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What Kobe Bryant meant

Ellen McGirt

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Today is a day of complex grief for many, many people.

Five-time NBA champion and four-time All-Star MVP Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old-daughter Gianna, were among nine people who died when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed in the hills near Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday morning.

He leaves behind his wife Vanessa, and their three daughters.

At press time, six victims had been identified. Orange Coast College confirmed that their baseball coach, John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and their daughter Alyssa, were on board. Also on board was Christina Mauser, a girls assistant basketball coach who leaves behind a husband and three young children.

Gianna, known as Gigi, was a rising basketball star, poised to follow her father’s example and determined to play for the UConn Huskies one day. (Here’s a wonderful tribute to her from Slate, if you can handle it.) Bryant may have been a thrilling athlete and a mogul well in the making, but he died a devoted father, taking his kid and her friends to a basketball event.

And because it was Kobe, it feels like a personal loss.

The outpouring of grief spilled into the Grammy coverage and Sunday’s NBA games. The Spurs and Raptors used the language of basketball for their tribute; each team took a voluntary 24-second shot clock violation—a slow dribbled count-down to highlight the number 24, which Bryant wore on his Laker jersey until he retired in 2016.

Twitter became an instant and ongoing funeral, an outpouring of love and support.

Grief for a public figure is particularly complicated. It’s losing a stranger we feel like we know, our friend not only in our heads, but in our hearts, too.

When they die, we miss them because they’ve become part of our lives and identities. It’s normal to grieve. “Fans mourn not only the loss of the celebrity, but other aspects of their personal life which have become bound-up with the celebrity,” says Michael Brennan, a sociologist at Liverpool Hope University, and quoted by Quartz, in this helpful piece. Athletes, in particular, give us a reason to feel proud of our cities, exhilarating memories of victory, friendship, and fun, and a metaphor for hard work and excellence.

They vanquish. They dominate. They dig deep. They WIN. And through them, so do we.

And Kobe had super fans, even among people who didn’t follow basketball. He was poised for an astonishing second act as a designer-collaborator, venture capitalist, storyteller and producer, philanthropist, and advocate. He had become a role model of a different type, a symbol of outsized Black achievement at a time when it still feels necessary to claim credentials like his for the community.

But for some, his legacy is more painful. Like many male celebrities who have been credibly accused of sexual assault, he’d become emblematic of a culture that values male success above all else. It’s difficult to find ways to talk about this part of Bryant’s history without considering the overlapping universes of wealth, fame, entertainment, sports, media, capitalism, sex, and all the things that inspire us to ride or die for strangers we feel like we know.

It’s reasonable to expect that in real life and online, lots of different kinds (and perhaps conflicting) grief will be present, held by people filled with shock, sadness, anger, and a bunch of other emotions that may be hard to name.

So, my best advice, which I lean on often, comes from my dear friend David Kyuman Kim, an author and professor of religion, race, and American studies. He has become a raceAhead treasure.

Being able to survive an encounter with someone else’s grief—or anything else about their lived experiences—requires being willing to make room for them, even if you don’t fully understand. It’s a basic building block of an inclusive culture, whether inside a corporation or simply in your life. “What does it mean to be in solidarity?” asks Kim. “It means I’m standing with you because I care about you in abstraction. I care about your well-being, including the threats to your humanity.”

The specific conversations that come next are the really scary part, of course.

“Start with the language of love and mercy,” he says. “That’s where you’ll find courage.”

Ellen McGirt