Heroes aren’t supposed to die. Not like this, anyway. Not on a random Sunday in January. Not when they’re just 41 years old. They’re meant to live forever; not literally of course, but in our minds for all time standing as tall as they always have.
Few have ever stood as tall as Kobe Bryant—not so much an athlete or celebrity but an icon who cast a shadow so long that his death blanketed the entire world in darkness. The suddenness, the unexpectedness, the definiteness of such a towering life ending doesn’t just shock the consciousness, it overwhelms it. Kobe Bryant isn’t supposed to die. Not like this.
We knew he had to. He was human, after all. But someday, not today. Years from now, not in the prime of his life when, even years after he had retired from the game that made him a legend, he had so much living left to do. He was supposed to die as we would all like to—fading away peacefully after we’ve had time to accept the inevitable.
That’s what makes his death especially painful: None of us had any time to contemplate it. Last night, he was graciously tweeting congratulations to LeBron James for passing him for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. This morning, he was gone.
“He had zero flaws offensively and that’s something that I always admired,” James said last night in a postgame interview that feels now eerily like a eulogy. “Just being at a point where the defense would always be at bay and they couldn’t guard you at all and you just felt like you was immortal offensively because of your skill set and your work ethic.”
Bryant’s offensive skills and fabled work ethic made him a basketball immortal: Five NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, one league MVP, eleven First-Team All-NBA honors, 18 All-Star Game appearances in 20 seasons, and certain enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but it’s the fact that he wasn’t actually immortal; that he didn’t live long enough to give a Hall of Fame induction speech that is causing the overwhelming grief over his death.
We were supposed to watch him thank his teammates and the fans. We were supposed to see him smiling in the stands of his daughters’ basketball games. We weren’t supposed to see a tweet about his death from TMZ. His life wasn’t supposed to end like this. Not today.
Kobe Bryant was a superhuman on the basketball court—everything we could ever wish ourselves to be—but off it, he was just as human and as fragile as the rest of us. He died while traveling to his daughter’s basketball game—something thousands of us did this weekend without giving it a second thought.
Yes, Bryant was a global icon and traveled by helicopter and not the family SUV, but that a hero was felled by something as relatively routine and devastatingly unpredictable as a vehicle crash is why we’re so sad over his death; because it serves as a reminder that no matter what we do in life, that life will one day end. It might end when and where we want it—decades from now, peacefully in our bed—or it might end suddenly tomorrow. We are powerless before both its unpredictability and inevitability.
The most powerful, the most famous, the wealthiest, the most gifted among us sometimes die at 41 on a random Sunday in January and that taps into our deepest fear as human beings: That there is nothing we can do to stop it.
Yet even amid today’s tragedy, even amid the self-reflection embedded in our grief over the death of a hero, there is a powerful lesson about life: Our heroes will die, so will we. It’s what we do with however much time we have from today until our last day that defines us.
We won’t be global icons who travel the world, but we can smile in the stands of our daughter’s basketball game. We won’t be megastar athletes inducted into a Hall of Fame, but we can thank our teammates for helping on a work project. We can and should live however many days we left as though we’re someone’s hero—whether it is our spouse, our children, our friends, or just ourselves.
Whether world-famous or wholly anonymous, we are all united in our frailty and powerlessness before death and also our ability to live our lives in a way that leaves our mark upon the world. Kobe Bryant did it in a huge, unforgettable way in just 41 years. We can do it in our own way in however many years or months or days we have left.
Kobe Bryant was a hero because he showed the rest of us what was possible in life. In death, he is reminding us that what we do with the rest of our own lives from here on out is up to us.