It’s been a few weeks since the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. The public interest in celebrity news has always fascinated me. I never understood why people cared about the private lives of celebrities. If they are doing something good, like donating to charity or visiting children in the hospital, I can understand the draw, but when it’s the small things, like what they are wearing to a wedding or what they had for breakfast or even what they named their kid, I can’t seem to wrap my head around why that gets media attention.
Then there is celebrity death. Death is different. A few years ago, I wrote a piece about my reaction to the death of Marlins pitcher, Jose Fernandez, who died in a boating accident at the age of 24. At the time, I also posited the question of why do I care when a celebrity dies? It doesn’t actually affect me in any way. My life is no different now than it was before. I thought that maybe it was because he was a player on “my” team, so I felt some sort of attachment. Maybe it was because he was so young, and hadn’t even had the chance to make it to the prime of his career. Maybe it was because he had just announced that he was going to be a father, and that resonated with me as the father of a young child at the time. Maybe it was a combination of all of these things.
But then Kobe happened. I was never a fan of Kobe Bryant or the Lakers. I never felt the draw to him that I did to Jose Fernandez. But the other two commonalities still stuck. Although retired, Kobe was only 41 years of age. Kobe was the father of four daughters, and one perished with him on the helicopter. Those two things still hit home. But I am still not personally affected by his death. Sure, we have some things in common, but there are other people who have died young, with whom I also have things in common, and hearing about them didn’t affect me as much.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after Kobe’s death that I got clarity, from a less-than-likely source. One of my favorite shows, the NBC sitcom “The Good Place,” recently came to an end. For those who don’t know, the show explores the question of what happens to you after you die. (For those of you who are fans and have not completed the series, SPOILER ALERT). One of the most poignant quotes from the show came from Kristen Bell’s character Eleanor Shellstrop: “All humans are aware of death, so we’re all a little bit sad. all the time.” The fact that we, as humans, are so aware that death is inevitable, and that we have no possible way of 100 percent knowing what happens to us after we die, can drive us mad. Yet, we press on.
However, in a way, this also explains what makes life worth living at all. The fact that we have the knowledge that life can end at any time gives us a time limit on how much we can accomplish, and the fact that we don’t know what that time limit is makes it all the more urgent to accomplish those things before it’s too late. In fact, this is what the characters in “The Good Place” discover. If you are to go to a place after death that has eternal afterlife, life begins to lose all meaning. There always has to be a challenge, a purpose, a reason to keep going. Here on earth, we have those things built into everyday life. If we end up in Heaven, where people think that everything will be easily available to us, what’s even the point? The show has their own way of handling this (which I won’t mention here, since I said too much already).
But this brings us back to Kobe and celebrity death in general. We look at celebrities as larger than life. When one of them dies young, we are reminded of the fact that life is not infinite. We all die, regardless of age, health, status, or income. And that makes us a little bit sad. If an older celebrity dies, we don’t react the same way. For instance, just last week, Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas passed away. He was over 100 years old. The level of sadness wasn’t nearly the same, because we expect 100-year-olds to die. We don’t expect 24 or 41-year-olds to.
There is also one more point that I mentioned in my piece about Jose Fernandez that bears repeating here. Just like in the Fernandez case, there were others on that helicopter with Kobe, but they died as footnotes. The group was on their way to their youth basketball game, and they included three 12-year-old players, their parents, and a coach. Three of those victims, John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli, were all part of the same family. A tremendous loss for any family and community. Sarah and Payton Chester were another mother-daughter combination who perished. Christina Mauser was the assistant coach for the team, and Ara Zobayan was the pilot. They were all young, and all died tragically, but now they are just footnotes.
While I know that it’s extremely unlikely that I will ever reach the level of notoriety that my death will generate headlines, it’s entirely possible that I am on the same level of notoriety as the other victims of tragic events like this helicopter crash. And maybe that’s why I’m sad. This is now the second time that I can remember that I could easily place myself in the position of the helpless victim. I can only hope that I can somehow internalize the zest for life people have been describing in Kobe Bryant into my own life. And I believe that’s the best way to honor his memory - by being happy just to be alive.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.