A Big Tree Has Fallen – Kobe Bean Bryant Is Sleeping

On 17th March 1883, a famous German philosopher stood at the side of the grave of his fellow philosopher and close friend at Highgate Cemetery, in England’s capital, London, to say his last piece. As words were second nature to this man, just as they were to his dead friend, his tribute is rightfully registered in history as one of the best eulogies of all times.

Praising his friend, the German began thus: ‘On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep – but for ever.

‘An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by historical science, in the death of this man. The gap that has been left by the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt.’

These moving words of tribute were uttered by Frederick Engels, one of the foremost thinkers of the 19th century, and the homage was directed at his beloved friend and colleague, the troubled yet supremely gifted intellectual, Karl Marx.

Engels was not exaggerating. In Marx, the ordinary masses in Europe and America had lost ‘the greatest living thinker’. However, Engels was partly correct – all the ordinary masses of our people of all colour around the world were poor without Karl Heinrich Marx living and breathing; and even though Marx has been dead for almost hundred and thirty-seven years, the world continues to miss his unique and radical intellectual spark; his myopic and racist views on Africans notwithstanding.

Thus, on Monday, 27th January 2020, having learned of the passing of Kobe Bean Bryant at forty-one years of age, I knew just as Engels knew all those years ago when he learned of the passing of his good friend – that the greatest basketball player of our time had ceased to breathe; that the most competitive athlete I have ever seen is no more; that even if we wished, we would never again lay our eyes on the live being of Kobe Bryant – The Black Mamba.

Unlike with Engels and Marx, Kobe Bryant was not my friend. And unlike Engels and Marx, I have never had the pleasure and fortune of meeting Bryant. Kobe Bryant was American. I am South African. Two people who lived countries and continents apart, rivers and oceans separating us, but yet here I am writing about Kobe Bryant, mourning his sad and untimely passing, thanks to the sport of basketball which he not only dedicated his entire life, but also redefined.

But my writing about this talented African giant speaks more about Kobe’s greatness and legacy than my adoration and respect for him; for even distances away he managed to touch lives, including mine, across the globe with his sheer intelligence and decisive leadership – on and off the basketball court. He was amongst the best to ever do it. He was a fierce competitor, and most importantly, a loving family man. His passing and that of his daughter, Gianna Bryant, proves that one doesn’t have to physically know a person to be saddened and touched by their death.

When he was alive, the legendary broadcaster, Vuyo Mbuli, would often remind us on SABC’s Morning Live of these important words: ‘Mintirho ya vulavula.’ The grief that quickly spread across the world like wildfire upon hearing of the passing of Kobe Bryant and the subsequent outpouring of love confirm what the late Vuyo Mbuli used to hammer into our stubborn brains every morning of the week: mintirho ya vulavula – deeds speak for themselves. Kobe Bryant’s deeds spoke for themselves when he was alive. In his death, they speak even louder.

Frederick Engels, in his homage to Karl Marx, predicted, correctly so, thus of his friend: ‘His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.’ There is no single doubt in my mind that Kobe Bryant’s name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.

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Kobe Bean Bryant was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States of America on August 23, 1978. He is the youngest of three children and the only son of Joe and Pamela Bryant. After spending his early years with his parents in Europe, he moved back to the United States to attend first a middle school, and later moved to Lower Merion High School in his hometown of Philadelphia where his star as a basketball player would begin to shine bright, and brighter it shone.

In June 1996, a seventeen-year-old Kobe Bryant was taken as the 13th pick by the Charlotte Hornets and was immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers to team up with the most dominant Big Man the game of basketball has ever seen, Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal. The two of them would go on to win three successive NBA championships between the years 2000-2002, establishing themselves as the most lethal duo in the NBA at the time. Unfortunately, the two would separate with O’Neal joining the Miami Heat in 2004, leaving Bryant alone at Staples Centre.

With O’Neal gone, the Los Angeles Lakers belonged to Bryant alone and it was left to him to bring more championships to a city that by now had adopted him as a son and embraced him as a hometown boy, despite the fact that he was from the east of the country.

In 2009 and 2010, Kobe Bryant led the Los Angeles Lakers to back-to-back NBA titles. If there was anyone who doubted his greatness, his brilliance and willpower to rise to the occasion, those cynics and sceptics quickly changed tune and began to hail him as ‘the greatest to ever do it’; even greater than Black Jesus himself, the indomitable Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Kobe Bean Bryant had arrived.

One of his role models and another NBA legend, Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson would later praise him as the ‘greatest Laker of All Time’. This is despite the fact that Johnson is the man who could rightly be credited as having brought glory to Los Angeles during his illustrious thirteen-years as a Laker throughout the 80s and early 90s. But even greats know when to recognise greatness. Officially, Los Angeles now belonged to The Black Mamba.

Kobe Bean Bryant leaves this earth a decorated, retired Laker, having played all twenty-years of his professional career in purple and gold. He is the only man in the history of the NBA to have played that long for one team. He was loyal to the end. A five-time NBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medallist and just hours before his passing, he had just congratulated a future Hall Of Famer, LeBron Raymone James, on surpassing him on the NBA All-Time Leading Scorer’s list. He now ranks number four on the list, ahead of his idol, Michael Jordan.

