Kobe Bryant and the Unfolding of Identity

Monday, January 27, 2020
Pasadena, California

Kobe Bryant and the Unfolding of Identity

Less than 24 hours ago, Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

Our identities immediately began morphing.

Can you see how the world looks different?

It has changed—even for people like me who disgrace traditional masculine identity by knowing almost nothing about sports.

I knew who Kobe Bryant was.

Who didn’t?

Our minds have shifted.

This basketball legend, and African-American hero, is now dead. His brilliant success, money, family and fame ultimately left him as vulnerable as the rest of us.

None of us know when our end will come.

The devastated members of his immediate family, as well as the millions paying tribute to his life, experienced another, perhaps more subtle reaction:

An increased awareness of their own vulnerability.

We live in almost constant denial of it, perhaps best described in Ernest Becker’s book, Denial of Death.

The terrible tragedy brings to mind two key ideas:

First, our mind-brains are like radio receptors, receiving immense amounts of information from the culture. Of course, we get myriad stimuli from the inside, i.e. from our peripheral nervous system. But a great deal of what comprises human subjectivity comes from the outside—the print, digital, and social media—not to mention our social lives.

We humans are like fish swimming in a cultural pond.

We rarely notice the water all around us, and yet it creates a great deal of our internal worlds.

Now, Kobe is gone.

Millions mourn.

The world will never be the same.

And, yet, we have already begun to alter our internal narratives. This amazing athletic genius is now history, vanished, sliding into the past. We may feel great sadness for his family, and for the millions who loved him. But, already, we’ve started to move on.

Second, the losses of him and his daughters highlight the unfortunate emphasis on celebrity—yet another feature of the pond in which we swim.

Yesterday, and repeatedly, news reports read:

Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter were killed yesterday, along with seven other passengers.


Just who were these seven other human beings?

One apparently was the pilot.

Their lives are just as upended as Kobe’s.

On the one hand, Kobe influenced millions of people to strive for excellence. He was a role model. He was also a philanthropist with a specific interest in tech companies.

On the other hand, these other seven persons have now died, meaning parents have lost children, children have lost parents, friends have lost friends, and on and on.

In our age of the spectacle, it is easy to forget the lives of the ordinary.


Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.

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