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The death of a dad

The real tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s passing: his unfinished promise as a father

In this June 17, 2009 file photo, Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant smiles as he and his daughter Gianna Maria-Onore walk up the steps after the victory parade celebrating the Lakers' NBA championship in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Gianna also died in the crash. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)

If the news of Kobe Bryant’s death had arrived on my doorstep at 22 years old, I would’ve written about the incomparable basketball player. Relentless competitor. Fearless champion. Olympian. Hall of Fame legend.

And that would’ve been more than enough for a sports columnist to dissect.

I’m almost 42, though. I have a wife, a son, and – the real contemplation point here – three daughters. Kobe’s four girls were age 17, 13, 3 and seven months. Mine are 10, 7 and 2.

“Were.” It’s going to take some time to get used to speaking about Bryant in past tense like that. Even after having a day to process his tragic and untimely death, it still doesn’t register. Not because Kobe had local ties or Iowa connections. Not because I knew Bryant personally, or grew up as a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, or did anything other than appreciate his skill and admire his will from afar.

This isn’t going to be about Kobe Bryant the hoop star. If you’re looking for a statistical analysis of his legacy or hero worship of his superstardom, there are plenty of articles elsewhere.

I’d rather take the time to reflect on Kobe the proud papa, in a way only other dads of daughters are feeling today.

There is something entirely fulfilling about that bond. That connection. I know the traditional mentality is centered around fathers, sons and sports. And yes, that is absolutely special in its own right. But when you see that look in your little girl’s eyes, or feel the warm embrace of a hug that is small in size yet complete in love – it’s just about all you would ever need in this world.

As such, the feeling goes something like this in return: always protect her. Never let her down. Be there for her unconditionally. Keep her feeling safe and secure.

So while others are trying to comprehend a future without Kobe at Laker games, his Hall of Fame induction ceremony or simply as a basketball torchbearer, all I can picture is his daughter, Gianna, in those final moments with him in that helicopter. He wasn’t able to keep a tragedy from happening. And because of that, he won’t be there for his three other girls anymore when life is at both its best and its worst.

That’s the real story here. Losing an NBA legend at the age of 41 is senseless and difficult to comprehend. But a dad and a daughter losing their life, with a family forced to face a future without their father and sister? Forget the name, or the jersey, or the stare, or the titles. It’s not the death of a basketball celebrity that hurts so much and resonates with so many. It’s the permanent fracture of a man’s world at its most basic, relatable core.

As many of us did Sunday night, I held my daughters extra close before bed – feeling even more mortal and vulnerable than usual. This is the kind of news that reminds us no one is invincible. Life can take a tragic twist without warning. Tomorrow will never be promised.

My oldest daughter seemed especially curious – not about Kobe’s personal records or moments of glory, but rather, the accident itself. She reminded me that seven other people lost their lives in the exact same way. To her, all nine deaths were equally devastating. And in so many basic ways, she is exactly right. The coverage and attention understandably won’t be equal, but the grief in those families and communities will be every bit as raw and irreversible.

I just thankfully kissed her forehead goodnight after hearing her perspective, knowing that – like her two younger sisters – she still views our world without bias or hate or cynicism. I’m eternally grateful I still get to see that in her, and that she is able to share it with me. Kobe’s surviving daughters won’t anymore. That thought takes my breath away.

We’ll always have memories of Kobe Bryant the basketball player: old footage, countless stories, fond recollections. At the very least, grieving fans will take solace in knowing they witnessed it all in real time, and he accomplished enough to keep his legacy alive forever. His story as an athlete was written and published.

As a husband and a father, though, Kobe Bryant was just getting started. So now, the picture will always be incomplete. We’ll never know of the places he may have gone or how he would have grown into old age, smiling next to Gianna all the while.

That’s why I mourn his death today: simply as one father to another. It hits home and feels personal for reasons that transcend basketball. His game gave us so much to remember. But away from the arena, Kobe Bryant is now a sad reminder of life’s vulnerability in ways we wish we could – but never should – forget.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports

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