On Sunday morning, I weighed writing something about the Cardinals. By Sunday afternoon, nothing concerning the Cardinals seemed to matter.
There really is no precedent for the horrible tragedy of the death of Kobe Bryant, 41, in a helicopter crash on Sunday that also took the lives of eight others, including his 13 year-old daughter Gianna. The influence that Bryant, in the inner circle of the most famous athletes of the last two decades, had not only on the National Basketball Association, where he was an all-time great player, but on broader popular culture, cannot be overstated.
His ubiquity within Los Angeles, where he played all twenty of his NBA seasons with the Lakers, made him arguably the biggest star in a city with no shortage of them. An entire generation of Angelenos grew up with Kobe—Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, a self-identified super-fan who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was eight months old when the Lakers acquired Bryant, and Flaherty was the #3 prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization by the time Bryant scored 60 points in his NBA finale.
There are unlimited different perspectives on Kobe Bryant, from his transcendent on-court play to his legal troubles regarding a sexual assault charge in 2003 to a post-playing career in which he championed women’s sports and LGBT rights. All of these perspectives are valid and ought to be shared. But this post is about something regarding Kobe Bryant which is simultaneously banal and the single most important thing about him: Kobe Bryant mattered to a lot of people.
Even as Staples Center, the multi-purpose venue in Downtown Los Angeles which played host to most of Kobe’s NBA career, prepared to host the Grammy Awards on Sunday, fans flocked outside to lay tribute to the late superstar. Hundreds of people gathered in St. Louis, a city which hasn’t had an NBA team since a decade before Kobe Bryant’s birth, to hold a candlelight vigil for a man who never lived in St. Louis, and who certainly never met most, if not all, of the participants.
There is no St. Louis Cardinals, and arguably no baseball, equivalent to Kobe Bryant. There are numerous reasons for this (the much larger impact one great basketball player can have than one great baseball player on a team’s chances at victory, how thoroughly marketed individual NBA players are, the more national focus of NBA coverage which gives more attention to glamorous franchises such as the Lakers), but there are scores of micro-Kobes.
An athlete dying in the prime of his playing career or, in the case of Bryant, of his life, is sadly nothing new. St. Louis has had three active athletes die this century in Darryl Kile, Josh Hancock, and Oscar Taveras. In the 1970s, the St. Louis Blues faced mortality with the death of Bob Gassoff, and the football St. Louis Cardinals did with J.V. Cain. None reached the levels of success nor worldwide fame as Kobe Bryant, but each had, in addition of course to the family and personal friends who each man left behind, passionate fans who were affected by his passing. Less than seven months ago, Major League Baseball lost an active player in Tyler Skaggs, and in the closest thing I can recall to a modern Kobe parallel, lost future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in a post-retirement aviation accident.
Every year, the “In Memoriam” section at awards shows seems a little bit longer. In 2016, a year in which rock music legends David Bowie and Prince died within a few months of each other, I remember having a sense that this was a one-two punch that the culture wasn’t quite ready to absorb. But there was a sad truth to what was happening: more people we love are going to die because we love more people than we ever have before.
The notion of celebrities is a relatively modern construct. Throughout most of American history, the number of non-political figures that were broadly known by the majority of the culture was very low. Basketball wasn’t even invented until the late 19th century, and professional sports as a whole didn’t exist until slightly before that. Musical figures that were known outside of the elites before the invention of recorded music were nonexistent. Kobe Bryant, who spent his entire career playing in scores of nationally broadcast games on color TV and spent most of it in an era of the ubiquitous internet, was infinitely more famous than Oscar Robertson, even if it could be debated who was the better player. This increased familiarity makes athletes more real to us: they aren’t our family or friends, but they exist in a poorly-defined space, poorly defined because it has only existed for a few decades. The loss of a 41 year-old sports legend in a helicopter accident is mercifully rare, but the loss of a person who holds this meaning for us isn’t going to stop. The first generation of truly global superstars in sports is growing older, and the exponential growth in how many reach that level assures that dealing with loss is not going to stop.
Maybe this sounds bleak to you, but I believe the opposite to be true. We could stop the sadness of loss of life by shutting ourselves away from society, but then we wouldn’t get to enjoy the lives of those who have left us, many too soon. There was a time not too terribly long ago that the death of Oscar Taveras, a 22 year-old with a mostly unsuccessful MLB career, would have come and gone with relatively little attention. Because of this, Cardinals fans who cried upon hearing of his passing would have been spared that pain. But they also would have been deprived of the joy—tracking his meteoric rise through the Cardinals’ farm system, excitement at his MLB call-up and home run to turn on the rain at his Busch Stadium debut, the energy of his home run in Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS—of his life.
Sadness is an unfortunate part of life, but it is a direct side effect of the best part of life—taking joy in those around us. And the sorrow being felt around the world over the loss of Kobe Bryant, as great as it is, is still a fraction of the joy he provided.