So much has been swirling around and through the Kobe Bryant tragedy.

The sheer awfulness of it for families and friends of all nine victims.

The veritable religious shrines and assembled crowds and profound eulogies lamenting Bryant’s passing in particular.

The careful inclusion by more sensitive and attuned observers of the eight other victims, whose lives were also lost, in an equal, if not more awful sense, especially given that three of them were mere teenagers, their whole lives still ahead of them, snuffed before so much more experience of joy and discovery—and even sorrows—could inject themselves into the lives that they were still forming.

The deep communal grief so freely expressed by those who knew him (and those who didn’t, but in this era of mass, ubiquitous, unrelenting media, thought they surely did).

Teammates, opponents, executives, coaches, grown men all, weeping in this era of the sensitized male, even the manly athletic ones, lamenting their lost brother.

The inevitable pointing by some to past transgressions, a rape allegation among them, meant to temper the excesses of worship and lionization, but experienced as arrows aimed at grieving hearts.

The shaming and venom directed at those who dared to do so, at such an already painful time.

All of this amidst a national rage of impeachment, another viral epidemic not of the digital kind, fires sweeping continents, the first electoral choices of a momentous presidential campaign, and even closer up ahead…the national holiday known as the Super Bowl, perhaps the perfect salve of distraction and consolation after a weeklong giving to grief that far exceeded the normal attention span allotted to such things.



I’ve written previously about sports as religion, and that is certainly what most struck me with video footage of the Lakers’ home arena in the first game back there, five days after Bryant’s death in the helicopter crash he had arranged to take his daughter, her two teammates, three parents, the team’s coach, and the pilot to the girls’ game a week ago Sunday morning.

The photo above shows the shrine that fans constructed outside the arena in the days after his death, and it is a sight to behold.

Balloons, banners and signs, fresh flower bouquets by the hundreds, stuffed animals, jerseys, scrawled notes and cards, scores of basketballs and renditions of Bryant’s uniform number —24. And much more.

We want so badly to celebrate, to be moved, to have our hearts gladdened, inspired, called upon, shredded, turned toward something dramatic, world-shaking and good.

From the looks of the pile, probably thousands of people had carefully selected items they wanted to leave in honor of their hero, spending their time and money and then traveling to downtown Los Angeles to deposit their tribute. No one does this who is not passionately moved, at a soul level, to express his or her love, devotion and grief in a grand public setting. The beloved community of believers.

Undeniably, sports has risen in importance in the world more or less in concert with the continuing decline in organized religion, and though sports did not cause that decline, it is most certainly benefitting from it.

And, more importantly, often serving as a substitute for it.

Sunday tailgate parties undoubtedly give churches a good run for their attendance (not to mention money) in pro football towns, and when it comes to college and high school football, entire cities and states about close down for their Saturdays in the sun or under Friday Night Lights.

And college basketball’s March Madness—how many collective hours do you reckon people spend poring over season stats in sizing up their team’s chances on the way to a betting pool and then either the game or a loud party in front of a huge TV? More time, I am going to guess, than they do going through their Bibles or reading about the lives of the saints.

We want so badly to celebrate, to be moved, to have our hearts gladdened, inspired, called upon, shredded, turned toward something dramatic, world-shaking and good. Given the power of modern media—its imagery, immediacy, music, high production values and saturation coverage that bleeds into nearly every portion and moment of our lives—can old stories from bygone times, in almost unimaginable settings wholly devoid of the modern, serve to sustain our attention and change our ways?

Or is that accomplished with greater efficacy and emotion by your team making the Super Bowl, or your favorite player sinking the game winning shot, or spiraling to his death on a foggy hillside?



In the midst of it all, the impeachment trial and almost certain acquittal of our president. An article from yesterday’s “Washington Post” on the Republican senators’ trial deliberations included this foreboding passage:

“Democrats heavily pressured vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection this fall, driving a message declaring any trial without witnesses would be a ‘coverup.’ But GOP senators and aides were confident that voters were paying little attention based on a survey conducted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official campaign arm of Senate Republicans.”

Voters paying “little attention.” I have no doubt this is true. Consider: A 2018 Johns Hopkins University study indicated that one out of three Americans could not name their state’s governor, and four out of five could not name their state legislator.

Perhaps even more troubling, a 2015 poll of millennials aged 18-34 indicated that 77% of them could not name either of their U.S. senators.

Would it be better if only those 23% who knew one of their senators actually voted? Or would the higher turnout that we do have (an estimated 55% in the 2016 elections) suggest something even more portentous for our democracy: that citizens by the millions are walking into the voting booth not even knowing the names of the senatorial candidates they will be deciding on?

