What We Can Learn From the Death of Kobe Bryant

Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant died on Sunday in a helicopter crash in Southern California. The crash took the lives of nine people, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

Bryant, 41, retired in 2016 after a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and is considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Off the court, he was a husband, father of four, and a Catholic. As news of his death broke, many shared memories of seeing Bryant and his family at Mass, and pointed to how Bryant credited his Catholic faith with getting him through the darkest times of his life.

When a public figure meets an untimely death, it often generates a national conversation about our mortality, the public figure’s legacy, and how to navigate celebrating a person’s great achievements without glossing over their failures. To share some lessons we can learn from the life and death of Kobe Bryant, Fr. Edward Looney stopped by Morning Air® and offered his perspective.

Some on social media, after hearing the news of his death, shared that they had seen Bryant at Sunday Mass on the day he died. Fr. Looney pointed out, “Lots of people in the Catholic world commented on how meaningful that is. We think of our viaticum, our last Holy Communion, and for him that was yesterday.”

News that Bryant had been to Mass on the day he died was a comfort for many, but Fr. Looney emphasized that it should also serve as a reminder for us about the importance of a good death.

“We never know when death is going to come for us,” he said. “And so that’s always an invitation for us to always live in the state of grace, to live a life pleasing to God every moment of every day.”

While Bryant’s legacy includes five NBA championships, a league MVP award, and many other distinctions, it also includes the accusation that he raped a woman in a Colorado hotel room in 2003. Bryant admitted to a sexual encounter with the woman, but denied that it was sexual assault. Bryant reached a settlement in a civil lawsuit with his accuser, and issued her an apology.

In a 2015 interview with GQ, Bryant opened up about how it was his Catholic faith that helped him turn his life around after that experience. In the interview he said, “I started to consider the mortality of what I was doing. …  I was terrified. The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest.”

This is a reminder that the Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. Despite the real harm Bryant caused through his actions, the Church was a place he could turn to find hope, healing, and redemption.

Fr. Looney said, “That’s a beautiful story of how the Church is there. The Church was there when he wanted to come and to turn his life around and seek new directions through the sacraments, through Confession, through Mass.”

Kobe Bryant will be remembered as one of the greatest basketball stars of all time, as a loving father, as a generous member of his community, as an icon. But the #MeToo movement has shown the lasting damage that sexual assault has on the lives of so many women. In the 2015 GQ interview, writer Chuck Klosterman wrote of Bryant’s rape accusation, “The incident will (obviously) never go away. When Bryant dies, the accusation will probably appear in the second paragraph of his obituary. And he knows this.”

So how do we celebrate someone turning their life around while holding them accountable for their past actions? How do we judge the legacy of someone whose life contained the highest highs and the lowest lows? Fr. Looney advised that our job is not to judge those who have died, but to pray for them.

“Judgment definitely is something that that we should try to leave behind,” he said. “And Christ alone is the judge. He’s merciful, we know, but also just. And so we turn to the Lord and ask him to not make us the judges and arbitrators, but to allow him to take on that role that the Father has assigned to him.”

Please join us in praying for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and all who lost their lives in Sunday’s helicopter crash. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Listen to the full conversation with Fr. Edward Looney below:

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