Bagarona, Kobe Bryant is no more. The Black Mamba has forever left our midst. His sad and untimely passing, and that of his daughter and friends, is a reminder that none of us are guaranteed eternal life. His early, tragic departure at the age of forty-one also serves as a reminder to those of us who are fortunate still to form part of the living, to remember to cherish life and our loved ones.

However, in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death there are those who question our sadness at the departure of this paragon of excellence. Reducing The Black Mamba to a mere mortal, they ask us how we can feel grief and sorrow at the passing of an American. These people, whose humanity has been blinded by attention seeking, lambast us for caring for a millionaire who met his untimely death travelling in a helicopter as if Kobe Bryant was not a hard worker who deserved to live a decent and comfortable life.

But who can blame them because while he was alive, they had never seen Kobe Bryant score eighty-one (81) points against the Toronto Raptors? These people, whose hunger for spotlight knows no bounds, have never witnessed The Black Mamba jump over the former Phoenix Suns point guard, Steve Nash, to ferociously dunk the ball home. These who make us ask ourselves if our love for the greatest Laker ever is genuine do so because they have never experienced the inexplicable joy of celebrating with Bean his fifth NBA championship, cementing his name alongside an exclusive list of luminaries such as Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Muhammad Ali and the Queen of our World, Serena Williams.

Perhaps, to contend with the empty words of attention-seekers, we should find solace in the soothing words of former President Thabo Mbeki when he bade farewell to a stalwart of the South African struggle, Rre Walter Sisulu almost seventeen years ago. Mbeki, a poet whose words carry the power to wipe away tears of sorrow and screams of hecklers, said this of this unmatched hero of our people:

‘Our country, and nature herself, has been in mourning since that fateful day, the 5th of May, when Walter Sisulu ceased to breathe.

‘While he lived, there were many in our country who knew nothing about him, except perhaps what they had been told or not told by those who had been his jailers.

‘While he lived, there were many who did not understand the unwavering humanism of the cause to which he dedicated his whole life, who were blind to what he did to ensure that his movement and his people remained forever loyal to their humanist calling.

‘When these came to know that there had been such a gentle giant in their midst, hidden from them as though he did not exist, they asked themselves the question – why did we not know!’

Therefore, these of our people question our love for Kobe Bryant – a pristine model of excellence – because they knew nothing of this towering colossus while he lived. While he lived, they did not understand his unwavering humanism of the cause to which he dedicated his whole life. They were blind to what he did to ensure that his people remained forever loyal to their calling.

Thus, when they came to know that there had been such a gentle giant – literally so because Bryant stood at a towering 1,98m in height – in their midst, hidden from them as though he did not exist, they asked themselves the question – why did we not know!

Like Rre Walter Sisulu, when it was announced that Kobe Bryant had died, an innumerable number of people dotting our planet of earth stood numb and silent because while he lived, Kobe dedicated his life to excellence. Like Sisulu before him, the world came to a standstill when it learned of the death of Bryant because each of us, deep in our hearts, we knew that a big tree had fallen – mokala o ole.

It was therefore fitting that when Paul George, another NBA star and a prodigy of Kobe Bryant, praised the only son of Joe Jellybean and Pamela Bryant, he spoke thus of this hero of our people: ‘Kobe was as synonymous with Southern California as the sunshine. He touched every inch of it. He arrived in LA a prodigy, grew into a phenomenon and retired a local institution and an international icon.’

Earlier, three years prior to speaking about Walter Sisulu as he did when Xhamela departed the world of the living, Mbeki had spoken thus of another hero of the great masses of our people, Rre Alfred Nzo. Speaking as if he had been possessed by the powerful and moving spirits of the bards, the former president observed the following about those who were generous with their gifts while they lived and walked amongst us, the living:

‘The days pass, each year giving birth to its successor. What has passed becomes the past as time erodes the memory of what was living experience.

‘In their recalling, old joys expand into enlarged pleasure.

‘Old wounds fade away into forgotten scars or linger on as a quiet pain without a minder.

‘Those who gave generously of their talents to lighten our moments of darkness, do not want the embarrassment of the enthusiasm of our gratitude.’

The sad and untimely passing of Kobe Bean Bryant has left a gaping wound in our hearts. As days pass, each year giving birth to its successor, and what was becomes the past as time erodes the memory of what was living experience, old wounds fading away into forgotten scars, remembering this extraordinary man we will draw pleasure from old joys.

Unlike other basketball stars before and after him, post retirement Kobe Bryant moved on from basketball to do something completely different. He did this not because his love for the game had waned; but as President Thabo Mbeki correctly observed of Rre Alfred Nzo and those of his generation of patriots twenty years ago: he did not want the embarrassment of the enthusiasm of our gratitude.

When he was alive and walking amongst the living, Kobe gave generously of his talents to lighten our moments of darkness. It for this and for so many reasons why we are deeply pained by the sad and untimely passing of this incredible man – a local institution and an international icon.

Therefore, may the soul of this fearless warrior, that of his daughter, Gianna, and their friends rest in peace; and may his wife, three daughters, parents, sisters, family, relatives, friends and everyone across the globe who loved this great man – Kobe Bean Bryant – be comforted. Bagaetsho, a big tree has fallen. Mokala o robetse. Pula!