Kobe Bryant and the Challenges of Public Grief

Jan 30, 2020

The world is still reeling from the tragic events that claimed the lives of nine people, including basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. For most of us, celebrities are people we feel personally attached to, but who remain strangers to us. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron talk about some of the complexities that arise when we grieve the loss of a celebrity.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
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Photo: Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Bryant, Gianna Maria Onore Bryant, and Natalia Diamante Bryant at the LA premiere of “A Wrinkle In Time” held at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, USA on February 26, 2018. Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com.

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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: And I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, we're going to tackle a sad story today, and something that we've done in the past of looking at people who have lived large and exciting lives and then that suddenly came to a close. I was just reflecting on kind of the idea that last Sunday...I guess about seven and a half thousand people die daily in the United States, but last Sunday Kobe Bryant died, and that was an immediate headline. So I'd love to hear how you've interacted with following the story or what your experience and background has been when you think of the name, Kobe Bryant.

Cameron McAllister: Well, I was, like so many of us, just scrolling through the news actually on my phone, in my living room, and it just hit me like a gut punch. I couldn't believe what I was reading. I'm going to guess many of us at first tried to pump the brakes a little bit and think, "Wait, is this a hoax? Is this real? This might not be true." So doing a little bit of extra research, looking around a little bit, trying to try to parse whether it's true or not, and sure enough it is. So immediately, I'm talking to my wife and telling her, "Oh my goodness, Kobe Bryant, looks like he's gone." Scrambling trying to make sense of all the details. So then I think it's just an initial moment of shock. As you know, Nathan, I don't...like you, I don't follow sports that closely.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So that's what I was going to say, is there something just fascinating in what you've just said in the sense that when I speak to you, I don't think, "Oh Cameron, he's really up on the NBA." So that says something about the magnitude of his life that you would experience that as a gut punch.

Cameron McAllister: Absolutely. So there are, of course, a few athletes who have a good deal more recognition outside of the sports world, and Kobe Bryant was undoubtedly one of them, just a phenomenal athlete and amazing to watch on the court, whether you were really into sports or not. Also, I've had people over the years, John Njoroge, for instance, coworker of ours and wonderful speaker here at RZIM...John is a Lakers fan. But he would often...When he was talking to me about learning to be a speaker and learning the ropes, he repeatedly would reference Kobe Bryant, specifically his work ethic and his intense regimen. So the name tended to come up a lot in my life, just from people I admired as well.

Cameron McAllister: I know that Kobe Bryant has a complex history as well. He's a complex figure, like all of us are, in many ways. But yeah, that's why he was...This was not something that was...This was not just some impersonal piece of news, this really caught me immediately, and I was immediately thinking about several friends who I thought, "Oh man, there'll be reeling from this news." So I'm curious about how it came across your radar, Nathan.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, I think it was just a headline and then I was hanging out with my brothers who follow basketball more closely than I do, and both of them immediately said, "Hey, did you see that?" And then both of them independently followed up and said, "You should do a podcast about that." So it's funny that their response was kind of shock at that, but then also saying that'd be something that would be podcast worthy of kind of helping us think through why it shocks us. There's shock when anybody dies, but I think the fact that 41 years old, lots of people die when they're younger, but everything in his life was just kind of high speed and intense and flamboyant. It seems weird to say that his life and even his death was kind of consistent within a genre of kind of larger than life. Is that fair to say?

Cameron McAllister: I think so. Part of what makes this tough, I think, for both of us and why we want to navigate carefully and with sensitivity is because this is just so very sad. On the one hand, there's the need to allow space, just proper space for grieving. There's also the fact that because of Kobe Bryant's celebrity and because the spotlight was on him and on his daughter, Gianna, who was in the helicopter with him, because the spotlight's on those two, we need to also remember, of course, that there were seven other people on that-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Sure.

Cameron McAllister: ...helicopter, including the pilot, all of whom lost their lives. All of them, I think besides the pilot, were families. So there were parents and kids. So there's that element which is adding just so much weight to the grief and also the circumstances surrounding the flight, Nathan. Are you aware of why he was in the helicopter? What was going on?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes. Yes. Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: And why he had the helicopter in the first place? Did you know this?

Nathan Rittenhouse: No. Well, maybe swing the net wider and make sure we're all on the same page.

