By: Dima Sochnyev
Fate occasionally seems to remind us, in the most callous of ways, that no one is beyond the reach of its often wicked grasp. The devastating helicopter accident on Sunday had nine victims: junior baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton; junior basketball coach Christina Mauser; experienced pilot Ara Zobayan; Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Maria Onore Bryant. One of these deaths cuts particularly deep.
Being the son or daughter of any superstar athlete comes with its fair share of financial and social advantages. On the other hand, it often carries the unenviable burden of expectations. Many celebrity children, forced into the spotlight, simply falter. Gianna Maria Onore Bryant however, the thirteen-year old daughter of the very personification of elite work ethic and competitive drive, revelled in the opportunity.
It started with her father. Gianna was inseperable from Kobe Bryant, not in the least because she became his devoted companion to basketball games across the country. Bryant loved to show off all of his daughters on social media, but Gianna’s love for basketball seemed to put her in the public eye that much more. Throughout the years, photographers captured their tender moments: a young Gianna low-fiving Bryant as he checked into a game, a warm hug at centre-court before Bryant’s last All-Star Game, and even a short viral video of Bryant explaining basketball strategy courtside at a Lakers game earlier this season. That would be the last time most people would see them two together again.
In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in 2018, Bryant recalled her determination with glowing pride.
"The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans will come up to me, she’ll be standing next to me, and they’ll be like, ‘Ay you got to have a boy, man… Someone to carry on your tradition, your legacy!’ She's like, 'Oy, I got this. Don't need a boy for that. I got this.'"
Bryant was a basketball icon whose incredible skill on the court was only matched by his wisdom, intelligence and outstanding ability as a father. He was three years removed from his last NBA game, a scintillating finale in which he had exerted every last fibre of his basketball being to will his team to victory, just as he had done countless times before in his career. That life, however, was a monotonous grind,
It was a tedious, day-to-day chore of self-refinement that demanded inhuman levels of sacrifice. Bryant played 48,637 official NBA minutes in his storied career, but ostensibly spent hundreds of thousands more in the pursuit of basketball perfection. He studied the NBA Referee handbook to abuse the implacable shortcomings of human eyesight and uncover “dead zones” where he could get away with various shirt pulls and push-offs.
“I have told many people that there was no other player,” Current Referee Josh Tiven tweeted in the wake of Bryant’s death, “I have ever officiated that made me think ‘damn, I need to be at my absolute best tonight’ more than Kobe.”
By the end of his career, he was falling apart. His pursuit had turned into a grueling battle with injuries and time, but he would not win this battle. Basketball had given Bryant everything, but not before he had given it everything of his own.
Bryant had excelled outside of Staples Center as well. He was an incredible husband and father to four wonderful daughters. He won an Academy Award with animator Glen Keane for their 2018 animated short film “Dear Basketball”. He was a politically-outspoken community figure and a mastermind youth coach. He also actively supported and championed women’s basketball in the face of faltering revenues and attendance. He had reaped the fruits of his labour for a mere three years, but if there is any comfort to be found in this tragedy, it is that Bryant lived his life to the fullest every day. At the age of 41, he leaves behind an unwavering and unforgettable legacy.
Gianna, on the other hand, was in eighth grade.
Unlike some of her sisters, Gianna had truly found her calling in basketball. GiGi, as she was affectionately known, had already become a budding basketball star with her sights set on the University of Connecticut, whose prestigious women’s basketball program in the country boasted a 111-game winning streak in 2018, and then the WNBA. UCLA began recruiting her as early as last year. Tutored by an all-time great and with access to the best resources that money and fame could offer, greatness seemed to be only a matter of time.
Bryant’s trademark Mamba Mentality had inevitably rubbed off on her. “If they don’t win the tournaments, do they have to sleep in the yard?” Jimmy Kimmel once joked in the same 2018 interview. A highlight tape of hers recently went viral that showed off the scope of her skill. She was making stepback jumpshots, forced turnovers with well-timed and suffocating defensive plays, and even showcased her creative flair with a spin move to get a wide open layup.
“They have a similar demeanor and personality,” said Bryant’s former Lakers teammate Derek Fisher, “You can tell he’s not far away.”
Her story is, with the exception of the privileged few who knew her personally, not one of fond remembrance. It is instead a miserable “what-if” story, a wretched tragedy that shakes your faith in a world where bad things happen to good people. We might not be able to think of Gianna without thinking of Bryant—not only because she was his devoted companion to basketball games across the country—but seemed virtually guaranteed that she would one day carve out a legacy of her own. As poised and motivated as any other thirteen-year old, the world was her oyster.
Some things are bigger than basketball. Besides the Bryants were seven other passengers in the fatal helicopter crash. Each of them also left home in the morning with plans for later that day. Each of them also had their own wonderful dreams. Each of them might have put aside an apology for later, crafting the right words only for them to be left forever unsaid.
Their story reminds us to always live with purpose and mindful appreciation.
We might never know when our time arbitrarily comes to an end, but it will always be our choice what we do with it. Develop an appetite for discovery. Love deeply and profusely. Mend burned bridges. Positively impact the lives of others. And never, ever take anything for granted.
Dima Sochnyev is a columnist at The Bench.