I loved Kobe Bryant. I loved his game. I could spend a happy enough afternoon watching films of his great moments. I loved the amazing fall-away jump shot, the dribble that sent him threading through defenses like quicksilver, and the ever-moving hands and feet that kept an opponent unable to score, sometimes barely able to budge. He went at the game the way you should: full-out, headlong, putting his body into the highest gear and tapping all resources.
He was something to see.
A hard worker, too: Not only did he have astonishing talent, but he drove himself to develop it. After each summer, he seemed to come back with something new. There was fresh elevation in his jump-shot, new twists when he took the ball to the hole, a stylish one-hander to put up in the lane before the defense closed on him. You had to love his passion to win. I surely did. He leaned hard on his teammates, not to match his skill level—he knew they couldn’t. But to match the crazy, focused Intensity he brought to the game.
I’m sorry he died. Who isn’t? He was only in his early forties with plenty of life left in him. And his dear daughter, Gianna: She went down too in that helicopter, a soul-smashing loss for her mother and the rest of the family. Death is always an abomination. But death so early, inflicted on a man as vital and hungry as Kobe Bryant—it’s surely not easy for those who loved him to bear.
And yet. Yet couldn’t we do with a sense of proportion? Isn’t the general weeping a little loud? Aren’t the panegyrics a bit broad? To hear the sports world tell it, Kobe was a man of nearly cosmic stature. He was one of the greatest humans on our poor suffering planet—more god than man, or almost. One must hold him in the highest esteem; only something close to awe will do for Kobe Bean Bryant. It is as though our every hope went down with his helicopter and now we sit bereft in the desert of our loss.
Dear friends: The man bounced a rubber ball for a living.
He spent his life playing a children’s game. He was a high-earning, ferociously committed entertainer who brought what should be transient and disposable pleasure to his fans.
Watching sports is not life. It is a diversion from life. It rests the mind, calms the spirit—or should. It allows us to grow temporarily excited about something—a game, a play, a player—that we know, or ought to know, amounts to little more than nothing.
In some cases sports can function as something like a metaphor. You might consider trying to do in your vocation something like what the ballplayer does in his. You might be as devoted, as true, as consistent.
But here’s the thing. The life most of us lead is fifty times more demanding, complex, and difficult than playing a game on television and doing it well. The virtue of the professional athlete is loud and brash and bright, and isn’t nearly as admirable as the virtue of the man or woman who lives life, raises kids, does her job, and does it the right way. These are the people to revere, not the entertaining bounders and leapers.
The NBA is a culture of spectatorship—and I’m often more than happy to watch. But when watching takes the place of doing, when rooting becomes more important than achieving on one’s own, when a ballplayer becomes a deity, then a mild pastime has begun to dope-down the spirit.
Sports at their best teach kids to grow in body and heart. They can help adults on their way, too. But you gain that growth not by watching a bunch of guys play the game, but by playing it, or something like it, yourself. I’d rather commit myself to shuffleboard or curling than let a mess of pros play games in my behalf.
Then there’s our habit of turning ball-bouncers and ball-catchers into public spokespersons—icons of cultural wisdom. They’re not to blame, really, for having nothing, or nothing much, to say. They’ve spent their lives dedicated to doing what children do—playing—and so their views are often (surprise) rather childlike. Kobe’s favorite book, the one he commended to others in search of the prowess he embodied, was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s hard to blame sports heroes for orating on this or that matter of public moment. We keep asking them to do it, even when we know how little wisdom they have to offer.
It’s part of our wacky inflation of sports. And in a way, I get it. I loved Kobe’s game too. Everyone who cares about basketball did. But take three steps back and look around. Sports stars are not heroes—they are highly paid entertainers. You can use their efforts as inspiration for what you want to do in life. But life—with all its sickness, sorrow, disappointment, and difficult, demanding joys—is infinitely harder to negotiate than a game that takes place between lines overseen by guys in striped suits who make it as fair as it can be.
Sports stars aren’t heroes.
Then who is?
I’ll take the third-grade teacher who shows up every day smiling and gives her kids all she has—helps them grow, teaches them to read, to think—and leaves at day’s end with a smile, probably a weary smile, across her face. Teachers—grade twelve and below-- create the civilized world. What is best in our lives owes largely—indeed I sometimes think almost exclusively—to them. They wrest people from parochialism and selfishness. They tend to the beast that’s in all of us, and they make something better from it.
One good teacher is worth ten star ball players. Ten at least.