These are difficult questions. What we do know for sure is that political strategists and ad creators depend on such ignorance and disengagement to make not only misleading and absurd claims, but also to utter blatant lies, repeatedly, shamelessly, without fear of consequence. (As of January 20, a certain president had made 16,241 documented “false or misleading” claims since taking office three years ago.)

The flip side of all this: Millions of sports fans’ exhaustive knowledge of games, players, standings, stats, schedules and sports history. Their nearly inexhaustible investments of time, money, and ardor. Some of that time, some—not much—of that money, and on occasions like yesterday’s Super Bowl with my former Bay Area team in it, some of that ardor, is mine. (Though even the ardor lasts only till the final whistle, when I stride back out into the night with nary a care to resume all the rest of life, wholly uninterested in listening to the somber tones of interviewers approaching the grief-wracked losing coach for a few words of consolation.)

I have played and observed sports all my life, and I follow along just enough to enjoy the proverbial water cooler or locker room banter that underlies so much surface-level conversation in daily life. My father was an athlete, and my brother and I followed, to our great pleasure and reward.

But something is clearly amiss when more than 62 million people vote for an all-too-obvious conman for president, most all of whom will do so again this year; when shrines and grief for a basketball player, however accomplished, exceed by quantum dimensions those for presidents and judges, scientists or generals; and, implausibly, it would seem, when none of three contestants on “Jeopardy” a couple of weeks ago (one of them an English professor), could identify the photo of a rather prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Fellow by the name of Adam Schiff.

I fear for a country where these things are the current reality. Perhaps it has always been thus?

Perhaps it has. And perhaps it has always been a bad sign.


The death of Kobe Bryant and the eight others on his flight—his daughter Gianna Bryant; baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri Altobelli, and their basketball-playing daughter Alyssa Altobelli; mother and daughter Sarah Chester and Payton Chester; Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan (it felt important to list their names)—is a tragedy of the first order.

Where, however, it now joins literally countless other such tragedies of lives cut short by accident, war, natural disaster, mortal illness, or the privations visited upon innocents by parents ill-equipped to provide for their own.

“Not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge,” says the Book of Matthew. That sense of equality in tragedy of all human beings, and, indeed, of “all of God’s creatures (and) their place in the choir,” to quote Celtic Thunder, feels more comforting to me than does the monumental outrush of grief and observance that accompanies the death of a sports figure, movie star, or other celebrity.

That celebrityhood, in a technological media age that simply didn’t exist until just a few blinks of human history ago, serves to distort or put a strange overlay atop deaths that make them into something more colossal and overwhelming than they are. Because what they are, in the final analysis, is the simple plummeting of more sparrows to the ground as all sparrows are wont to do, at the time and place fate has determined for them.



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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Bryant in uniform by 陳 克弦 (Ellery Chen)

Shrine photo by Getty images

Grief art by Leonorah Beverly, Germany,

8 comments to On the Death of Kobe Bryant (and Eight Other People)

  • Robby Miller  says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. I wondered if I was the only one questioning the meaning of the outpouring of grief. Full disclosure: Though I knew the name, I wasn’t entirely sure who he was. I now understand him to be someone very talented at bouncing a ball and putting it through a hoop. More importantly, it seems he was a great dad and a loving husband. Like you, the bigger tragedy, for me, was the loss of the young lives.

  • Al  says:

    Great blog, Andrew, with much food for thought. I’m ashamed to say that Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, Diane Feinstein and Jared Huffman don’t inspire me nearly as much as George Kittle. It occurs to me, now that my 49er team has lost, my Warriors are pathetic and my SF Giants hold little promise for the coming baseball season, I am left with the only team that now matters to me, the US Democrats. Yes we are in need of inspiration, so we can “celebrate, be moved, have our hearts gladdened, inspired, called upon, shredded, turned toward something dramatic, world-shaking and good”. The last time my US Democrat Team inspired me was after the first presidential election of President Obama, when I felt that our entire country won the Super Bowl. Most of us remember where we were that election night.

    Perhaps this is why political moderates have all but disappeared. We crave the dramatic. If Bernie is nominated, look forward to a dramatic election and an historic turnout.

    Unfortunately, drama has become a national obsession. One of my favorite columns in “The Week” used to be the one entitled ”Boring But Important”. It was there that I read about the Supreme Court upholding Citizens United.

    It’s clear to me that we (myself included) have lost patience with anything that falls short of the dramatic.

    The impeachment and acquittal of Trump calls to mind another sports/politics analogy. The Houston Astros were caught cheating during the World Series thanks to a whistleblower and suffered repercussions, though not as severe as some would like. Trump was caught cheating in his attempt to win re-election and will suffer no repercussions unless he is voted out of office.

