It’s been over a month now since that Sunday morning when the news broke that Kobe Bryant his daughter and seven others had perished in a helicopter crash. These things arrive like a sucker punch; the roundhouse that you never saw coming. You pick yourself up and wonder what the hell just happened. Regardless of how you feel about the man the news still leaves you breathless and exclaiming, “WHAT?”
Some were just settling down to Sunday breakfast. I was driving out to go for a run. I had sports talk on the radio and all the talk was about Bryant. No mention of a helicopter crash and so I thought it was all about Lebron James having passed Bryant on the all time scorers list in a game the night before. Talk had been that Bryant would be present at that game to honor James. It wasn’t until I was driving home after my run that I found out that all of the Bryant talk was about his death.
The internet tells us that 150,000 people die every day. Okay it is the internet and the internet is as often as not, a fraud. Suffice to say that a lot of people die every day. Death is often a close personal thing; family, friends, acquaintances. Death is often a sad, lonely thing; nobody to mark the passing but the undertaker and the grave digger. And then there are those times when death becomes a universal thing.
It’s over a month later and the tributes and the personal stories about Bryant continue and they will for some time to come. While the shock is mostly over, for some the dust will never settle. For some January 26, 2020 will be with them forever, a lifelong remembering of where they were when they heard the news. Most of us have similar days hidden away in our subconscious, just beneath the surface until a conversation, a story or an image brings back memories, sighs and the enduring why.
Whenever the subject of John Kennedy comes up among my contemporaries the inevitable question is, “Do you remember where you were?” Of course I do. I was in Mrs. Campbell’s fourth grade classroom at Buena Vista School in San Mateo, California. The announcement was made by a sobbing Mrs. Campbell and the kids were all sent home for the day. I remember the day the Challenger exploded. My dad used to tell me where he was when the news of Pearl Harbor broke. It’s always the darkest days; grim, latent specters that resurrect themselves and beset us with memories that we’d just as soon forget.
What I knew about Kobe Bryant was of his prowess on the basketball court and of the accolades, championships and awards. Beyond that he resided with most other celebrities, on the fringe of my recognition. And so beyond the initial, “what the hell” shock his passing didn’t affect me as it has many. But it did give me pause to think about the famous people who had reached down and touched me from their lofty perches of fame.
I was 14 when I joined my high school’s cross country team. Signing up for cross country is sort of like joining the army, you don’t know what you’re really, truly getting into until that first day when you get nutted by reality. Oh you mean I have to RUN cross country? I have to RUN a lot of miles? Did you say MILES? After surviving the initial jolt and actually enjoying my first season and then the spring track season I was hooked.
It was a few years after I’d taken up running that a brash, aggressive young runner out of Oregon caught the attention of every distance runner in America. If you happened to be one of the unfortunates to race against him you were more often as not left convulsing in the wake of his scorched earth racing strategy. The rest of us, the pedestrians, watched in awe and bowed to his greatness. Even those who insisted that distance running isn’t an in your face sport and should possess a sort of genteel quality grudgingly acknowledged that Steve Prefontaine was a special talent.
Better known as Pre, he possessed all the tools that we among the running riff raff could only fantasize about; leg speed, an off the charts heart/lung capacity and most compelling a race strategy that offered no quarter. Pre took no prisoners.
Said Pre, “No one will ever win a 5000 meter by running an easy two miles. Not against me” On another occasion he added, “I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.”
All of that wrapped up in youthful movie star good looks.
During his career, Prefontaine set a string of American records and became the great hope for American preeminence in international distance competition. I was 19 years old when my best friend and I were watching the 1972 Olympic 5000 meters on the little black and white TV in my bedroom. We were certain that Pre would take the gold and as the race entered the final mile we were on our feet cheering Pre as he set a blistering pace, that pure guts race that he’d boasted of. He was surely going to punish a field of runners that would wilt and die in the final lap. In the end Pre finished fourth, out of the medals. All that seemed right and reasonable when Pre started that last mile kick became wrong and implausible. In the end though we took comfort in our certainty that in the 1978 Olympics Prefontaine would avenge his loss in Munich.
On May 25th, 1975, I woke up to the news that Steve Prefontaine, at age 24 and still in his running prime, was gone; killed in a car accident the night before. I guess it was days until I came to grips with his death. It was that, I’m going to wake up from this bad dream sort of feeling that stays with you until you’re forced to surrender to the reality of the nightmare that isn’t. No doubt what I felt then, that bottomless free falling feeling is what Kobe’s fans felt a few short weeks ago.
