In Loving Memory
I've been a basketball fan since I was in 5th grade. That was the first year we were allowed to play on the school team along with the 6th graders. I went because it seemed like an obligation for someone who was taller than literally all the other kids.
My basketball memories came rushing back when I heard the awful news that Kobe Bryant, his little girl, and 7 others were killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday morning.
I had not seen nor heard of his 'Dear Basketball' animated short film but I heard excerpts read by Kobe himself. He won an Academy Award for it, and rightly so. It's beautiful, especially now. It inspired me to write this.
I am old enough to remember feeling this way two other times. The first was when Celtics draft pick Len Bias, an incredible young talent, died of cocaine intoxication just a day or two after being drafted.
Bias' death is a story of unrealized potential. Though tragic, we in Boston don't have vivid memories of him the way they do at the University of Maryland, where he went to college. It's awful but different.
Bias' death was a gut punch to spoiled Celtics fans like me, who were still reveling in the 1986 championship and Red Auerbach's latest visionary swindle, enabling the Celtics to be in a position to draft Bias in the first place. This seemed like a dynasty that would never end. Bird, McHale, and Parish would get older, but Bias would grow into the leader of the team and the dominance would continue, if not accelerate.
The next year, the Celtics drafted Reggie Lewis, who played down the street at Northeastern University and before that, at the legendary Dunbar High School in Baltimore. All 5 starters from the Dunbar team, including Reggie, played in the NBA. He appeared at the time to be the weakest link in an insanely talented chain.
Because of his Northeastern connection, Reggie seemed like a local kid to us Boston fans. Although he did not project to be as great as Bias, and his college competition was not like Bias, who played at Maryland in the ACC, we believed he would be a good, if not a spectacular pro.
As was his way, Lewis quietly proved any doubters wrong. He played 6 seasons, made the all-star team, and became the 11th captain of the Celtics, replacing the retired legend Larry Bird. He was a quiet leader whose game screamed loud enough to be heard everywhere.
Then, on April 29, 1993, during a playoff game against Charlotte, Lewis, who had already scored 17 points, collapsed untouched to the floor. People were scared, having seen players die on the court in a similar way, including Hank Gathers, a star of Loyola Marymount's Cinderella NCAA tournament run.
After bouncing between 2 eminent cardiology practice, including one labeled 'The Dream Team' of 12 of the best heart men in the world, Reggie was deemed to have a 'normal athletes heart.' Since he had had no known health issues to that point, fans breathed a sigh of relief that this was not a major problem.
Less than 3 months later, Reggie died of a heart attack while shooting baskets at the Celtics training facility at Brandeis University. He was only 27 years old.
Huge controversy ensued, fingers pointing everywhere. Reggie's widow, Donna Harris Lewis, was vilified in the press for pursuing the truth and a malpractice suit against the doctor who said his heart was normal, Dr. Gilbert Mudge. The courtroom drama and the journalistic sensationalism continued for years.
All of that just elongated the pain of another tragic loss. Celtic fans like me felt like we were part of the family. Any death in the family is awful. The death of a great player in the prime of his life was yet another gut punch.
For me, Reggie was personal. Like me, he was a first-time father. His son, Reggie Jr, was a little younger than my son who was 3 at the time, still several years from starting what has been for him a lifelong love affair with basketball.
At that point, though, I sat motionless on the couch watching the coverage on TV. Since the internet was not yet prevalent, local TV was still the best way to get the latest on an unfolding story.
I was sad but relatively unmoved, as I watched the stunned local anchors and sports reporters share what they knew, and in between, shared remembrances of Reggie's gentle kindness and humility.
I remained unmoved until they showed the picture that rocked me to the core. It showed Reggie, during a break in training camp sitting on a chair at courtside. He is holding Reggie Jr. who was drinking from a bottle resting gently on his very relaxed father's lap.
I felt something seize in my throat and though I tried to suppress it, I sat there and sobbed.