    The obvious remedy: each political party must field their own basketball team. Each party will nominate their President in the same way as now. The winning team will win the election for their nominee. Adam Silver will replace the Supreme Court. When a basketball player of Kobe Bryant’s stature dies, he will lie in state in Washington DC. When a President cheats, Adam Silver will administer an appropriate fine and suspension.


  • Jay Helman  says:

    I too am a lifelong athlete and ardent observer of sports. Though shocked and saddened by news of the helicopter accident claiming the lives of Kobe and the others, I confess to being much more traumatized by the refusal of Senate Republicans to so much as agree to hearing witnesses in the impeachment trial. There are and will be many athletes to rival the accomplishments and excellence of Kobe Bryant (see Patrick Mahomes). The rule of law and the republic that has endured many trials has a tough road ahead in the current tribal national political environment. I have overheard way too many conversations of people lamenting the boredom of Congressional and then Senate impeachment hearings; too many “who cares about Ukraine?” to feel anything but dismay and vulnerability for the country we have long known and believed in so strongly.

  • David Moriah  says:

    Bravo Andrew, for wrapping together the quasi-religion of sports and it’s faithful devotees, the tragic downfall of political idealism (and might I say decency?) and the understandable but equally tragic decline of religion as an institution which has the potential of elevating souls and inspiring us to care for one another! These are dark and dangerous times. My wife reminds me of the long sweep of history, and that the tawdry expression of Christianity on display today by charlatans like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. are momentary blips that will be eclipsed by the return of true Christianity, but it is hard to suffer the present moment. Terribly hard. I appreciate your voice and perspective. Write on, my friend. Write on.

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    Your provocative piece touches on enough important moral, philosophical, social and political issues to fill up the outline for a PhD dissertation, so coming up with a cogent comment is somewhat daunting. . But I was reminded as I read it of a poem by A. E. Houseman written in 1896 called “To an Athlete Dying Young” which brought to mind that the obsession with prominent athletes in our society dying ” before their time” and was clearly in play long before our time. Houseman’s poem appears to touch on the general gestalt of your essay, a dis-proportionally high import on the athlete in our society, and especially their pre-mature death. It is most sad about Bryant, a great basketball player (I am a Lakers fan) and reputedly a wonderful father and his daughter dying in this tragic accident. And you have sensitively commented on the others who tragically died, although not nearly to the same level public awareness as Kobe Bryant, That fact for me immediately brought to mind what several here have commented on as our obsession with and quasi religion of sports.
    I was thinking albeit cynically that if the individual who had recently discovered the latest treatment that is virtual cure by preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS had died tragically in a crash would anybody know their name. Pretty rhetorical I know! And then I am reminded of my Roman history and an interesting fact that one of my professors imparted to us when I was about 21. Do you know who was the best known and wealthiest person in Rome during the time of Augustus and Tiberius. The Emperor….guess again…the top chariot driver in the Roman Coliseum…….an athlete, who as Houseman suggests would be well mourned by all of society were he killed in a chariot race.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Vey happy to help you out, Robby Miller! We should probably have some kind of support groups or information lines for men who don’t follow sports but have to be careful where and with whom they admit it. Glad you felt safe enough to divulge it here! From the looks of things, Bryant had made a pretty quick & easy transition from the huge limelight of player to the lesser, but as you suggest, more important one of being a family man. Athletes give up so much with their constant travel, but then are faced with “What now?” upon retirement, in far more dramatic fashion than we are. He seemed to be handling it with grace.

    Al, thanks for making me laugh; I’ve missed you in this space! I’m rather liking the idea of Adam Silver replacing the Supreme Court, among other points in your finely crafted little essay. What’s serious is your point about us needing drama and strong points of view in order to maintain interest. Sounds like an addiction to me, with our tolerance levels going up & up, courtesy of modern media. Something to chew further on, thanks.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    The death of Kobe and his daughter, while tragic especially for a basketball junkie like me, it was the Altobelli family’s loss of life that hit me harder because both parents were killed. I immediately thought…Did they have any other children? I said to myself…God, I hope not!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, I hear you, Bro! Fitting sports into the larger fabric in any meaningful way seems an increasing challenge, and it may serve as nothing more than an escape for those of us who most need some type of escape, I’m not sure. Of course, if it’s ALL escape all the time, we gotz problems, mate…

    David, thank you. Always appreciate your commitment and vocalization of how faith informs your way in the world.

    Bruce, but OF COURSE a jock was the highest paid performer in ancient Rome! I didn’t know that, but it sure makes sense, with a kind of symmetry and thread that connects right to the modern day. Thanks for the precious (and somewhat depressing) tidbit!

    And Robert, yes, my thoughts exactly. Too much tragedy in too many lives…

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