Cameron McAllister: So I was talking with a friend this morning and he had been reading up on all of the story as well, and he was actually relaying these details. But Kobe Bryant owned that helicopter, but the reason he had the helicopter was because so many of his responsibilities kept him far away from his family on one side of town. We're talking about LA, so the traffic is just outrageous. So he's spending so much time away from his family and the traffic is...these massive commute times are really intensifying that distance and that time. But he wanted to do some of the regular dad stuff. He wanted to drop his kids off at school, he wanted to be with them. So his motivation for purchasing this helicopter was really so that he could spend more time with his kids. Because the traffic without the helicopter was taking him hours and hours, with the helicopter, 15 minutes.

Cameron McAllister: So that's an interesting, really personal, also heartbreaking detail about why he had that helicopter in the first place and why they were on it as well. Obviously, the circumstances, we're going to continue to hear more details about it. People are very curious about...Obviously, they want answers on why this happened. This was a very experienced pilot. Usually, in the Los Angeles area, apparently usually the weather conditions are really favorable, but on this day, I guess visibility was bad. So there were some factors, and then there's a lot of...they're looking into some of the final dispatches. But I think we can go back to the sense of shock. I don't know. Maybe let's think about shock when it's connected with a celebrity, Nathan. I think maybe that might be a fruitful place for us to-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay.

Cameron McAllister: ...kind of look for a second.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, let's get a running start at that and back up in the sense that...When I thought of this, it's almost like he provided a modern day combination of the American dream and John Wayne kind of super hard work ethic, bootstraps, loads of confidence. You work hard, you play hard, you reap big rewards. The whole speed and trajectory of his life kind of had that hero-esque. It was legendary as he was living it out sort of thing. So I think when you have a celebrity who isn't just a celebrity but has been on that trajectory...Even in the way we view film and celebrity, the good guys don't tragically die. That's not the narrative that we live within our film and in our media and in the stories we tell. And then something like this happens, and it's just a massive pattern disruption to the way that we project the future of his life going.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I do like the phrase pattern disruption. Because if you bring it back in again, what was the figure that you originally quoted at the beginning of the podcast, Nathan? How many-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. It's around seven and a half thousand people die a day in the US.

Cameron McAllister: Right. So most of us, I think there's some different factors here that we can maybe isolate just for the sake of conversation, might provide some clarity as we think about this. On the one hand, I think most of us recognize...I think most of us wouldn't be too shocked by a figure like that in the abstract. We would think, okay, thousands of people die every single day, all of us are mortal. And then when somebody close to us dies, naturally, we register shock and horror in varying degrees, especially when it's a life cut short.

Cameron McAllister: But then there seems to be another degree of pattern disruption that happens. So we're going up in degrees. There's the abstract sense of which, yes, I know everybody's mortal, I know that thousands of people die every day. Then when we lose somebody in our own lives, there's that shock, there's that pattern disruption. There seems to be a heightened sense of pattern disruption that happens when the figure is a celebrity, maybe younger or at the height of their powers, that happens as well. Does this sound like a recognizable trajectory psychologically?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Maybe, in the sense too that, do we think of celebrities as humans like us?

Cameron McAllister: Well, that's kind of what I'm getting at.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Most people in the back of our minds think, "Hey, when you're traveling to your 13 year old daughter's basketball game in a helicopter, that's a different category of living than what most of us experience." So I think that's speaking to what you're saying.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I think so. I guess when we're trying to bring tacit or resting assumptions into the light, I do think that we kind of...sometimes we look to celebrities, and there is a tendency to see them in... to put them in some kind of a different category. I don't think it's something that we make up our minds to do, I don't think it's something that's always a deliberate conscious decision, I think it's a kind of a mindset that we slide into and that's reinforced by some of...There's the fact that a celebrity is larger than life in the sense that they're so well known, they've got immense fame, popularity, wealth, traveling in a helicopter, these kinds of things.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, here's the other thing. Let me try this one on. So I was in middle school, I played middle school basketball and Kobe was doing his stuff. Everybody wanted to be Kobe. It didn't matter if you were 4'2" and 90 pounds, you wanted to be Kobe. So I think we do the same thing, either consciously or subconsciously, with celebrities, is we idealize them not just as a standard, but also a place that we would like to be. So that's a life that I would like to have. So part of what makes them a celebrity is the desire that people have to be like them, and so our posture toward them is one of wanting what they have and then when they die, we obviously recognize that not as part that we want. So our whole perspective toward that person has been one of wanting to be like, and then they die. And that's the...Help me out there. Is there any validity to that?

