The week of January 19-26, 2020 was not one I would want to relive.
It started about 7:20 AM Sunday the 19th when I got word my old friend Joe Oliver, a man I looked up to tremendously, had passed away only minutes earlier. Joe’s death was a great loss for me personally, the ministry of the gospel in Miami generally, and of course for his family especially. Miami lost a great champion for Christ; heaven gained one. Joe was 84 years young and still very active in ministry.
Thursday morning the 23rd Audrey Whitehead, 87, a member of our church, passed away after years of declining health and the countless frustrations that invariably accompany that. Her death was not unexpected, but still – a great loss for our church, her family and friends.
Sunday the 26th after our worship service I was getting ready to drive to a fundraising concert and food festival in Palmetto Bay. It was held in honor of three young brothers who had died in separate motor vehicle accidents, all in their teens.
I was leaving my office when I got the shocking news Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Bryant, 41, was one of the best-known athletes in the world. Seven others also died, their deaths largely overshadowed by Bryant’s – but each one just as great a loss to their loved ones. They are:
• Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, 56;
• his wife Keri, 46;
• their daughter Alyssa, 13;
• Christina Mauser, who coached the girls’ basketball team with Bryant, 38;
• Sarah Chester, 45;
• her daughter Payton, 13; and
• the pilot, Ara Zobayan, 50.
(For the sake of perspective: the next day two American airmen, Lt. Colonel Paul Voss, 46, and Captain Ryan Phaneuf, 30, were killed in a plane crash while serving in Afghanistan.)
No other word for it
As the details emerged, I – along with millions of others in the U.S. and around the world – could only shake my head and think, “How tragic … how utterly tragic.” Not just because a famous athlete died while still a fairly young man, leaving behind a wife and three surviving daughters, as devastating as that is; but also because his young daughter and seven other people perished along with him. As a husband and father of four (including three daughters) I felt tremendous empathy for his family and the families and friends of the other victims, too.
Very quickly the tributes began pouring in from all over the world. Kobe, one of a handful of American athletes, mostly NBA players, so well-known people referred to him by one name – like Kareem, Magic, Bird, Michael, LeBron – was easily one of the best players in NBA history.
He was and still is the youngest person to start a game and score a point, and the oldest ever to score over 60 in a single game. He finished his twenty-year career third all-time in scoring, with five championship rings. He also won three Olympic gold medals.
A turning point
His life was not without controversy, however. Particularly in his earlier seasons he was criticized as a selfish player. He missed more field goal attempts than any other player in NBA history. His longtime head coach Phil Jackson said in his earlier years, if Bryant talked to teammates at all it was usually just to say, “Give me the damn ball.”
Much more seriously, in the summer of 2003 Bryant was accused of rape by a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. The criminal charges were eventually dismissed when the accuser decided she did not want to testify at what undoubtedly would have been a very high profile trial. The parties settled out of court, but the damage to Bryant’s public image, and his marriage, were enormous.
Companies dropped him as a spokesman. Advertisers took his name and image off their products. Women’s groups denounced him as a predator, someone who deserved to go straight to prison without bothering with the formality of a trial. It was definitely the low point of his heretofore charmed life.
And it was also apparently a turning point for him.
The simple truth
He became a devoted family man, going to great lengths to spend time with his wife Vanessa and their four daughters. That commitment to his family is why he bought a helicopter: to save precious time commuting so he could be with them as much as possible. His close friend Jay-Z reported, “One of the last things he said to me was, ‘You’ve gotta see Gianna play basketball.'”
He became serious about the Roman Catholic faith in which his parents raised him, attending mass faithfully and talking with a priest regularly. That fateful Sunday Kobe and Gianna went to a 7 AM mass before getting in that helicopter. That certainly speaks to a religious commitment way above and beyond the norm.
Bryant was close to sportscaster Stephen A. Smith. On his show “Quite Frankly,” Smith once asked him about the sexual assault episode: “But what did you learn from that whole experience? Just having to go through what you went through?”
“God is great,” Bryant replied.
“Is it that simple?” Smith asked.
“God is great,” Bryant repeated. “It doesn’t get much simpler than that.”
Smith asked him if he understood that before being accused of rape. “Did you know that? I mean everyone knows that but the way you know it now, did you know it before that incident took place?”
Bryant answered, “You can know it all you want, but until you have to pick up that cross that you can’t carry and He picks it up for you and carries you and the cross, then you know.”
Not about labels
I really hope Kobe Bryant truly believed that. I hope he was not only a faithful Roman Catholic but a man who truly knew Jesus as Lord. That’s not a shot at Catholicism; you can also be a faithful Protestant and not really know Jesus – a Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Pentecostal – or Presbyterian. Your denominational label isn’t what matters. It’s your relationship with Jesus … or lack thereof.
What really matters
While I don’t know for sure what Kobe truly believed, I am sure of this: all the points he scored, accolades he earned, championship rings he was wearing don’t mean a thing to him now. The only thing that matters now is whether or not he knew Jesus. It calls to mind the words of Jesus in Mark 8:36: For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?
Like I said, I would not want to relive the week of January 19-26, 2020. I’m sure I never will. But whether I ever have to live through another week like that, of one more thing I am certain. Whether we’re in our teens, our 40’s or 80’s, sooner or later that final day comes for each of us. Wisdom calls for some sober reflection on these things before that day arrives.
Some of the people I mentioned above I am confident are enjoying the splendors of heaven right now. The second they left this earthly life they entered into eternal life in the presence of God. Others whose lives ended that sorrowful week, I simply have no idea.
It doesn’t matter whether I know or not.
What matters is whether or not we know Jesus.