It was August 1978. Pete Rose’s 44-game hit streak came to an end at the hands of the Atlanta Braves. Three Americans completed the first successful crossing of the Atlantic by balloon. And a crazy little film named Animal House was enjoying its first month in theaters across the country. While Bluto gave life to the Deltas with his speech about the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor, two babies dive bombed into this life, destined for distinctly different paths.
Kobe Bryant and I entered the same world five days apart, but in many ways we entered different worlds.
Kobe was an African-American kid born into the hustle and bustle of the Philly suburbs. I was a white kid born into the quiet landscape of rural Iowa.
Kobe got his name from the famous Japanese beef. I got my name from a tombstone (no, really – my parents walked through cemeteries to brainstorm ideas for my name).
Kobe grew tall and became a stud player for his high school basketball team. I pretty much stayed the same height and became a stud member of my high school’s quiz bowl team.
Kobe went to the NBA, where he made millions of dollars and gained world-wide fame at the expense of constantly being under public scrutiny. I went to college, where I made lifelong friends and gained a better understanding of myself at the expense of some student loans that I paid off within a couple years.
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t the biggest Kobe Bryant fan during his playing days. I remember being highly critical of him during his sexual assault case in 2003. I had a newspaper opinion column at the time and I went so far as to draw and publish this editorial cartoon:
I remember thinking that even if he really didn’t rape a woman, he still cheated on his wife, and that was terrible, too. But I want you to know that I’m not re-publishing this cartoon to re-condemn Kobe, but to call myself out for how I’ve viewed other people in the past. While I still believe rape and adultery are regrettable actions, I’ve also come to realize that my condemnation of Kobe Bryant was also regrettable (albeit on a considerably less dangerous level than rape or adultery).
Kobe was almost 25 years old when he committed adultery and possibly rape, and I was almost 25 when I publicly blasted him. I’d like to think we both matured in our own ways after the summer of 2003. Kobe settled down and fathered four daughters with his wife Vanessa. And over time, I started taking a different approach to my writing style. Instead of roughly criticizing people for their misdeeds, I discovered that my words held more value if others could relate to them. Humor, family history, and travel replaced bitter snarkery and scorn as my topics of choice.
As I learned about Kobe’s death in a helicopter crash yesterday, I had two immediate thoughts I’d like to share with you.
First, I reiterated to myself that people can evolve. Kobe the 25-year-old and Kobe the 41-year-old were not the same person. He moved past his transgressions, became a family man, and built his brand. If we all lugged around a public judgment of who we were at 25, most of us would be too embarrassed to leave the house.
Second, it’s always a kick to the nuts when someone your age passes away. I felt my heart drop to my knees when I discovered that Kobe was born just five days after me. It slams home the stark reality that life is short and so much is out of our control. You can be one of the wealthiest, most athletic, most accomplished, and most celebrated people in the world, and death will still take you whether you like it or not.
I haven’t spoken about this publicly, but I am in the midst of a heavy existential crisis in my life. I’m struggling to define my purpose, my value, my beliefs, my focus, my ambition, my creativity, my productivity, and my health. I’m wrestling with the thought of my own mortality and what I must do to ensure that I’m not just some forgotten name on a tombstone 200 years from now.
Up until yesterday’s helicopter crash, Kobe Bryant was one of the lucky ones. He earned his place in history simply by picking up a basketball and becoming one of the best to ever shoot it through a hoop. We can talk all we want about the kind-hearted things he did off the court, including the charity he and his wife created to help families in need. But if he had never picked up a basketball, the name Kobe Bryant might very well be lost to history. He was fortunate enough to use his talent as a gateway to make a positive impact in this world.
When it comes to leaving a legacy, the rest of us don’t have it so easy. We give and give and give to this world, but we don’t earn millions for it, and we certainly don’t have a hall of fame where we’ll someday be forever immortalized. Hell, for those of us who aren’t teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses, or soldiers, we don’t even have a day where we’re celebrated for our contributions to society.
Kobe’s death reiterated something for me: time is fleeting and I must give this life everything I’ve got. I refuse to make excuses. I refuse to accumulate any more regrets, because I’ve already got enough of those. I refuse to let my progress be delayed by people who are still comfortable with making excuses for their own behavior. I’ve spent so much time babysitting others that I’ve lost sight of my own well-being. Although so much of life is out of my control, I alone am responsible for my legacy.
Kobe Bryant knew what his talents were. He knew his strengths. He knew how he could best contribute to society. Just imagine how phenomenal this world would be if more of us could figure that out, too.