Fast forward to Sunday. In 2020, you find out things like this with a notification on your phone. I saw the first reports about 45 minutes after the crash. It wasn't even clear or certain that Kobe was on board, but everyone was running with the story.
My little boy J.P. is now 29. In addition to his day job, he referees between 8 and 12 basketball games per week ranging from 4th grade through high school boys and girls during the winter season.
His love for the game and his active involvement in it are a result of playing and watching and learning about the game at a deep level. I am happy that my enjoyment led to his passion.
On Sunday he called me after officiating his 4th game of the day in Winchester. He had heard the muttering amongst the parents and coaches and finally the preliminary reports about Kobe. After he finished his work, while driving home, he called me to discuss. He was emotional. The news had hit him hard.
J.P. had grown up watching Kobe. He caught the tail-end of Michael Jordan's career but he was pretty young. He was more of a 'Space Jam' kid than a connoisseur of the fine art of MJ. But as a kid, Kobe was the star he grew up watching.
On December 30, 2015, J.P. and I went to see Kobe's final appearance with the Lakers in Boston, at TD Garden.
After a prolonged standing ovation during the player introductions, Kobe didn't do much for most of the game. He made some shots but missed more but in spite of that, his team stayed close to the Celtics.
In 'striking range' as they say.
Late in the 4th quarter, the 'Black Mamba' struck. Scoring most of the points for his team in the last 3 minutes, the Lakers pulled out a rare road win against the hated Celtics.
Afterward, Kobe was treated to another long, loud standing ovation. He was despised as a Celtic rival, but mostly due to his assassin-like ability to make the killing shot at just the moment to win the game.
After the standing ovation (or after he had basked in it long enough), he left the court, headed for the locker room.
Because we were sitting in my brother-in-law's (really good) seats, we were right over the tunnel where the visiting team went to and from the court. I was in a great position to snap the picture(below) of Kobe leaving the court in Boston for the last time.
I didn't properly value that moment or the picture freezing it in time. I respected Kobe, but I didn't like him. I took the picture because I could, and I was annoyed it wasn't a better one. Other than that, I didn't feel much.
When I looked for it today, I was afraid that it had fallen victim to one of my picture purges since it was 'just' Kobe and it was frustratingly blurry. I had thought about deleting it, but as you can see, I didn't.
In a recent interview, Kobe observed that 'tomorrow isn't promised for any of us...' He went on to discuss the good we are obliged to do and to use whatever resources we're gifted with to help others.
All reports suggested that he followed this direction in his life, and especially since he left his basketball career behind. He was doing all he could with his (considerable) resources, including intelligence, work ethic (aka 'The Mamba Mentality'), humility (seriously, the ability to put aside your ego and learn from others), and vision which, along with a lot of money, were planting seeds that would sprout and grow down the line.
The tragedy of Sunday isn't that these 9 people died. The suddenness was a shock and the media coverage stirred as many feelings as would lead to good ratings.
No, the tragedy is what could have been. Not just for Kobe, but for everyone on board. None of those people were seriously expecting that Sunday would be their last day. All planned to do things this week, this month, this year, this decade, this century. The tragedy is that we will not get to see all of what they'd planned.
The Lord had a plan for each of those lives. It did not include Kobe and his friends reaching old age. In God's wisdom and in His perfect timing, He was satisfied with the work that Kobe and the others had done, so He brought them home to heaven.
Now it's our turn to do the work. God is using this sadness as a call to those left behind. A call to do for others. A call to use your gifts. A call to share your resources.
Like everyone else, the people who died in that crash were human. They had flaws and weaknesses and strengths and gifts, just as we do. They were striving to use them.
The lesson for us and the action required is to go forth and do likewise. Answer the call. Do it for Kobe or Gianna or Reggie or Len or your parents or whomever, but do it. It is true that we are here for a purpose, a calling, a mission. Find yours and get to work.
What a great way to remember and what a great legacy they, and you, will leave.
God bless you.