Saying Goodbye to Kobe and Gianna
Abdu Murray reflects on the shocking deaths of Kobe Bryant, Bryant’s daughter Gianna, and seven others who perished in a helicopter crash January 26, 2020.
Photo Credit: Fernando Garcia Esteban / Shutterstock.com
With a shocked mind and a gutted heart, I wrote this from more than 30,000 feet above the earth.
I was in flight when I learned that legendary basketball player Kobe Bryant and his vibrant daughter, Gianna, tragically died in a helicopter crash with seven others. Bryant was 41 years old, about six years my junior, and his daughter was 13, the same age as my middle daughter. Gianna wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps—she wanted to play basketball. I loved basketball for years and I, too, share that love with my daughter. I learned of the tragedy by text and it came like a gut punch. Breath left my lungs only momentarily, but the feeling lingered.
From my plane seat, I looked out the oval to my left. Though the portal was small, my vantage point was wide because I see the world from a great height. But what I saw were seemingly endless clouds below; I didn’t know what the earth looked like just below me. In times of such tragedy, we naturally ask, “Why? Why would God let this happen?” Perhaps we even ask through gnashed teeth. Our answer is usually, “I don’t know.” The reasons such tragedies are allowed are as obscured as the land below me. As a believer in God, I trust that God has a plan for this particular suffering (though He didn’t cause it) just as He had a plan when He let his only Son suffer at the cross.
And so, from my airplane seat, instead of looking downward trying to penetrate the clouds, I looked upward at the unobscured sky. The sun was setting and brilliant red bands crossed at the horizon, blending into oranges and yellows, and then into purples and royal blues. It was beautiful, and yet it was common. The sun sets every day.
A Spectacular Career
Kobe Bryant’s life was similar, wasn’t it? It was spectacular, yet it was everyday. There was a time in my life when, if I wasn’t playing basketball, I was watching basketball. I was good enough to play at a high level—I got a scholarship to play Division I ball at the University at Buffalo (it was short-lived, however). Along the way, I rubbed shoulders and traded elbows with players who would go on to become professionals, even All-Stars. The difference between our abilities was indeed chasmic.
Which is why I was so shocked when Kobe went straight to the NBA from high school. “How could he possibly play against seasoned professionals like Michael Jordan without first getting the needed experience of playing college ball?” I thought. You see, I knew what it was like to play against those with much more experience. I thought he was making a huge mistake. Turns out, I was mistaken.
Kobe lit up the NBA with his Jordanesque moves. Watching Kobe was like watching Michael Jordan. He was quick, he could shoot, and he could leap. No, he could take flight. He was a spectacle indeed. Watching him and Michael Jordan face off on the court was electric. Even as Kobe aged, was criticized for attitude issues, and then plagued with injuries, he managed to score 60 points in his final game as a Los Angeles Laker. That’s certainly one way to answer the critics. He eventually surpassed Michael Jordan in the all-time scorers list, only to be passed by another straight-out-of-high-school phenom, LeBron James. In fact, James passed Kobe one day before Kobe’s tragic death.
With Kobe’s death, the public mourns the loss of a public figure, a sports legend. Like all of us, however, we are more than our professions, aren’t we? It has always struck me as odd that news reports tend to describe people by their occupation. We read lines like, “Detroit area plumber saves child from drowning” or “Attorney and mother of two dies in 7-car pile-up.” I realize there are only so many ways to refer to people in the small space of a news article, but it still seems superficial to lead with what one does for a living, doesn’t it? Even with a towering figure like Kobe Bryant, it seems one-dimensional to think of him only as a basketball player, even if he was one of the greatest of all time.
The Spectacularly Ordinary Man Behind the Legend
While the public mourns the loss of a sport idol, his family mourns the loss of a dad, a husband, a son, and a brother. Kobe Bryant did not have value only when he pleased the fans and his value was not lessened when he disappointed them. He was not a better man when he dropped 81 points in a single game, and he was not a lesser man when he missed the game-winning shot. Kobe Bryant has value (yes, present tense) because he was made in God’s image. So was his daughter Gianna, who sojourned just over 13 years in this world—so tragically short. Like the sunset sky I gazed at through my plane window, Kobe’s life was spectacular yet everyday common. He was taking his daughter to her basketball game. How parentally common. Yet he was taking her in a helicopter. How very uncommon.
Let us not forget that there were others on that helicopter who lost their lives as well. In addition to Kobe and his daughter, seven others ended their time in this world, too: Payton Chester, 13; Sarah Chester, 45; Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and the helicopter's pilot, Ara Zobayan, 50.
These names are not as well-known to us, yet they are Kobe Bryant’s equals before the Lord– spectacularly made in God’s image. Their names may be lost in the corona of the Bryant sun, but their names are not lost to the God of Heaven. Not a sparrow falls to the ground that God does not take notice of. Let us continue to pray for their families even as we pray for the Bryants.
Kobe was legendary as a basketball player, yet even he was surpassed—just as he passed Michael Jordan and LeBron James passed by Kobe. The scoring records and championships are marvelous, but they are temporary, aren’t they? Our collective memories of a talent like Kobe will endure longer. They too, however, won’t be as palpable for the next generation as they were for those who got to watch him play. Records are impermanent just as our lives here on earth are. There is a temptation, however, to contrast transitory nature of worldly success with ritualistic or religious life as if the latter were more permanent. Essayist F.W. Boreham points out that everything—including our sacred monuments—are impermanent. There is only one who is everlasting from beginning to end:
“‘Now abideth’ –what? Altars? vestments? crosses? creeds? catechisms? confessions? ‘Now abideth faith, hope, love these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ The moth is in our fairest fabrics, and our holiest temples totter to their fall. ‘And as some spake of the Temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, Jesus said: As for these things which ye behold, the days will come in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be cast down.’ That is significant. It is well to set our affections on the things for which the rubbish-heap can have no terrors.”
Kobe Bryant’s athletic legacy will be long, but it won’t be permanent. Our public grief will last, but it won’t be permanent. The unimaginable pain his family is going through will last, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. It is right and good that we remember Kobe for his astonishing athletic accomplishments. But let us also remember the man. Let us remember his teenage daughter and the passengers who perished along with them. Like the daily sunsets, their ordinariness is just as valuable as their extraordinariness. I don’t pretend to know Kobe’s faith or the faith of the others he faced death with. But what I do know is this: Jesus gave everything he had to secure an eternity for which the rubbish-heap of time can have no terrors.
Kobe’s and Gianna’s deaths, along with those of their fellow passengers, have punched a deep and wide hole into their loved one’s lives. Their wounds are so deep and searing that words fail. But God the Word entered into our pain to eventually heal our wounds without fail. Indeed, for those who have hope in Him, the only wounds that are permanent are those that Jesus bears.
Words cannot bring comfort to the Bryant family. Only God the Word can. Let us all pray for that comfort to come soon.
 F.W. Boreham, The Luggage of Life, “Our Rubbish Heaps”, p. 147.