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. There's that side of looking up to a person, wanting...It's not just wanting what they have, that would be an oversimplification, which is why I like where you're going with that. It's wanting to be like them. And you look at Kobe Bryant's career, there are so many...Abdu Murray, a colleague of ours and fellow speaker, who has a history of playing basketball himself, he points out that one of the astonishing features about Kobe Bryant was that usually, guys of his caliber will have gone on to play college basketball, and that's where they really kind of sharpen their skills and they really refine those skills. But Kobe Bryant just jumps immediately into the NBA, and everybody thinks, "Well, who does he think he is? He probably can't pull this off." And then of course he does. So people look at that and they think, "Man, I want to emulate that. I want to..."

Cameron McAllister: So there's that too. I think also, when a celebrity...In a sense, most of the features of a common human life...And I just mean common descriptively. I think we can press into the depths of that a little bit more when we talk about...we could talk about how every person is made in the image of God. But when we look at...With a celebrity, everything's exaggerated, and grief is exaggerated too in the sense that it's ramped up. Instead of just acquaintances, those who knew the person gathering at a funeral and grieving, you can have a whole nation grieving over you, or you can have large parts of the globe grieving over you. That collective sense of grief, I think, contributes somewhat to the complexity of how we process the loss of somebody of Kobe Bryant's stature as well. Wouldn't you say?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. That made me think that idea of, it's not just the collective grief, but we often use our celebrities as collective representations of ourselves.

Cameron McAllister: Yes.

Nathan Rittenhouse: You look at Team USA in basketball and Kobe's two gold medals. So it's almost like the pride and the identity of the American nation is on this individual who is representing all of us to the world, representing us in work ethic, representing us in excellence, speed, whatever, drive. So we can collectively live vicariously through some of these celebrities in a way that speaks back to what you were just saying, that I think makes the grief collective also because we've lost a flag bearer, sort of, for the way that we collectively would like to imagine all of ourselves to be.

Cameron McAllister: So in a sense, they emerge as almost national ambassadors in a way, and they gain huge symbolic weight also. I think it's almost inevitable. Now that you've pointed that out, that sounds so obvious, but it's actually kind of hard to see that. So I think that's a really keen observation. But it's almost inevitable that that is going to happen. If you have a celebrity or if you have any kind of public representative, when we lose them, yes, it feels that part of...It's a national loss in that way.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So one side note here, it's not just when they die, it's also when they morally fail.

Cameron McAllister: Absolutely.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And we can see that in Kobe’s story also, of how things spin based off of... Anyway. Sorry I interrupted you there, but I wanted to point out it isn't just death that we experience grief. When sort of our icon or celebrity sins would be the-

Cameron McAllister: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...theological word for it. I don't know, what's the culturally appropriate word for that now?

Cameron McAllister: Moral downfall? I don't know.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Moral indiscretion or something?

Cameron McAllister: Indiscretions. Yeah. I think I'm fine with the word sin, because I think once we can...Yeah. If we can recover the sense of gravity that it entails, absolutely. Again, I made an oblique reference to that earlier, but that's another part of this story that's contributed to the conflicted response because of some of the events that have taken place in the past, particularly involving Kobe Bryant, and of course, in our moment where it's almost as though part of the national grieving process that emerges is people also need to immediately...There's a tendency to want to rush immediately to strong judgments, not just when it comes to a person's moral character, but also when it comes to questions of why something happened and how something like this could happen.

Cameron McAllister: We have a tendency to go, "I think this is something that's a little bit new," not asking the kinds of questions, what about this person's past, or why did this happen and what does the past have on this current tragedy? That sort of thing. Those are not new questions, but the speed at which we try to tackle them, I think, is new.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Sorry, go ahead.

Cameron McAllister: No, no. Feel free to interject there.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So I was going to say, do you think that...Do you think the speed at which we feel that we need to respond is linked to the degree to which we have identified with that figure and therefore fill some sort of that moral culpability to our identity for our own reputation of being linked to this individual who did this thing?

Cameron McAllister: That might be part of it. Part of it is also our instruments of amplification, social media for instance. I don't know if you know about...There was another kind of...one of these sideline controversies that was taking place, a Washington Post reporter. Did you hear about this, Nathan, what happened here?

Nathan Rittenhouse: I'm not sure.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, so a Washington Post reporter had tweeted links to articles pointing back to some of the scandals in which Kobe Bryant found himself embroiled and received an astronomical amount of emails and death threats and all sorts of...of course a pretty strong response and then was put on paid leave by The Washington Post, actually. And this is still a developing story. But again, it illustrates that conflicted response. Now, the reporter maintained, "Hey, I'm just bringing this in. This is relevant right here." But other people were saying, "Yeah, but my goodness, can we just press pause on all that for a second?"

