On the way to a youth basketball tournament, Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others died when their helicopter crashed into a hillside outside of LA. Kobe’s death was an intensely personal experience to his family and millions of fans around the world coping with the loss of a true sports legend. When this level of celebrity dies, there is a global, complex grief experience that can best be explained and understood by our need for connection. We were created for connection and designed to be attached to God and to one another (Mk. 12:30-31). Whether a casual observer or a diehard fan, Kobe’s life bound people to him through a spectrum of shared emotional experiences. For example, Lakers fans felt exhilarated each time Kobe led them to one of their five NBA championships. Conversely, these same fans experience profound communal sadness whenever their team lost on the court. Everything Kobe did, both on and off the court—emotionally, intellectually, financially, and socially—affected and touched those he knew and those who “knew” him. Sharing communal emotional experiences with others is how God binds us together in life and in death.
Devastating and intense emotions surrounding celebrity deaths create a unique ‘‘community of mourning” within and among cultures. In the case of Kobe, his followers journeyed to Staples Center and created a shrine populated by an overflow of ﬂowers, cards, and fan-specific memorabilia in a public display of community mourning. This pilgrimage allowed strangers to bond together through their shared devotion to a man most of them never knew personally. What they all held in common was a powerful emotional connection with their sports celebrity – someone they believed in, trusted, and admired because of who he was. Kobe is inarguably one of the best basketball players of all time. His amazing abilities elevated him to superstar status. His Spartan talent caused simple sports fans to morph into idol worshipers of a man so disciplined he would shoot a thousand baskets each day of his two-decade career. No wonder he was the all-time leading scorer in the Lakers franchise history.
There is a massive sense of loss when celebrities like Kobe, not yet halfway through life, are torn from family, friends, and fans. For so many, he was a hero, an inspiration, and a symbol of strength, perseverance and hope. As Kobe prepared for retirement, he wrote a poem entitled “Dear Basketball” expressing his love for the game and his sadness at stepping off the court. In the same way, Kobe’s death brings up a similar emotional experience for others – whether the relationship is personal or from a distance. Grieving Kobe is not only a measure of loss, but a measure of love, respect and hope. Honoring our grief honors these things as well. Pushing past it, minimizing it, or explaining it away only invalidates our grief and our tie to that God-created part of our shared human experience. “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).