I learned of Muhammad Ali’s passing on June 3, 2016 from the tenor Andre Bocelli. My wife Cora and I were attending his concert at the SAP Center in San Jose, California when he made the announcement to a stunned house. It wasn’t as if Ali’s passing was unexpected. His health had been on a long decline and just the day before he’d been hospitalized with septic shock – the waiting game had long been in play.
Still when Bocelli announced the passing, the news washed through the auditorium in a tide of gasps that ebbed into silence. From the cheap seats in the far corners you could’ve heard Bocelli drop the proverbial pin on the stage.
It was supposed to have been the end of the show; everyone was starting to gather their things when he came back on stage to make the announcement. As a tribute the tenor dedicated a second encore song to The Champ. For me the song was clouded in a fog of shock and profound sadness that smothered me. As Bocelli sang what for me was white noise, I looked around at an auditorium through eyes smudged with tears.
My dad was never much of a sports guy. He tolerated going to baseball games with mom and I and he once deigned to take me to a professional football game. Every now and then we’d go into the backyard and play a game of catch with a baseball but I think he did that more out of a sense of checking off a box in the list of things American dads should do with their sons.
What dad did like was boxing and it was boxing that was the glue that cemented our narrow sports relationship. Dad and I would sit together on the living room couch and watch the Friday Night Fights called like bullet points by commentator Don Dunphy in his singular nasal staccato voice.
It was only natural that dad and I became captivated by a cocky young fighter out of Louisville, Kentucky named Cassius Clay. Never at a loss for words, whether it was ridiculing an opponent, predicting his victory, or calling out white America for racial injustice Clay became a lightning rod for controversy; you loved him or you hated him and make no mistake there were plenty of haters. Whites frequently described him with the racially charged term, “uppity.”
Criticism of Clay heightened when he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali and the criticism intensified even more when he refused to be inducted into the army; “I got nothing against no Viet Cong,” said Ali, “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”
For dad and I, dyed in the wool lefties, there was never a question. Ali was the good guy. He’d sacrificed his title and his livelihood for three years for standing up for his convictions. When he returned to boxing he became the sport’s standard bearer although still controversial.
Over the years and decades he weathered the storms of controversy. He quit the more radical Nation of Islam and, while still outspoken over racial injustice and human rights, he’d learned to move from strong rhetoric to a message that appealed more to the masses. People listened. In the end he’d won over millions, not just through his prowess as a fighter but with his charisma and by his good works and public stance for justice.
Ali lived long and secured his legacy. That isn’t to say there aren’t regrets. Looking back on Ali’s life there was of course the battle with Parkinson’s but there are also the memories of a fighter who held on for far too long. I remember his last fight, a match against Larry Holmes who had no real desire to fight Ali, not so much out of fear for himself but for a reluctance to humiliate the champ. I remember, even before the first bell sounded, that portent that it would not go well as it seemed that Ali had trouble just getting through the ropes and into the ring.
Ali passed at age 74. He was wracked by Parkinson’s but accepted the condition with grace, never letting it deter him. Ali’s place in history was solid; boxing great, humanitarian, philanthropist, civil rights activist and winner of numerous honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Given his age and condition Ali’s passing touched us but didn’t slap us. Maybe what touched me most about Ali’s passing was in the realization that a tie to my dad had, on that June evening been cut.
Prefontaine and Bryant, like many others left us with the what if feeling. What more was in them and how much more could they touch their public? It’s a long list that cuts across lines and generations; John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, James Dean, Buddy Holly, Heath Ledger, Aaliyah, Tupac Shakur.
Prefontaine died in his prime with six or more athletic years in front of him. He had one, maybe two more Olympics left in him. What would he have accomplished on the track had he not rolled his car? Indeed he had already taken up a cause. He was fighting the Amateur Athletic Union over that organization’s treatment of American amateur athletes.
While Bryant’s athletic career was over he clearly had more to offer beyond basketball; an Academy Award winner, a published author, and a philanthropist with much more left to go.
Prefontaine, Ali, Bryant; were they heroes? I’m not comfortable with the word. When I was growing up a hero was the guy who ran through enemy gunfire to save the wounded; the soldier who covered a live hand grenade with his body to protect his comrades; selfless right to the end. The fellowship of heroes was a very selective one.
I’d prefer to think of these athletes and celebrities, those who we sometimes identify as our heroes as admirable, exceptional individuals; laudable for their talent, hard work and dedication. Whatever we choose to call them, they inspire us, leave us feeling good and then they leave us – leave us with an emptiness that their memories can never fully refill.