Kobe Bryant’s Death Struck at a Parent’s Worst Fear

One year ago, I learned the news of Kobe Bryant’s death, just minutes after the story first broke, in a text message from my friend Murph. “Is this Kobe news real?” he asked. I had no idea what he meant. I was at brunch, in playground in the back, throwing a football to my sports-obsessed 5-year old. I immediately went to Twitter and typed in Kobe. “Wow,” I replied to Murph. “I hadn’t seen.” I threw my son a few more passes and struggled to figure out my reaction.

The thing is, I was never a Kobe fan. He was a Laker. He was not as good as MJ. I liked T-Mac more, then LeBron more. That “Mamba Mentality” always seemed fake to me. He gave himself nicknames, for heaven’s sake. He was also credibly accused of rape, and it’s never ceased to amaze me how quickly people chose to ignore that. But upon hearing of his death, I was still in shock. This was Kobe. He wasn’t MJ, but he’s a top-10 player of all-time. He was still so young and vibrant. And now he’s dead?

Right about that moment my wife walked outside from the restaurant; she and her friends had heard the news from one of the employees while awaiting our food. They asked me if it was reported who else had died. A few seconds later I read that Kobe’s 13-year old daughter, Gianna, was also killed in the crash. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

Over the next 24 hours I read thousands of words on Kobe. Many articles focused on Kobe the basketball player; others on Kobe the person after basketball; others on Kobe the accused rapist; perhaps most were on Kobe the dad.

By all reports, Kobe was a doting father to his four daughters. When he died, he was taking the helicopter with Gianna, along with her teammate and the teammate’s parents, to Gianna’s basketball tournament. He had become a champion for women’s basketball — encouraged by Gianna’s love of the game, he even said that two or three specific WNBA players could play in the NBA right now. It was Gianna’s death, and his death as a father not as a basketball player, that I kept coming back to.

I was struggling to verbalize my thoughts. And then I found this article by Henry Abbott. Abbott started True Hoop in 2005, which was later purchased by ESPN. In that role, Abbott covered Kobe quite a bit, including once when he really angered the Kobe stans in 2014.

But Abbott didn’t write about Kobe the basketball player. He didn’t even really write about Kobe the father. He wrote about how for Henry, as a father himself, Kobe’s death helped crystalize how becoming a parent, and the fear of losing your child, changes a person so fundamentally. Coincidentally, that very morning, Henry had read an article about the very subject by Claudia Dey, in the Paris Review. From Dey’s article:

No one had warned me that with a child comes death. Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child — this is how the death presence makes you feel. The conversations I had with other new mothers stayed strictly within the bounds of the list: blankets, diapers, creams. Every conversation I had was the wrong conversation. No other mother congratulated me and then said: I’m overcome by the blackest of thoughts. You? This is why mothers don’t sleep, I thought to myself. This is why mothers don’t look away from their children. This is why, even with a broken heart, a mother will bring herself back to life.

I read that excerpt and realized immediately why the Kobe news affected me: not because a famous person died; but because an innocent young girl lost her life, a father lost his life, and three daughters and a wife were left forever changed. The lives of the surviving family will never be the same. As Draymond gets at here, as a parent, this is your worst fear shoved right in your face.

I have been a dad for 5 years, and three times in those 5 years I’ve thought my oldest son might die. First, in a scary few minutes during labor. Second, when he was two and fell down a few stairs, seemed fine, and then had a seizure three hours later. It turned out to be a coincidence — it was a febrile seizure brought on by a mild virus that had not yet manifested. Third, about eight months later, when he fell head first out of our second story window while chasing a ball, somehow landed in a flower planter barely wider than his body, with bricks and cement on either side. Somehow, he managed to land on his upper back, but not his head or neck, and on the dirt, not on the cement or bricks.

I’ve seen the video of that last one. We have an outdoor camera that caught it all. It’s an eerily quiet afternoon in our otherwise busy neighborhood. Suddenly, the window screen pops off. A ball bounces out. And then a tiny, half naked body tumbles down. It’s disturbing, and I sometimes wish I’d never seen it. But it was immensely helpful for the doctors, who were able to see exactly what happened.

I thought of that day when I heard the news that Kobe’s daughter died with him. I’ll never forget the terror I felt when our nanny called me, as I emerged from the train station by our house, and she sobbed out what had happened. I’ll never forget wanting to scream at the Uber driver to hurry the hell up because my son had fallen out of a window and I needed to get home. I’ll never forget not being able to get ahold of my wife, who was at a work event, and texting “911” to her. I’ll never forget, when I got home, running across the street, looking up at the open window, and sprinting over the screen lying across the front entry stairs, terrified about what I was about to walk into.

But what I walked into was a miracle. He was, somehow, fine. Scared, shaken, but fine. The doctors thought he had a little whiplash, and he had some bruises on his upper back. But he more or less walked away from an incident that would have killed him, if he had fallen an inch or two to the left or right.

An inch or two to the left or right, and our family is the Bryant family — devastated, forever changed, possibly disintegrated. I live with that thought every day. Every single time I look at that planter, I think about how close we came. As Abbott emphasizes, as a parent, that fear of an inch or two to the left or right never goes away.

For Abbott, the hours after he heard the Kobe news illustrates that:

A few hours earlier, Kobe was a Sunday dad, bopping to a sports thing with his young teenager. Terrible questions emerge about the deadly sequence. Did the helicopter first have trouble? Were there terrifying minutes, when those poor nine people grew increasingly sure they might die? Did father and daughter hold hands? Would you? What would you say? Is it enough to just cry and cry and hug and say I love you? Is there something more momentous?

Or was it all instant? What’s better?

I don’t know what’s better. I don’t know how many times Kobe almost went down in a helicopter. I don’t know how close the pilot was, this time, to preventing this crash; to hitting that inch or two to the left or right that had everyone on that helicopter walking away safely, exhaling deeply, and telling the story for the next few decades of the time they were all worried they were about to die before they didn’t.

But I do know, for all his triumphs, for all his flaws, the news of Kobe’s death hit me hard because it reminded me how fragile life is, and how terrifying that is for a parent. I feel for Vanessa Bryant, who will never be the same, having lost a child and a husband; I feel for their oldest daughter who will forever miss her dad and her sister; I feel for their two youngest daughters, aged 3 and 0, who will never know either.

P.S. Shortly after my son’s fall, we installed safety bars on all the windows on our second story. I highly recommend them if you have young children and live in a house with more than one story.

A version of this story first appeared on the author’s blog shortly after Bryant’s death at www.123sports.net.

Thomas O’Brien is an attorney in San Francisco. When he’s not busy attending sporting events, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children.

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