After Roberto Clemente died, thousands of people descended on his hometown of Carolina. They surrounded his house and stood in the streets weeping.
“It was as if the king of Puerto Rico had died,” then-Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn said. “And, in a sense, he had.”
Mr. Clemente died on New Year’s Eve, 1972, in an air crash. His plane was carrying emergency supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
In the pantheon of athletic deaths, Mr. Clemente’s may be the most mythic – an iconic baseball player on an expedition of mercy.
“If he had died in a common way, people would still remember him,” Mr. Clemente’s widow, Vera, said years later. “But December 31st, it was a special day, and his was a special mission.”
Mr. Clemente was also young (38) and near the peak of his powers. That is a powerful inducement to grief in our society.
Kobe Bryant ticks most of those boxes, but he wasn’t as warm a figure as Mr. Clemente. If you are old enough to remember young Kobe – the cockiest of several personality iterations – that guy was difficult to like.
Yet news of Mr. Bryant’s death has prompted the same wellspring of grief and disbelief as Mr. Clemente’s. The internet is awash with it.
In the hours after Mr. Bryant died on Sunday, thousands were drawn to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, though no games were going on there.
They built shrines and stood around holding candles. Most dressed in vestments – Bryant jerseys. All the trappings of religion were in evidence.
We don’t have heroes, as such, any more. Not in the sense of people held in universal regard about whom we know very little except their exploits. No one needed to know what Hercules got up to in his spare time. They just knew about the 12 labours.
Everyone is compromised in some way, but there’s only so much reality anyone can put up with.
If we can no longer agree to admire all politicians, military figures or thinkers of note, the masses need at least one group that gets a pass. Athletes are it.
They have the advantage of having gotten where they are on their own merits.
They are also the emblematic artists of modern times. If novelists and painters were held in highest regard in the first part of the 20th century, athletes are the Joyces and Picassos of the early 21st. Who else is more famous for their creative genius?
It’s even easier than that because you can take subjectivity out of it. We can argue about whether there are a bunch of better painters than Jackson Pollock. We cannot argue that there are a bunch of better basketball players than LeBron James. Because painting doesn’t keep statistics.
A great athlete gets the further advantage of familiarity.
If you follow sports, you have probably known about them since they were kids. They may have been in college when you were in school. It’s possible they got their first real job about the same time you did. You’ve watched them on the regular for years and years.
They aren’t your friends, but some part of your lizard brain – the part that can’t differentiate between two- and three-dimensional images – believes they are.
Like all the rest of your friends, they are meant to survive at least as long as you do.
When they retire, you feel regret. Not because you’ll miss them, so much as the fact that it means you’re getting old, too.
Mr. Bryant got past that milestone without provoking much reaction. Most people thought he’d stayed a bit too long. But once he’d died, that flipped over.
It’s only been a few hours, but we are already at the point of arguing whether or not it is right to mourn Mr. Bryant without also cataloguing his faults.
That’s a reasonable argument to have, but I think it misses the point.
People do not feel sad about Mr. Bryant’s death because they believe he was such an exemplar of human decency. He was a basketball player, not Nelson Mandela.
Mostly, they feel sad because some part of themselves has changed – the part that feels as if things will continue on as they are forever.
Mr. Bryant was a cornerstone in the lives of any North American sports fan between the ages of 25 and 50. His personality was so enormous, his public life so full of incident, that you felt constantly aware of him.
Do you remember that feeling you had when you first noticed that an athlete you thought of as your contemporary got old? That’s not a great feeling. Because while you can kid yourself that you haven’t changed much since high school, seeing an Adonis you grew up with turn flabby and wrinkly is harder to ignore.
But it is much worse when they die young.
This feels like something worse than mortality. It feels like unfairness. They had everything and then, all of a sudden, they have nothing.
If it can happen to them, with all their vigour and financial privilege insulating them from reality, then sure as hell it can happen to you.
When people say they are devastated by Mr. Bryant’s death, or can’t believe it happened, that’s the feeling they are grappling with. That their world will also end and there isn’t much sense to it.
This grief has no moral aspect, though those are the terms we use because we aren’t equipped with any others. It’s a lament of fate, which is universal, immutable and does not care how well you lived your life.
In this sense, Mr. Clemente and Mr. Bryant are the same. We remember them young and promising, like we hope we were. When they pass, we are reminded that’s coming for us, too.
Those ideas are hard to grapple with without thinking very big thoughts about existence, higher purpose and what it all means. And neither the imaginary world of sports nor the harshness of real life equip us for those.