Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter accident at 41. Since then, numerous outpourings of support and tribute have been offered to the former NBA superstar.
One of the greatest basketball players in the history of the sport, it makes sense, as the news of his death was as shocking as his impact on the NBA.
For every tribute post about the perished talent, there’s been varying degrees of whitewashing done, or insanely small — often below anecdotal — footnotes inserted about his entire Colorado incident.
Some names, locations and dates changed to protect privacy.
Heading into my junior year of high school, I transferred to another school after my parents’ divorce. It was actually the rival school to the one I attended for the majority of my life, putting me in a weird spot of being the new kid from THAT school.
My native town is hard to describe. It’s small. The class — had I finished my high school tenure there — graduated under 80 people. As for the hamlet itself, people outside it view her in stereotypical ways.
Growing up, it was somewhat segregated, but not in the traditional sense. A town mostly made up of people with Italian backgrounds, there was a section dedicated to the Polish nicknamed the Polish Alps; an area for Irish descendants with a NSFW nickname; a few other spots with similar NSFW names; with the rest of the area being dominated by people who had grandparents come to the states from Naples or various other villages in Italy.
It’s a close community in the weirdest of ways. The town reaches national news, consistently, for all the wrong reasons, and many of the things I viewed as simply a rite of passage in my youth would likely be considered atrocities by outsiders.
Words might be what I’ve done for a living, but unless you grew up in that town, it’s difficult to summarize what it was (and mostly still is). It was good, bad and everything in the middle. It also fostered an atmosphere in which you had no choice but to care for someone else your age, no matter how close you sincerely were, as there wasn’t enough of us to be choosy with who ultimately ended up being emotionally invested in.
It Was A Saturday Morning
At the time, a few weeks into my new school, I was living with my grandparents in a neighboring town to the one mentioned above. This town, while also small, didn’t have the same feel to it.
Not for me at least. I was 15 (or 16?) and I didn’t grow up there. All the moments and conversations shared with people my age, no matter how unimportant, happened with other people in a different town. As I get older, those moments shared feel much bigger. Maybe I romanticize them in my head. It could just be naivety; a blind belief things were better for me when I was a child. Nevertheless, there’s an emotional connection I’ll likely forever have for that town and its people.
My grandfather woke me up at an ungodly early hour to tell me some people were there to see me. It was two girls from my former school; an ex-girlfriend and a lifelong friend. I had zero real reaction when he told me they were down in the den to see me, as I didn’t speak with either since I transferred schools and assumed they were there to just catch up… even if it was before most people were awake from breakfast.
Without a care in the world, I made my way down to my house’s lowest level, eventually met by the two girls. The moment I saw them, I knew something was wrong.
“Tracy died last night.”
Tracy was a girl from our class. One of the smartest people in the entire school, in all the gifted classes, and someone I could (at best) say I shared a few moments with. No breathtaking friendship or real connection outside some parcel moments of closeness shared, mostly because the town gave you no other option.
Nevertheless, when you’re 10 or 11, while insignificant in the grand scheme of things, those conversations about whatever you believed to be of great importance felt as such at the time, leaving an impact on whatever bond you might create.
This news came less than a year after two other kids from my old school passed. One girl drowned in a local dam. She was a few years older than me. The other girl, let’s call her Sarah, she used to be on the same bus stop as me and we were close from ages 12-14 or so.
Asking my two friends “how” Tracy died was the only thing that popped in my head. I was told she was in a car accident with her boyfriend (he was a few years older than us. He also died in the accident). That’s nearly the same way my friend from the bus stop died; though her accident was caused by someone else’s mischief.
Most girls in my class dated up a year or two (or sometimes three). It wasn’t abnormal. In fact, it was rarer for anyone in our class to date within it. Everyone would date up or down a few years. The unfamiliar, as unique as it was in that small town, was far more attractive than the same 77 (or so) people jammed in your face year after year since you were six.
My friend from the bus, Sarah, she was a legitimate victim. The time of her death implies nefarious actions were had by all parties involved, but it was just a kid who stole his parents’ car for a ride. While being outside her house, near a main road, my friend was hit by a car driven by a 13-year-old.
I can’t tell you what happened to the 13-year-old who went on a joyride or who he was. In my most depressing moments, along with friends lost along the way, I think about him — has he been able to live with it… does he even care?
I cared. I cared about her death and Tracy’s. I didn’t show it at the time in a real way, as I was most certainly still figuring out my own emotional state at the time, so I was mostly filled with anger and confusion — and moved on.
