The Existential Reality of Kobe Bryant
“I have lived eighty years of life and know nothing for it but to be resigned and tell myself that flies are born to be eaten by spiders and man to be devoured by sorrow.” ~Voltaire
Some givens of reality are difficult to sit in the presence of. We might know these realities intellectually, but to actually sit down and get to know them on a much more personal and phenomenological level is a different exercise altogether. And it’s an exercise that Kobe Bryant was confronted with by force Friday night and presumably will continue to be in the days and weeks to come.
Some will say this is only sport and not life or death. While this is true, there is no meaning inherent in anything in the world beyond that which we ascribe to it. Kobe ascribes much meaning to the game of basketball.
Moreover, sport often parallels life in many ways. Perhaps one of the most apparent comes in the form of watching an athlete age. Skills deteriorate over time, the body breaks down and the inevitable occurs. Will power and volition can only carry an athlete so far, even the most competitive of athletes.
And so it goes for humans in the game of life.
I spent the 2007-08 NBA season in Los Angeles. While I had met Bryant a number of times prior to this season, it was during this campaign that I got to interact with him on virtually a day-to-day basis. While he is a flawed human being like all of us, the one thing I marveled at that season was his intense competitiveness and will power. It was like nothing I had ever seen, and that’s saying something having spent the last decade or so of my life around professional athletes.
The measures that he took to prepare himself were literally a 24-hour, 7-day a week endeavor for most of the season (and the offseason, for that matter). What he did behind closed doors to ensure he was ready to play that the average fan had no idea of intrigued me to no end.
Some players put on a show for the camera to make sure everyone knows they are working hard, and they do it very well. This is often more of an act than it is reality. In contrast, Kobe did most of his preparation out of view of the public and preferred it that way.
After the 2007-08 season ended, I spent some time with Kobe while he was training in the summer and watched him interact with young people at his annual basketball camp. By this time, I had started to get to know him on a bit more of a personal level. Many of our conversations started out focused on his children and family interactions. I felt his guard drop just a bit, and I can say that I enjoyed interacting with him. My respect for his work ethic and competitiveness only continued to grow.
These personal interactions are likely why I had a visceral reaction when I heard the news that Kobe had a torn Achilles’ tendon. Yes, I know the tired refrain that he’s made more money than most people could in 10 lifetimes, why should we feel sorry for him, etc. But people who are so quick to say such things often don’t realize that to Kobe, basketball is not just a game. It’s a core part of his preferred identity as a human being. Basketball has served as his therapist, teacher and confidant. The threat of losing this is an existential threat. Said differently, losing basketball would be the death of a major part of who Kobe is. And death, whether that death is physical or the death of a relationship or life cycle of some sort, is the one shared fear at the core of all human beings.
In Western culture we construct quite a bit of insulation around death. Heck, many of us won’t even use the word. Instead, we often choose euphemisms such as “passed away” or “crossed over.” We create stories about what we believe happens after death and do so as if we know they are a certainty even with no evidence to support such claims. These mechanisms of denial might help individuals feel better in the short-term, but they speak to a larger human problem with the acceptance of death and its finality.
On Friday night, Kobe experienced what was akin to a basketball near death experience. The greatest love of his life that has been with him since childhood was gravely threatened.
“I was just hoping it wasn’t what I knew it was,” Bryant said. “Just trying to walk it off and hoping the sensation would come back, but no such luck.”
Denial is a net that can only sustain the weight of reality for so long before it breaks through.
When asked to describe the play, Bryant replied: “Not much really to take you through, man. I made a move that I’ve made a million times, and it just popped.”
Therein lies the frustration. What has been done so many times before can no longer be done. The change can happen in an instant.
The temptation to play the blame game is almost too seductive to resist. Mike D’Antoni playing him too many minutes, Jim Buss not hiring Phil Jackson who would have managed minutes differently, Kobe’s stubbornness. The list goes on. But to play this game is to miss the point. These sorts of injuries are unavoidable as a player ages. Yes, certain preventative measures can be taken, but this only buys time. It only staves off that which cannot be ultimately prevented. If it weren’t an Achilles, it would have eventually been something else.
The story cuts a little deeper for Lakers fans, NBA fans or just sports fans in general. To admit that perhaps the toughest and most fervent competitor of this generation can succumb to injury is in some small way to admit that we are all vulnerable. It is to admit that we will not be forever who we once were. At a very basic level, it is to acknowledge we will all die.
Denial is nothing if not persistent. After the injury Kobe got up, tried to walk and construct some way of compensating so he could continue playing. This is why even those who do not like him, respect him.
To the question of whether or not he might try and play through that which cannot be played through, a dejected Bryant replied: “I can’t. I can’t walk. I tried to maybe just put pressure on my heel to see if I could do it that way, but there was just nothing there.”
Maybe Bryant will play again. As many have uttered, if anyone can return to form from such an injury in the twilight of his career it’s Bryant. Even if he were to return, though, it would be for only a short window of time. The vessel can only be moved by sheer will power for so long no matter how strong the will may be.
In ancient Rome, it was common for a General to be paraded through the streets in celebration after a victory. While it was a time of great jubilation for the General and his men, it was customary to have a person behind the General that would recite the phrase: Memento Mori. Translated from Latin, the phrase means, “Remember you will die” or “Remember you must die.” The purpose was to remind the General that while he might be at his peak today, he would one day suffer the same fate as the men he had just defeated.
This has the potential to serve as a broader reminder for all of us that we are human, and that all humans must die. Whether that is our own physical death, which is inevitable, or the death of our ability to fully engage in an activity that brings us great meaning. No one is spared this fate, no matter how talented or seemingly indestructible one may seem at any given moment in time.
This reality is painful and often leaves us asking, why?
Perhaps the late Christopher Hitchens said it best: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. He has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath