In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, basketball game is refuge

Kobe Bryant’s shocking death yesterday hit me on an unexpected level.

When my son broke the news to me, my heart sank. Horrible, sad, tragic…what are the words? There are no words; there are too many words.

It was a moment that smacked me up-side my entire being, soul and body. I realize I am far from alone in this response, especially among zealous sports fans. One who fits that description is my brother and during a text exchange yesterday, he wrote, “A bit numb.”

What is it about this death that has rocked me more than any other public figure’s death in memory? The only comparison is when I found out Len Bias died—then, a short time later, the circumstances leading to his death. I had met Len the previous summer at a basketball camp, and felt some personal connection in that case.

But with Kobe, here’s a man I never knew. At the same time, I felt like I knew him, at least to some degree. He grew up before my eyes, from a 17-year-old kid who was drafted in the first round to a 41-year-old legend whose supreme talent was amplified by his unsurpassed work ethic and determination.

He was my Boston Celtics’ arch nemesis, he was everyone’s nemesis at various times, in fact. For a long time, I didn’t particularly like him. He didn’t much care to be liked, anyway. He developed a reputation as a crybaby, especially through his well-chronicled friction with fellow Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal. Off the court, he was far from perfect.

But over the last decade or so, Kobe had matured and transformed into a new phase of global icon and leader; his post-playing career was shaping up to be something potentially even more extraordinary than his NBA performance.

More than the Kobe who has been, I mourn the Kobe that never got to be. He was blossoming and the world would have been empowered by his future impact. Maybe, if enough of us tap into our inner Mamba, that kind of impact will yet occur as a way of honoring his life and legacy.

Therapy, for me, last night was having a church-league basketball game to play. During pre-game warm-ups, though this shocking development is all I can think about, I make a point of not voicing it. What can be said?

In the pre-game huddle with teammates and opposing team members, our captain offers standard remarks, then concludes it with: “A moment of silence for Kobe.”

There is respectful, reverential, sad silence for a moment. And then we move forward with what we came for. It’s the same thing that prompted Kobe and his daughter, Gianni, to get aboard that chopper with seven others earlier in the day: a basketball game.

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Remembering Len Bias–And Details From ’85 Red Auerbach Basketball Camp

The story-telling process often unfolds in isolation, but shouldn’t be an entirely solo act. Before the story reaches the masses, or even just gets in front of a select group of interested individuals, we ought to arrange for at least one additional set of eyes to review our work.

That’s a lesson I learned in June 1986, after a commentary I wrote on the death of one of basketball’s greatest young talents, Len Bias, appeared in my hometown newspaper, the Marshfield (Ma.) Mariner.

Only two days after the Boston Celtics made him the 2nd pick in the NBA Draft, Bias died of a heart attack brought on by a cocaine overdose.

Ten months earlier, along with about 15 other high school basketball players, I shared a cabin with Bias, who was heading into his senior year at the University of Maryland.

Bias was clearly on track to become a superstar in the National Basketball Association when the Boston Celtics invited him to the Red Auerbach Basketball Camp in Marshfield, Ma. As rising high school seniors on our local high school team, my friend Todd and I shared one bunk while Bias was toward the other end of the cabin.

My commentary in the Marshfield (Ma.) Mariner,  published the week after the death of Len Bias.

He was at the camp, along with several other college players who worked out and gave pointers to campers.

At the same time, that season’s crop of Celtics’ draft choices and free agents were working out at my high school, on the same court where my competitive career would wrap up in six months.

For so many of us high school players, it was a thrill to be around someone as respected and even revered as Bias. In retrospect, I placed a halo over all that Bias did. As a result, when I related my camp experience the following summer, I inadvertently left out a crucial piece of reporting.

Among the details I included: how Bias had borrowed Todd’s flashlight with old batteries and—what a thoughtful guy!—returned it with fresh batteries; his dominant slam-dunk contest performance at the end of camp; the memory of seeing him read his Bible in bed.

But what I completely blanked on was the memory, on multiple nights, of Bias stumbling drunk into the cabin well past curfew. He would flip on the lights and wake everyone with bellows of “Wake up, you mash-heads!”

(The word sounded like “mash-heads,” anyway… the playful, inebriated slurring of Bias’ voice still rings in my ears.)

More amused than annoyed, a few of us would moan in reply: “Go to sleep, Len!” and then we would all, Bias included, drift off.

Alas, my commentary contained no mention of this side of my weeklong encounter with Bias. When Todd read the piece in the newspaper, he assumed that I decided to keep it out because I didn’t want to paint a less-than-flattering account of Bias.

When he relayed that feedback, I groaned in disappointment at my memory lapse as well as my failure to seek Todd’s review of the commentary before submitting it to my editor. In fact, I had simply forgotten that part of our shared Len Bias experience.

It was no small thing to have slipped my mind, either. Offering a glimpse of his partying ways and even foreshadowing the circumstances of his eventual death would have done much to elevate the commentary’s context and insight.

For one thing, it didn’t take a detective’s mind to deduce that Bias was using Todd’s flashlight to sneak in through the woods that surrounded the camp to avoid being caught sneaking in after curfew.

Beyond that, relating the wee-hours side of Len Bias would have painted a much more rounded portrait of a 21-year-old man at the crossroads of great promise and an even greater capacity for self-destruction that would ultimately, and tragically, prevail.

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