It’s still so painful to think about Sunday’s helicopter crash. I didn’t know these families personally, yet my heart pours out to all those who are suffering so much right now due to their great loss.
Before Sunday I didn’t know anything about Kobe Bryant, so I read the obituary and thought I had watched his short film, “Dear Basketball”, which was based off a poem he had written in 2015 to announce his retirement. (It appears that wasn’t the real copy so then all copies that were circulating on the internet were taken down according to the January 28, 2020 article posted in the Los Angeles Times). But it didn’t matter, I was touched by his words, not the images.
I watched basketball back in the day when Dad was involved. It was a passion that we shared. A way of seeing the sport through each other’s eyes. The love that we shared for the sport bonded us in a way that meant just as much to me as our family ties.
And when Dad quit coaching, I stored it all away. All those emotions, all that love, all that analysis. When Mom had to leave games early and take my sister home, my best friend and I would stay until the end. We’d have to go through the tunnel to get to the area outside the locker room, where my Dad would meet us. I would be too embarrassed to say I was Bill Cunningham’s daughter, especially if it was a guard who didn’t know me. So while I shuffled my feet (I probably looked like a kid who had to go to the bathroom), I’d say, “I need to meet my Dad”.
The guard would say, “You’re not allowed past this point. No fans allowed”.
My friend, not in the least embarrassed, would speak up and say, “We’re not fans; she’s Bill Cunningham’s daughter”.
It was the guard’s turn to get embarrassed and he’d say, “I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you just say so?”
But how could I explain he was just my dad and the locker room where we could find him was the closest thing he had to an office? And, Oh yeah, he was my ride home. It sounded made up.
There’s something about Kobe’s ode to basketball that opened up the basketball floodgates stored inside of me. This feeling that I had when I finally got into the car and I had my Dad to myself: no reporters, no fans, no autographs–just us, where we could recap, not the stats, but what really had happened on the court that night.
Sunday’s helicopter accident woke up the stories inside of me. They come from that place where the truth seems like make believe and the fiction seems so believable. It’s just a mind trip really, but writing about it would have made it real.
But underneath my surreal life, and a deep desire to be normal like everybody else, there was this love for basketball. Since I couldn’t play, the time would come when it would no longer be in our lives. Little did I know then that it would get stored away as a childhood memory.
So I heard Kobe’s words wash over me and reawaken my soul. It was like he was tapping me on the shoulder saying, “There are so many great stories, just like mine. They all need to be told before it’s too late.” Thank goodness Kobe got to tell his. He’s left us with so many powerful words.
I was eager to watch his documentary, “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” which can be rented. (I rented it through Amazon). Sadly it took his death for me to notice Kobe. I didn’t follow his career or his teenage years when he was already making a name for himself in my hometown; I had already moved to New York and I didn’t watch basketball anymore. Whether I followed him or not, there’s an incestuousness to basketball. The paths of our fathers had intersected: Dad had coached Kobe’s father.
And so, the opening words on the screen hit home with me: “There is power in understanding the journey of others to help create your own.”
I want to understand Kobe’s journey because he was graced by the same love for the game of basketball that I had been touched with as a kid. It was always an indescribable feeling and I couldn’t put words to it as a fan or a player. Kobe finally could put words to the very love that I had felt and hid from all these years.
He spoke to this unwritten emotional obligation that we all felt. It’s as if the guys had written in blood to never defame the game. To love the sport no matter what bad things could come from it. When Kobe said he tried to be Superman around the other guys, especially in his darkest hour and in light of his injury to his Achilles heal, he spoke to that sense of duty. He had a similar injury that ended the career of many basketball greats so he would have by no means been a quitter if he were to leave the game.
I flashed back to my Dad. We used the Superman joke, too. He would work out even if he had the flu. There wasn’t an excuse to miss a workout. None. It was as bad as missing church on Sunday. Sometimes after a workout, he’d hobble down the stairs to the basement. His old knee injury, which ended his career, would sometimes be the culprit, though Dad would never admit that. We’d watch him disappear and we’d shake our heads, “He’s crazy.”
But nothing is crazy to a basketball legend. They give their bodies to the game, as if they are Superman, but they don’t stop there. They also give their minds over to the game. They drink, sleep and eat it. It was endearing to hear how Kobe loved how his grandfather sent tapes of the American basketball games while they were living in Italy so he could watch, rewatch and study those tapes…To think of all the tapes in our own basement.
The day after I heard about the crash, I went into the basement. In the old house we called it “the cave”. My Dad would be down there sitting in one of three spots. There was the frayed yellow couch that had survived the 70s and maybe a quick war. Or he’d be sitting up close and next to the TV screen, working the VCR, in the purple kidney-bean chair. Or when it was getting late and he was getting tired, there was an ugly green lazy boy in the corner.
No matter where he migrated to, he’d be watching basketball games. We were one of the few people I knew to own a Betamax and then later a VHS. I was the only one in the family who knew how to operate it (hello, push play and record at the same time), so I became responsible for taping the games. It would get hairy because sometimes I’d think I had pushed both buttons, but I hadn’t, and I’d miss a game (that didn’t go over well!). But when I got it right, Dad would be watching.
