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Kobe Bryant and José Fernández had It

Although their lives were tragically cut short, Kobe Bryant and José Fernández will have an everlasting impact on the fans who watched them compete.

Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

I heard that Kobe died when I was drinking wine, looking over the crest of a hill on a breezy midday in Napa Valley. I was in the midst of one of those circular conversations that both people want to leave but just can’t seem to find the escape hatch phrase. A friend was standing behind me in a different circle of people and looking at his phone. Something about his connection to his phone in that moment reminded me of an ostrich burrowing its head into the ground.

My friend is 6’8” and looks like he used to be part of the Kentucky foothills from where he was born. Looks like a boulder decided to just not be a boulder anymore and start being a person. His name is (fittingly) Clay. Born in Kentucky and raised in Los Angeles, he has always been the Kobe fan in the friend group that you just couldn’t discuss Kobe with. If you’ve ever met a lapsed Cradle Catholic and notice the way they physically tighten when they hear anyone talk irreverently about the Virgin Mary, it is not very different from that.

I saw that burrowing look on his face and just said, “What, Clay?”

The texture of his eyes is something I will not forget for a long time. This rock-man with liquid eyes that just told me some part of his internal structuring had shifted abruptly and forever. “Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash.” That statement just dissipated all of the conversations like if you could remove all of the oxygen from a house fire.

I felt very self-aware and exposed on that hillside. I’m not the Napa type. My wife and I were lucky enough to find a two-for-one coupon, and we googled things like “What is Malbec” “How do you hold a nice wine glass” and “What should I say after I sniff wine” the night before. We move all over the country for work and live out of hotels for most of the year. “Gas station IPA drinkers” is not the descriptor we would prefer but it fits our happy, weird life right now.

I could tell that Clay needed to go back inside. The sommelier, sensing the deflated vibe, asked if the wine was okay. Clay told him what happened. We learned that the sommelier was born and raised in LA and taking a semester off from Loyola Marymount. He pulled out a new bottle and topped our glasses off. Not “refilled to the appropriate level of a glass in Napa Valley” topped off, but “long day at work, blinds closed, Netflix and sweats on” topped off. It felt like someone should have had words prepared, but instead we all looked like actors unable to ask for lines. We drank it, and I couldn’t tell you if it was good or bad to save my life. We found our wives who had gone on a walk through the vines and started making the trek back towards our hotel.

Riding in a mid-aughts Honda Accord with a 6’8” man is an experience. Trying to hash together a eulogy of Kobe to our wives, who really weren’t too aware of his importance beyond what they heard when people shot trash into a trash can, Clay said, “It is sort of like that guy from the Marlins except he was an idiot and killed himself.” Now, I would normally be willing to box another man’s ears if he said that, but Clay is, again, quite large while I am not. Plus, we’re in a tin can driving 65 miles per hour in the remote hills. And, he’s my friend that lost someone that meant so much to him in an unimaginably tragic way, just like I did with the loss of José.

Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images
David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The lives and deaths of Kobe Bryant and José Fernández are different and the same; paradoxically linked to my self image and my personal story. Everyone has their own telling and their own relationship with both men. My relationship with Kobe starts with my dad. My father worked on construction and landscaping sites for 30 years and still does today. He is a hard man with many Kobe-esque qualities about him. He is monastically focused on outworking anyone and everyone around him. He makes being constantly driven look like a simple task. I asked him once what he thought about during his 13-15 hour work days in the Georgia heat, and he responded, “Tomorrow.”

Kobe and my dad crossed paths for me in the 2004 NBA Finals. We were in between living situations and staying at my grandparents’ house for a few months. They had a big window that overlooked their little corner of the type of brown, murky lakes that dot the Chattahoochee River watershed. It was so hot that June that I wasn’t playing outside that day, and all of my friends were where we used to live, a few counties over, a world away to me at the time.

I, a quiet 10-year-old, was sitting at that window and looking at some of my Nana’s dusty jazz records. I could hear a basketball game playing and my dad shouting, which was odd to me since neither of those things ever happened in the house. Sneaking to the guestroom, I peaked inside and saw something new and different. One of those moments just etched into your childhood, just as fresh to me now as my reaction to the loss of both Kobe and José.

My dad was watching a VHS recording of Game 2 of the NBA Finals. It aired the night before, but he had to leave early for work. In the different world of 2004, it was pretty easy to avoid hearing what happened in the game if you didn’t want to.

With 10.9 seconds left, Shaq passes to Luke Walton and Walton to Kobe. 5.7 seconds left, down by 3, and Kobe’s left foot is on the “S” on the half-court logo. Los Angeles is on its feet and Rip Hamilton is on his heels, trying to prevent immortality. My father, standing at eye-level with the 18-inch box TV, seemed to be levitating. Kobe takes two steps to his left and nails a three to send it to overtime with my dad slamming his fist to his chest and drowning out Al Michaels on the call. Doc Rivers, the color commentary for the game, said, “Kobe Bryant has It. Whatever that It is, Al, he has It.”

That outburst of genuine emotion that Kobe’s performance emitted from my dad was something I never saw again on a regular level until I saw José Fernández play baseball. He was the physical embodiment of the emotion that Kobe created through the medium of basketball. For a lot of complicated reasons, I really believe that I started to learn how to love my dad in that moment that Kobe created, and I started to learn how to love myself because of the way that José played.

José did not play baseball—he found joy within the game of baseball. He functioned off of it. He stood out on TV like it was a pop-up book. In a grinding, daunting season like baseball’s, he seemed to grasp every moment with his whole being. For someone really struggling with grinding, daunting aspects of being a young adult, José was the living, breathing example of how to subsist on joy. Go back and watch his first game in 2015. That was his return from Tommy John surgery and rehab, and he threw six solid innings and hit a home run. There isn’t a lot of emotion flashing across his face in that game but look at the crowd:

José commanded joy, for himself, the fans in the park, and for me. I was fine with removing the Home Run Sculpture from Marlins Park because José seemed like the only alive person that could have been capable of making it function. What else is the feeling that José provided if not a seven-story carnival ride with leaping marlins, flashing lights, and erupting water?

Robert Duyos/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The end of a public figure’s life is always complicated. In what ways should we honor someone we said we loved when they were alive, despite only knowing the shadow of their real self called celebrity? What do we do with the complexities and ramifications of the sometimes horrible decisions that these real men really made? How do we best support the people that loved these men, when they’re the ones truly suffering from the waves of grief and anguish—people like little Penelope, daughter of José, his mother and grandmother, and Vanessa, wife of Kobe and mother of Gianna?

These are questions that don’t have answers that are good or true or finalized in my opinion. However, we are able to honor those moments when those pieces of their real selves reached out past the lines on the court or on the field and touched us. Sometimes it means a lot in the moment, sometimes it burrows in and waits until the years later.

I haven’t thought about that memory from 2004 in a really, really long time. I actually thought about José on Sunday morning before we left for the vineyard. I pulled on a black, number 16 t-shirt before slipping a pullover over it with no clue that it would be a synecdoche for so many of the feelings of disastrous loss across the world that day.

Maybe someday I’ll know how to properly memorialize Kobe Bryant and José. None of this feels right or genuine enough for the two men that meant so much to me and helped me become the person I am today. I’ll come back to it later, but for now, I’m going to call my Dad.