Regardless, my two friends from my hometown were too young to be anything other than good people. A life gone before high school is even over isn’t one lived long enough to do bad deeds. Maybe the same applies to the kid who involuntarily killed my bus stop friend.
It Doesn’t Stop Just Because It’s After
As it is with everyone else’s life, you move on. Life is life. You grow up. People drift apart, folk move to other areas, and adult issues happen at such a rapid pace one doesn’t have time to concern themselves with much of anything outside their direct purview.
But that town, it has a force like gravity, pulling you back toward it.
In my early twenties, if we were being as polite as possible about it, I lived life in a less than ideal way. Everything I did was over-the-top. If there was a full box of pizza, I’d eat all of it (if you know what I mean). A lack of self-control, a real struggle for me, was evident; though I only recently cared to control it.
During my less than altruistic voyages, I ran into a girl from my hometown. Same graduating grade. She was similar to me in that she didn’t view life as some marathon. It was today and only today… repercussions be damned.
We dated for a bit. That is likely too strong a word for the relationship we truly had, but intimate moments were shared over a decent amount of time. Ultimately, I can’t even tell you why we stopped seeing each other at weird hours of the night; although my best guess is our relationship hindered both of our desires outside of it.
Years later, I faced a repercussion for the life I once lived. In the hospital at my doctor’s request for some tests, I ran into the best friend of the girl mentioned above. For the sake of keeping it simple, let’s call her Amanda. She tells me Amanda has moved to Connecticut to try to get her life together. She was trying to change people, places and things.
This gave me comfort. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert, sometimes a loner by nature, and never really got crazy close to anyone before. Still, I’ve always wanted what is best for those within my purview; Amanda included.
Not even six months after seeing her friend at the hospital, the local paper’s obituary has Amanda’s name in it. She died going the wrong way on a highway, presumably still haunted by the same demons she had when we were dating.
At this point in my life, I was married. My life was somewhat pulled together. I had a child of my own and demons that needed swatting away. I read the words in her obituary in a way — in hindsight — that was cold. Like Tracy’s death, I was confused and angry, but sadness didn’t immediately hit me.
Life Wasn’t Done Dealing My Hometown Loss
Mark was just a good dude. Another kid from my hometown in my class, we played freshmen football together. He was that dude on your team who wasn’t overly anything. Not a great athlete or big or anything else that would help him earn a spot playing regularly.
He did, however, have a motor on him. Mark treated practice in a way few others would. After sessions over the warm months, when the season hit, our coach (the uncle of Sarah, oddly enough), only wanted us to go at 70 percent. Mark didn’t care to uphold to that 70 percent workload — he was trying to earn snaps for games.
As it is with many small towns, I was considered large for my age, even though I was a whopping 5-foot-10, 150-pounds as a freshman. Mark was a few inches shorter and a solid 20 pounds lighter. Like him, though, I wasn’t otherwise overly anything special. It was my work ethic that made me whatever I was to the team.
We played the same two positions. The only thing that made me the starter over him was the fact I was bigger. Genetics. That’s it.
In practice, when first-team offense was getting its reps, Mark would be opposite of me on the second team. The same applied when first-team defense was up; Mark was there to try to show the head coach he picked the wrong guy to be the starter.
At first it was annoying. I can remember asking Mark to calm down during practice. After all, everyone else around us was going at a far less competitive pace, and here we were, going through each practice snap as if it were the Super Bowl.
Over time, though, I came to appreciate it. Mark explained the truth to me. That he knew the only way he’d ever get any playing time was to show me (or others) up in practice. He even put it in terms he knew I’d most appreciate (playing to my own ego), suggesting I needed this extra push, too, since I wasn’t a remarkable football player.
This advice shaped my entire athletic journey. It’s a truly humble journey — an OK sized fish in a tiny pond — but Mark’s work ethic was contagious.
So that’s what we did. With everyone else going at 70 percent, Mark and I treated each practice snap as if the world depended on it… and I didn’t even like football that much.
I did like Mark, though.
It’s a trope for sure, but there was a bond created in those moments between us. It’s not digging coal together or anything crazy, but when you’ve barely gone through puberty and the biggest thing in your life is being good at sports, friendships will be formed even if you realize years later the stakes were so much lower than you thought at the time.
When I transferred over to the rival school, I can’t tell you much about what Mark did after. Years and years went by, close to a decade maybe, before I’d see him again as an adult.