Now the basement is where I had a workspace with piles of papers marking thirty years of research, storyboards, islands, drafts, edits and class notes for my old book idea. I knew what I had come down there to do. I piled them all away into plastic bins. I learned how to write on that story, and maybe that was all it was good for. It’s time to say good-bye.
Kobe’s words have been drawing me into a greater story. There are so many legends. And one day, poof, they too will be so faded we won’t be able to remember them anymore.
My tables were all clear; I got the bin of newspapers that Mom had saved over the years. They had survived a fire and poor storage so I got them and laid them all out on my tables. I put them in piles depending on what year they were written. Sometimes a stray photo would be in there so I put those to the side along with the brochures and glossy items. There were three articles of me as a girl, strewn in with the final edition of the Bulletin, and major life events like that first man walking on the moon. Relics of time. At .25 cents it wasn’t meant to last.
Looking at our lives through the newspapers, I was reminded of how much family always meant to Mom and Dad. We were there for Dad even if it was just Mom calling us to the TV when Dad was on his road trips, “Look at your Dad, he looks so tired. Does he look tired to you?”
It was hard on Mom. She’d get so nervous during the games, she’d turn off the TV and tell me to go watch it in the other room and then she’d nervously say, “Yell out if anything important happens.” She’d then rake the orange carpet. It had a few bald spots, but that didn’t stop her, she’d go ahead and rake those parts, too.
That’s how we were a family, and family meant more to Dad than basketball–that’s how much he loved us.
In 2003, Kobe went from being at the top of his game to the next year having no idea if he’d keep playing. But he had his family and he had to be strong for them. Only as Kobe did his physical therapy, I could hear the sports reporter wondering aloud if Kobe could make a comeback and then he quoted an announcer who always would say, ‘Father time is undefeated’; and it’s the truth”.
I smiled, even through the tears, because those sports reporters always had a way of saying something so profound before they’d tag on a cliche. They could never just leave a great quote alone.
But Kobe seemed unfazed by the warning and the cliche. Instead, he spoke of his teammates, “We have a bond that will never be broken because the lion looked us in the face and we looked back.” Indeed, that’s what I’d seen with Dad. Once a teammate, always a teammate. Once a coach, always a coach. Even now, Dad loves his players just as much as he loves us and just as much as he loved the sport.
Kobe singled out his particular affinity to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. In fact, Kobe said they were his muses. He wanted more than anything to prove himself worthy to sit at the same table with them and belong there. And that meant the world to him because as a kid when Kobe first moved to the States, he sat alone at the lunch table.
For me, I found my childhood muses were Dad’s friends. It was a rare occasion when it happened, but there was something magical about sitting around a table with them in a restaurant. It was pure bliss to hear their stories. I got to see Dad the way his friend’s saw him: how funny he was and what a great storyteller.
And Kobe was a great storyteller as he described his first game back after his injury and what he felt with childish delight, “I could feel the energy in the building, the sounds of the cameras, the smell of popcorn, the sounds of people walking around, preparing for the game, I could feel the intensity in the air…There’s an energy that you can tap into, once you feel it. Everything becomes you; you become everything.”
But there is that bitter ending. It must inevitably come. Brought by none other than father time. It’s very poignant when Kobe asks, “Do you ever truly know this is the moment to walk away?” It brought back memories of Dad asking us at the dinner table what did we think if he quit coaching. I burst out in tears and I said, “My whole life is basketball. It’s all that I know.”
Dad always said when he was a player he thought selfishly, and it was all about offense, but when he was a coach, he used to think for the team, and he changed his strategy to defense. I was far from being a parent yet–that makes you a coach you know. All I could do was think like a player. I was thinking selfishly and about how his decision would impact me. I didn’t want him to leave the sport I loved. He had the choice, whether to go or not, and he stayed for a few more years. But I wish I could go back and tell him “it’s okay to go Dad; you did what you needed to do.”
Somehow there’s a seed in all of these memories I just know it. As Kobe said, a basketball was the seed that started everything for him. And before the papers fade so I can’t read the newsprint anymore, I need to capture the stories that are buried there.
And then there’s one image Kobe left me with: his adult self sitting in a ball park at 3 in the morning staring at his 8 year old self sitting on a ball across from him. As that adult he knew all the pain he would have to go through and he wondered what would he tell his 8 year old self? At that point, he would have said, “I don’t know if I’d keep playing.”
Luckily his 8 year old self didn’t listen. The seed had already been planted and the momentum had taken over. But then I remember the sadder truth: that Kobe’s daughters will never have memories to put behind his words. They’ll only be able to see their father on TV. And when the credits roll at the end of the documentary and we see some of the home videos, it’s the only way they’ll be able to see their sister, too. And for his dear wife, as hard as it was on Mom, Dad got to come home.
It was with such great sadness to see this all come to an end. And yet Kobe’s adult and 8 year old selves can always live on, whenever we want to bring them back into our consciousness.
Not to end on a sad note, let’s bring this back to Kobe’s muse: who are the muses that you would want to pay tribute to at your table?