Cameron McAllister: So that's kind of what I'm getting at with the speed. We try to work out and work through all of this immediately, and when we try to do it all out loud...Ironic that I'm bringing this up on Thinking Out Loud. But we're all in real time, and we try to work it out in these...Let's bring in Wendell Berry for a second.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Do it.

Cameron McAllister: Okay. So in Wendell Berry's pretty celebrated essay with an incredibly convoluted long title, maybe you'll get it right, Nathan, I don't want to turn around away from the microphone and look at my bookshelf right now, Sex, Freedom, Economy and...Oh, I'll get it right. It's got sex in the title, so that's an easy way to remember it. But it's his essay about...But one of the things that he does in that essay is he starts off with a public scandal that's taking place, and he points out that the difficulty with so many of these issues that involve scandals or that involve the grieving process is that when we try to work them out publicly on a national scale, we really don't have the tools to do it because they're deeply personal issues that require a community, not some anonymous public.

Cameron McAllister: So here's the truth. Most of us actually don't know the Bryant family. We don't know Kobe, we don't know his wife and we don't know his daughters, and yet so many of us are responding automatically as though we some sort of real...You see what I'm getting at here? As though there is some kind of deeper bond. I'm not disputing the deep attachments that we have. This is part of why this is so hard to deal with. But what Wendell Berry is pointing out is these...A national grieving process worked out on social media, everything, all of the cards are stacked against you there.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Hmm. So, would you say that you can cheer for somebody at a distance, but you can't grieve for somebody? That's not the right way to-

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I'm trying to figure out like, what interactions can you have with somebody that can be anonymous versus which ones can't?

Cameron McAllister: I'm not saying that we can't grieve at all publicly, I'm saying that there are certain limits to the depth of our grief. I think we can express profound sadness, and I think we can do that publicly with messages and all, and I think that that's a good gesture and it's helpful. But can we grieve in...But if we start getting embroiled and fighting all of these battles over the issues that come to the surface when a celebrity, particularly one with a checkered past, passes away, I think if we get into huge disputes about that, we're entering into some territory that is not probably going to be resolvable in the public space.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. That's great. [crosstalk 00:22:41].

Cameron McAllister: That's kind of what I'm hinting at.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Let me clarify, because...and I wasn't comfortable with the way that I was wording that, of grieving at...saying that you can't grieve at a distance isn't true. [crosstalk 00:22:50]. There are two levels of grief here that we're talking about, I think. So maybe the one that's new to our time is the ability to feel connected to somebody outside of actual community.

Cameron McAllister: Hmm. Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: We're in the past-

Cameron McAllister: That's well put.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...people that we grieved or people that we lived with and worked with and were our family, and so now we're...Well, yeah, 100 years ago we would have, but there's a certain point in time when we wouldn't have even known about this yet.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Absolutely.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Time of death, 9:06. It's like, the instantaneous nature of everybody knowing everything-

Cameron McAllister: And watching footage of smoke from the wreckage. This is all very novel. I think it's worth pausing and just saying, "It's so deeply sad nine human beings have lost their lives." And then I think maybe looking at the bigger picture and saying, "Goodness gracious me, people are dying all the time every day." Now, it's impossible. We've got limited capacities, we've got finite capacities when it comes to our ability to have deep empathy and compassion and care for every single person that perishes in a given day. It sounds heartless to say it, but it's not, we're finite creatures. But it can be, this can be a kind of window into one of the deep limitations of this world, the mortality that hangs over all of us, and we can recognize that though we have...there's so much to celebrate in this world and there's so much to celebrate in this life, there are so many good things, and we should celebrate those good things. There's so much to be sad about as well.

Cameron McAllister: It's right to mourn as well, and it's right. I think this gives us a window into the reasons why in scripture we hear Maranatha, "Oh come Lord Jesus," and the real hope and the real desire for the new heavens and the new earth, and that that is not some abstract, ethereal, theological wish, but a deeply practical one that we can...And we can see it on the ground here when we open our eyes to, really, the pain that's all around us as well. That's an important aspect of reality, that we...I guess that's the other pattern disruption feature here. Oh man. Okay, here's a thought that's just coming to me right on the air. But think about this, Nathan, I think you'll like this. Okay. So often, what do we use to distract ourselves from all those big scary looming questions about mortality and all of that?

Nathan Rittenhouse: You watch a basketball game.

Cameron McAllister: You watch a basketball game. Entertainment. Celebrities help us forget about so much of that. So when we lose one of them, not only is it disrupting, it's profoundly terrifying.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. It's pulling the curtain back to the thing that we were trying to avoid often.