We ran into each other at a place better left unsaid, but we talked as if we saw each other every single day. It’s that hometown pull. That atmosphere it forced on us. I could go without seeing any of my childhood friends for decades, then immediately pick up right where we left off (for better or worse).
I get that it sounds dumb, but there’s a group of people from that town who I have legitimately not spoken to in close to two decades, but if one of them called to say they needed help, I’d do it (within reason).
Mark and I talk about our lives. I tell him I’m married and have children (I’m at two daughters at this point). He tells me about his work, introduces me to his girlfriend, and we do the typical “Let’s keep in touch,” swapping numbers in the process.
It was the last time I would ever speak to him.
I struggle with the concept of time, but somewhere within the next year or so, Mark’s obituary was in the paper, written in a way that was jarring. His family wanted it known how Mark died. Not to diminish Mark’s life, but to help others who were going through the same battles he went through. A cautionary tale, was their idea, I presume.
Regardless, it was sincerely shocking, as most obituaries, no matter how someone dies, reads as a celebration of that person’s life. Mark’s obituary was a warning.
Now older, this one hit me in a slightly different way. There was still the confusion and anger, but actual sadness finally hit me in real-time. It didn’t take years after the fact for it to do so like my other friends’ did.
Life Isn’t Funny At All
Two years ago, my hometown was in the national headlines once again. A local businessman was gone missing. He happened to be one of my father’s best friends, someone I would also eventually become close with.
When I was a kid — like a legitimate child, maybe six or so — my father, myself, Tim and Tim’s son would often go to Happy Valley to watch Penn State play football. Some of my favorite memories are from those trips — mostly due to the fact it was the first instances of seeing my father in ways other than just being my dad. He was a dude. A guy. A sometimes flawed person, with his sometimes flawed friend, taking their sons to experience something they thought could be special.
One of my favorite stories from these trips (I think we did 12 of them over three years) was my father and Tim buying tickets for a huge game. A cop was right in front of the scalper as the transaction was made, too. To get around it, my father and Tim bought the guy’s autograph, receiving the tickets as a “free” bonus in the process.
Literally, this dude scribbled his name on a piece of napkin, my father and Tim gave him money for it, then after the napkin passed hands, the tickets followed. The cop saw it all go down. Because the adults didn’t technically buy the tickets, but an autograph, he just kinda smiled at us, nodded his head in a weird way of disapproval, but let the entire thing go through without a hitch.
I’ll never forget the call, though.
I now lived a solid 15 minutes away from my hometown. That’s not actually that far a way, but locally, it is considered a lifetime removed.
My phone rings and it’s my father. Tim is missing. He didn’t have any information other than what the local news was already saying. Something bad appeared to happen at his place of business, with blood found inside, but Tim was nowhere to be found.
The first few days after were a whirlwind. There was still hope Tim would be found, but rumors — the unsubstantiated kind — were already being hurled all over Facebook and the comment section of the local news affiliate’s website.
Some accused Tim’s son of doing something bad, but only because he had known demons at the time. It was a causation equates to correlation deal, if working from the answer of the theory first, then working your way backward to connect the dots. It sucks.
As mentioned earlier, because of the town’s reputation, there were also whispers of gambling debts or mob issues or a bunch of other shit you’d see in some cliche-heavy movie about Italians.
Tim was none of those things. He was years into sobriety and a true pillar of the community.
Like everyone else when dealing with loss, or the idea of it, I could only view Tim through my own lens. Naturally, the rumors bothered me, but so did many’s inability to discuss how great of a guy he is.
It’s hard to explain how good Tim was to me. I cared about that man so much, knowing he cared for me. I took my future wife on our first date to his restaurant. I knew Tim would help make me look good… cool, even. He did do just that, of course.
He’s also a bit like me. Maybe he was closer to more people than I know, but he always kept himself at a distance; though it would never stop him from bending over backward to make sure people in his direct purview were OK. We share that quality.
I can’t count the number of times I received a call from Tim to get “updates” on things he felt I should know about. Despite no longer living in my hometown, not even visiting all that often, there was still a connection I had with him, his son and my father through all our experiences together.
There’s definitely more to it than that, but I’m not here to air my own laundry or those around me. But through Tim, and mostly Tim alone, even when things turned sideways for us around him, we rallied whenever we were all in his presence. He is special like that.
Is/ was is the issue, sadly.
It’s been about two years and Tim is yet to be found. You can drive through my hometown and still see billboards of his face put up, asking for those with information about his disappearance to call some number. It’s, apparently, been a long time since anyone’s used the numbers on the billboard.
