Celebrity deaths grip us as a society, and there’s nothing wrong with that

Obviously the big news on Sunday was the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who were among those killed in a helicopter crash in California.

Naturally, social media lit up with reactions as people from all walks of life remembered and mourned the death of the former Lakers star.

And, naturally, there were plenty of folks who decried the attention that Bryant’s death was receiving. One story in particular that began making the rounds on Facebook was the account of an American military helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan in 2005, killing all 20 of the special ops service members who were aboard.

I’m going to be honest: it’s a little irritating when folks try to use deaths to score points for an argument that really shouldn’t be an argument in the first place. And something that happened nearly 15 years ago has exactly zero bearing on Sunday’s tragedy.

I understand their sentiment; I really do. A large number of people who were fighting for our freedoms and way of life died, and no one cared. A guy who makes a lot of money to play the game of basketball died, and everyone cares. It hardly seems fair. It hardly is fair, if we’re being honest. And, yet, at the same time, it’s perfectly understandable. (And it should be pointed out that the 2005 helicopter crash gripped the nation because of the number of victims; perhaps not on the same level as Kobe Bryant’s death, but moreso than an incident in which simply one or two servicemen or women are killed.)

There is a reason that the deaths of celebrities grip us, whether they’re sports stars or movie icons or legendary singers. These people are very much a part of our lives. Whether it’s the sports they play, the movies they appear in or the songs they sing, they come into our homes night after night after night, day after day, for years, whether it’s through the television, the radio, our phone, etc. We feel like we know them, even though we’ve never met them. And, in a certain sense, we do. We often know more about them — their spouses’ names, their kids’ names, their political preferences, their likes and dislikes — than we know about many of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis.

For those of us who are a part of Generation X and are basketball fans, Kobe Bryant was one of a select few players who defined the game. I don’t watch NBA games anymore, but there was a time when I was very much attuned to the league. I was a San Antonio Spurs fan, so Kobe Bryant was a player who it was very natural to love to hate. During the era when I kept up with every game, every state line, every transaction during an NBA season, the ‘90s and ‘00s, the Spurs and the Lakers were the undisputed powers of the Western Conference. So I couldn’t stand Kobe Bryant. I couldn’t stand him because he was lethal…and because he was so confident. He was the best player of his day, and he knew it…and he made you accept it. It didn’t matter if the Lakers were playing the Spurs or the Sun or someone else entirely…I was paying attention to see if they got beat.

Contrast that with soldiers who die in a war zone. They’re just names we don’t know. Certainly, as we learn the stories behind who they were, and their sacrifice, it drives home the tragedy of their death and that becomes real to us. But we don’t need anyone to tell those stories when it’s an icon of popular culture who dies, because they’re actually a part of our lives. 

That doesn’t mean the celebrities’ lives are any more meaningful than the service members’ lives. But, by the same token, the service members’ lives are no more meaningful than the celebrities’ lives. I think most would agree that fighting for our nation’s armed forces is a profession that’s more noble and honorable than being paid to entertain the masses, but at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and we’re all on equal footing. So it’s perfectly natural to feel impacted by the shocking news of a celebrity’s death.

And there’s no shame in that. My son said yesterday that Kobe Bryant’s death had impacted him more than any other celebrity death. I didn’t sit him down for a talk about how he should feel ashamed because he placed more value on some basketball player than on a soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. What he felt was perfectly natural. He is a huge basketball fan; spends a lot of time every day watching basketball videos. He is too young to remember Kobe Bryant when Kobe was in his prime, but he’s seen all the highlight videos and is well aware of who Kobe Bryant was as both a basketball player and as a father and human being after basketball.

There’s another part of the story that causes it to grip us even tighter, of course, and that’s the death of Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who was on board. Like her father, Gigi was a very talented basketball player — one who was probably set to elevate the game of women’s basketball. That’s a bold statement, perhaps, but she was positioned to become the face of the WNBA in a few years ago. And while Pat Summitt blazed a trail for women in basketball and other pioneers followed as both players and coaches to make that trail easier to follow, the women’s game still isn’t on equal footing with the men’s game. Not even close. Gigi seemed poised to help the women’s game help take that next step if she continued to realize her full potential as she grew up.

It’s okay to be stunned, even saddened, by events like Sunday’s. Kobe Bryant may not have known life as most of us know it — living paycheck to paycheck, deciding whether to go on vacation or replace a failing HVAC unit in our home, struggling with a 9-to-5 job that bores us — but 41 is still much too young to die … he had overcome his transgressions and imperfections as a young adult to become a shining example of a role model for youth who look up to professional athletes … and nobody, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, should be doomed to a fiery death with their 13-year-old child as their failed aircraft plummets to earth. 

Maybe our society does place too much adulation on sports stars and celebrities. Maybe we do tend to tune out the things that are really important a little too much. But there are millions of Americans who will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kobe Bryant had died, just as there are still millions who remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Elvis died. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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