Philadelphia is no stranger to the color green. When the Eagles are making a run into the playoffs, it shows up everywhere in and around the city.
Right now in my home town, where I was raised and still live to this day, green is popping up for a different reason. Many of the residents of Havertown, PA are installing green lighting on their houses to support three local teenagers fighting battles with cancer.
The trend started with friends and family, but spread to local businesses and now entire neighborhoods are illuminated in emerald. It’s inspiring to drive down a local street to see people supporting and rooting for a neighbor whom they may have never met or never will. The only thing some of these neighbors share is a zip code and the hope in humanity.
Kobe Bryant attended high school not far from Havertown, just down the road in Lower Merion. Haverford High and Lower Merion have a healthy rivalry in most sports, but before, during, and after Bryant’s time at LM, the Aces crushed Haverford in boy’s basketball with constant consistency.
My father coached in the same league as Lower Merion for many years, including during Bryant’s time with the Aces. The stories of Kobe’s prowess at that age are still legendary around here. On countless occasions I’ve heard my dad tell the story of his team’s best defender, and the guy assigned to cover Bryant, insisting, “He’s not that good,” at the end of the first quarter, before being told that Kobe had 18 points in the games’ first eight minutes.
I had a chance to possibly meet Kobe, or at least see him from up close, when I was 9 or 10 years old. I was the biggest NBA fan in the world, could name every player in the league, and looked at All-Stars like they were gods.
Lower Merion head coach Greg Downer invited my father and I to Kobe’s jersey retirement, making a point to enthusiastically extend the invite to me, knowing I was a massive basketball fan. I’d have gotten to see Kobe, Shaq, and the rest of the Lakers who were in town to play the Sixers during a road trip.
Instead, I politely declined. My dad’s jaw dropped and he circled back with me, asking, “Are you sure?”
I stood my ground, repeating, “No, thank you.” After Coach Downer had walked away, my father quickly turned and needed an explanation. Without missing a beat I asserted, “Dad, it’s Kobe. It’s the Lakers! It’s Lower Merion. How could I?”
Kobe was the iconic face on a team that loved to be hated, and came from a high school that became the Duke Blue Devils of the Philadelphia suburbs. Some of my earliest memories of watching basketball included Kobe as an adversary. He was a joy to root against. He lived out one of the most defined and visible narratives of any sports star of our time. You didn’t have to be rooting for Kobe Bryant to be in awe of him.
In the same way that actors and audiences are drawn to the villain roles in cinema, some athletes suck fans in, with a tornado of emotions. On the basketball court, Kobe Bryant could be a Bond villian, the Joker, or Thanos. He was going to dominate, whether you were with him or not. His mentality, his fire, and his determination made him more than a player on the court. He was a comic book character, a fairy tale, or a demi-god to many.
As basketball fan, there was no better player to debate about, to criticize, or doubt than Kobe Bryant. He was always going to rise to the occasion and create a new part of his story. Opposition was fuel to Kobe. It was motivation to be greater. Comparing him unfavorably to Jordan or LeBron brought more out of him.
His journey as a public figure has been a remarkable ride, coinciding with the rise of the internet, social media, and 24 hour coverage. Even his flaws and his mistakes, which were justifiably publicized, were worth ruminating on, discussing, and building on, both on a personal level and in our society. His profile endured that time of his life, accompanied by equal parts backlash, outrage, and a re-solidifying of the foundation that made him beloved by many in the first place.
In recent years, it became endlessly apparent that Kobe Bryant’s priorities focused on passing his legacy, his personality, and his mindset to his daughters. Every video you see on social media or TV this week of Kobe and Gianna together will hurt because of the potential now lost. His potential to be a father. Her potential to be great, whether in basketball or life or any path she chose.
Seeing those videos during a time when the town around me is filled with constant bright green reminders of the fragility of life is particularly jarring. So many members of the media and the basketball community are using the loss of those in that helicopter crash as a reminder to be a better person, a better family member, and to show intimacy with your loved ones. Jay Williams, who himself survived a terrible accident, showed that perspective on ESPN, using this tragedy as a trigger to forget petty differences and squabbles. Our time on this earth is precious.
Being in a green-lit Havertown and hearing those sentiments adds a layer of additional weight. Just miles down the road from where fans and friends have laid flowers and memorials at the door of a gym that bears Kobe Bryant’s name, a town is supporting and championing a group fighting for their own lives.
Seeing the possibility and the potential of human life end in something as abrupt as a helicopter crash is hard to comprehend. Seeing people fight disease is easier for us to process. It’s gradual. It’s linear. Something is wrong and we have time to fight and challenge it. Our brains can grapple with that more easily. For nine people to die in an accident well before their time should come, the world feels unfathomably cruel and unfair. Fighting cancer as a teenager is a reality that we struggle to accept. Dying in an accident at an even younger age feels impossible.
Regardless of our ability to process the end of life, or the fight to keep life with us, they act as a calling to us all. Every day and every person has a story, a reason, and a truth worth sharing.
Kobe Bryant’s legacy won’t be his awards, his championships, or his records. The moment that his death, and the deaths of those with him on Sunday, has created will live on.
Sports can feel very serious. The final moments of a game are filled with pressure and adrenaline, but those moments are not life and death. They can’t compare to the real life tragedy we saw on Sunday. They don’t compare to the fights against illness, violence, injustice, and the evils (human or otherwise) in our world.
I never met Kobe or Gianna Bryant, nor their friends in their aircraft on Sunday. I haven’t even met Lily, Hannah, or Jack, the teenagers fighting for their lives in my hometown. They aren’t fictional characters to blindly use as inspiration. Their lives are real and their message is simple.
We have to care for and show love for one another. One day, we won’t have that chance. If you see a green light in Havertown or a video of the Bryant family online this week, a moment of sadness is inevitable, but it’s more important to use that emotion to bring more positivity into this world.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.