Tim being gone is still a pretty big deal locally, but the national media went away rather quickly, and the search teams once looking for him on a daily basis are gone.
The rumors have not. Here and there, you will still find someone cooking up a conspiracy theory about what truly happened to Tim. For most of us, we’ve resigned ourselves to the idea he’s dead. That one day he’ll be found in the woods somewhere, resulting in more questions than answers.
Now a fully functioning adult, I check the local news every single morning to see if there’s been any updates. There hasn’t been any in a very long time. Here and there, though, the news will write about a body being found somewhere, then I find myself half-rooting for it to be him so Tim’s family has closure (and the gossip stops), with the other half still blindly holding out hope Tim is out there OK.
I Am Old Now
I’ve faced my own mortality a few times. Some of it my own doing, one time just a random accident. I wish I could tell you one of those times resulted in some “I see the light!” moment. At best, it’s resulted in a brief change in how I view life. Historically, I usually revert back to old, shit form.
That said, when you operate each day knowing that you maybe shouldn’t be here, it forces you to reflect sometimes. Now 36, when alone, I probably reflect too often. I think about my friends lost, Tim and even the 13-year-old kid.
Recently, I googled Tracy because I forgot what she looked like. I don’t know if this happens to other people, but it does to me. The grandparents I lived with are both dead now as well. Sometimes I forget what they look like when I’m trying to conjure images of them in my head. In turn, I’ll find pictures of them to remind me. For Tracy, I had no pictures, so I turned to Google.
A stunning thing happened when I did this. It turns out her immediate family is riddled with tragedy. She had a brother who died after her, and a mother who also died young, and the same goes for the father. No one in that family made it beyond 55, with the two children gone before they were 20.
Some of my friends lost were truly victims. Depending on who you talk to, some will argue the others should have gotten help (inferring it was that person’s fault he died); and/or something truly bad happened in a way suggesting the person who passed had it coming.
There’s actually others from my hometown (my graduating class, a few years up and down) who have died that I never mentioned here. Far too many for such a small town, to be blunt. For all those people, regardless of their life lived, due to the moments we shared together — ranging from brief but intimate encounters to lifelong friendships — I miss them for the good people that they were.
It’s black and white to me. There’s no areas in need of shading. Maybe some of them were also these other imperfect beings, but to me, each meant something special to me in their own unique way.
Without them, there’s no me… even if I’m decidedly less deserving to be here and more flawed than any of them were.
On Kobe Bryant
That was a long walk to get to the whitewashing of Kobe Bryant.
I never spoke to or met him. Obviously, many people have, and most of them speak about him in the terms we’ve grown accustomed to when someone with a certain status passes.
But maybe it’s more to them than that. That, sure, Kobe had other things that should be mentioned when writing about his life and death, but much like how I’ve come to view those I lost, it doesn’t really matter.
The larger picture, of course, does. Many of my friends were literally kids when they passed, or young adults when addiction gripped them, or just the wild unknown. But they never represented something to a larger group of people more than they did the small number of humans they directly touched. No one is walking around today wearing a Tracy jersey to celebrate her life. I don’t know how many people think about her at all… and that terrifies and saddens me.
Fans will blindly do that with Kobe, swatting away those who want to at least mention everything that happened in Colorado, including Bryant’s admission that while he believed the encounter to be consensual, it was clear the woman did not.
Friends, ex-teammates, even media close to him, will do similar things, especially if they shared those kind of moments I mentioned before. These moments that don’t always feel big whenever they happen, but grow in importance for whatever reason as time goes on.
I don’t know what to feel or say about much of any of this. I grew up a Lakes fan, but never got emotionally invested in Kobe Bryant (I was an Eddie Jones guy, blaming Kobe for Eddie leaving as a fanboy).
I’d love to say I get it. That I get the outpouring of support and the whitewashing by some, then the opposite of it as well. But I don’t. Sometimes I think do, but more often than not, I fail to recognize the emotion(s) that’s meant to be swirling in my head.
For the moment, it’s just confusion and general shock. Much like when I was still in high school and my friends passed away far too young. Maybe, as it was with them, over time I will find some semblance about how I’m supposed to feel about Kobe Bryant — in life and in death.
Until then, I’ll miss my friends. All of them. They touched me in a very real way a famous person, flawed or not, ever will.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. He is responsible for the debacle that is Column Of Enchantment. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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Writer’s note: This was written for my newsletter a few days after the incident, but as we kick the tires on a few things, we decided to also post here.