Kobe Bryant and the Inevitable Loss of Invincibility

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant / Harry How/Getty Images

Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on Jan. 26, 2020

Kobe Bryant seemed more alive than the average person. He approached every day and every task with a white-hot intensity that sparked all in his orbit. With a lifetime of achievement behind him, he had so much life left to live. His second act was just beginning, with real potential to become more impactful than his first.

At 41, he's gone far too soon. Bryant was larger than life but constrained by its inevitable reality. We are haunted today by the reality that all lives, no matter great or small, come to the same conclusion. And that conclusion can come any time, for anyone.

When the most invincible among us cease to be, our own vulnerability is deafening. Paralyzing. It stops us cold in our tracks and forces us to wrestle with mortality. It feels suffocating. And the world suffocated together on Sunday as the news of a deadly helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles spread.

It couldn't be true. The idea that this global icon could be taken away so suddenly, alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others, didn't seem possible. And yet it was.

There was shock. Numbness. Anger. Pain. A gutting, hollow feeling. The sensation of G-force sadness driving a nation and a world into the ground.

Such a stunning, sudden loss of an icon is unprecedented in the sporting world. Dale Earnhardt wasn't an international superstar. Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson weren't as revered. Lou Gehrig's passing came after a prolonged battle.

Sunday felt like a generational earthquake. A Michael Jackson moment. A Prince moment. A Princess Diana moment. A rare convergence of a disparate world united in grief and disbelief, groping and grappling to make sense of it all.

It's been hours and we still haven't. We won't in the coming days, or months or years. Life and death are binary. We're alive or we aren't. Something so black-and-white shouldn't be complicated.

But Bryant, like the rest of us, was complicated in both life and what comes next. He rose to impossible highs with singular focus. He experienced the lowest of lows due to his own missteps. He was beloved and loathed. His story would have played out much differently in today's era. His means, charm, and skill afforded him the ability to move on from it all.

By all accounts, though, he figured it out. A cold-blooded killer on the court, he was the doting father of four daughters. He was passionate about women's sports, social issues, and the owner of an intensely curious mind. Though often painted as singularly focused, Bryant was a bit of a Renaissance man, able to converse in Italian and the owner of an Academy Award.

His death set about a carousel of challenging emotions. It was difficult to sift through them. It was difficult to accurately identify what some of them were. What's clear is that they were powerful and omnipresent.

We want to know everything yet wish we knew nothing at all. We want to know why being slightly removed can make death feel more real than when it washes up on our immediate shores. Is it because we are less clouded by the sheer terror of it all and can think about it more critically?

Speaking to The Ringer a few years ago, Bryant, fully realized, said he was comfortable with death.

"You can't have life without death," he said. "You can't have light without dark."

Bryant's bright flame was extinguished without warning. Everything is a bit darker now. He can be remembered but never replaced.

It happens to us all eventually. Big lives and small lives end up in the same place.

So simple to grasp. So impossible to accept.