 20 years Kobe Bryant gave that to myself, millions of fans in the city of Los Angeles and across the globe. He gave us something to cheer on — and more importantly — the motivation to realize and pursue greatness in our own lives.
His career ending game Kobe Bryant had one more in him. One more to remind the critics of his ability. That through various injuries at the late stages of his career, he put in the work, and he persevered.
It’s a fitting way out for one of the game’s hardest workers. And it’s a reminder as we wander through our own journeys that the sleepless nights, failed efforts, and criticism from those around us is never a reflection of our own potential.
“The reason I can stand in front of you guys and feel extremely comfortable with my decision, is I gave my soul to this game, until I had no more left to give. Nothing. If you guys feel that way at the end of your careers, you’ll feel just as comfortable as I am. I’m telling you, it goes by fast. If you don’t give it your all, you’re going to regret it. You’re absolutely going to regret it. And, don’t be that guy.” — Kobe Bryant