Cameron McAllister: Exactly. Especially when a life is cut short, when it's somebody as young as Kobe Bryant and is somebody with...and you can see reams and reams of photos of not only him on the court and otherwise, but of his beautiful family, of his beautiful kids, pictures of him with Gianna at basketball games as he's leaning in and explaining to her what's going on. She had aspirations to be a basketball player as well and showed real promise. Every one of those, it's just reinforcing the reality, this is a real person, this was a real guy. He was Kobe Bryant, but he was also just a guy with his family.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and it's hard to remember that though, because I think if somebody was going to beat death, you would take somebody like...There are times when Kobe scored...and my wife and I were just looking at famous clips and stuff, and she would just say like, "What exactly happened there? How did he..." The laws of physics in some things you're just like, "What is..." And the amount of times...game, after game, after game where he scored, like they're down and he scores with like half a second left, some ridiculous fadeaway jump shot. He was somebody who seemingly was skilled enough to beat the odds and beat the buzzer and beat the timeline. If humanity had hope in somebody pulling something... So I don't know if there's that trajectory to it also that's-

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Well, I remember [crosstalk 00:27:44].

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...kind of sobering for us of thinking, nobody beats these odds.

Cameron McAllister: Well, yeah, I remember David Foster Wallace years ago wrote an essay about Tracy Austin, the tennis prodigy. I remember him saying, "If you don't think she's that big of a deal, by the way, go watch some of those matches." It is basically just like watching physics off the charts. A human being should not be able to do this stuff. I remember thinking about that when I would watch Kobe Bryant too. It's similar. And you think, "Well, I know human beings technically aren't immortal or demigods, but clearly, this guy is cut from a different cloth from the rest of us, and yet these kinds of..." And something like this happens, and there's that pattern disruption.

Cameron McAllister: I think it's worth maybe pivoting here a little bit to the way we respond to this as Christians now, because I think there's going to be...There'll be some important continuities. Christians like basketball just as much as anybody else, Christians like to be entertained just as much as anybody else, and Christians often don't like to think about their own death, just like most people don't. But I think that there's a little bit more of a holistic response that can arise when we've got a healthy mindset regarding mortality.

Cameron McAllister: I'll kick it off here, Nathan, and then I'd love to hear you weigh in. But I think the starting point for many of the mature Christians I've spoken with has been that the instant focus on not just Kobe Bryant, but everybody in the helicopter and the recognition that at a fundamental level, every human being is made in the image of God and of equal value. When it comes to our accomplishments and our achievements, we are not all made equal. Very few of us will come anywhere near Kobe Bryant's territory. But when it comes to the inestimable worth with which we are endowed by our creator, we are on equal footing. So it's important to remember...

Cameron McAllister: And I've seen a lot of people actually pointing this out outside the church as well, that there were nine people on that helicopter, and all of them lost their lives. I know that some of the surviving family members have posted messages along those lines on Facebook saying, "We know that the world lost a celebrity in Kobe Bryant and his beautiful daughter, Gianna, but we lost a mother, we lost a daughter, and they made all the difference in the world to us and we are just absolutely devastated." So I think that crucial perspective of the image of God is just absolutely indispensable. I don't know, Nathan, what-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, no, I think that's right. As a Christian, it's not just the perspective that that gives us on death, but it's also the perspective that it gives us on life. Because there would be one temptation to say, "Well, the easiest way to protect yourself from grief is just not get attached or interested."

Cameron McAllister: Right. Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And there's a standoffish safety that I can save myself the grief if I don't care enough to ever lose. What Christianity allows us to do is not detachment as the way to get rid of suffering, rather it allows us also to push into the fullness and the goodness of, what is Jesus saying? He's the God of the living, not the God of the dead. Where it allows us to embrace the fullness and the richness and the goodness of what is, but also allows us to grapple with the complexities and the evil that death is. So Christianity isn't limited to life or death, it gives us a holistic picture that allows us to delight in the fullness of what is and what was while at the same time having real grief, while at the same time, having real hope for the future and for eternity. So that's a phenomenal, stabilizing and realistic way of grappling with the issues that come up around death and even death of a celebrity.

Cameron McAllister: That's so well put. I think that's a good place to kind of bring this conversation to a conclusion. I've felt a little bit kind of tense discussing it just because of how fresh the story is and just because of how raw the grief is for so many. But I think it's worth discussing, and I think that...I hope that this has been helpful to you as you've listened in. But you have been hanging with us here on Thinking Out Loud, and this is a podcast where we think out loud about current events that are often very tragic, but also Christian hope, which we hope comes across as both powerful, realistic, and really something that can grant us a larger perspective here. So thank you for listening in.

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