Culture Life

What Inside the NBA Taught Me About Grieving Someone I’ve Never Met

The last thing I expected watching NBA on TNT last night was for Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neal to help me process why I’m so heartbroken over a man I never met.

Last night I was watching NBA on TNT. It was the first episode since Kobe Bryant passed away on Sunday. Each of the commentators and guest commentators knew Kobe as a friend, a teammate, or covered his career. At one point Charles Barkley openly raised a question that I’ve been wrestling with myself. Charles asked, “I didn’t know Kobe very well at all. But when I heard he was dead I just started crying. I couldn’t understand it, why was I grieving someone I didn’t really know?”

I’ve been asking myself that question over and over again the last few days. At different points during the day I just feel sad. My heart sinks, my face drops, and my head starts to ache. I’m really grieving and like Barkley shared, I don’t understand why because I never met Kobe. After Barkley asked the question, Kenny Smith jumped in providing an answer that affirmed my own conclusion. Smith said, “The reason so many people are grieving over Kobe is because we all see some of ourselves in him. Kobe’s life reminds all of us of our own stories in some way.” I couldn’t agree more.

The conversation Charles and Kenny were having on Inside the NBA I had with my two oldest kids on Sunday night. While sitting in my back patio taking in some fresh air, while processing my grief, my kids came to sit with me. My oldest son asked, “Daddy did you know Kobe?” I said, “no son, I never met him.” My daughter chimed in, “Then why are you sad that he’s gone?” Thinking for a second…”Well sweetie, I think it’s because Kobe gave me hope when your tio George died.”

As I process my grief, I’m realizing there have been five deaths that have shook me and have had a lasting impact on my life. What’s interesting is that four of the deaths tie into one very personal death. Let me explain.

The Death of My Older Brother

I don’t talk about the death of my older brother very much anymore. When he first passed away, I wouldn’t shut up about him. His name was George and he was 11 years older than me. He played multiple roles in my life. Growing up George was a father figure (my first steps were to him), my best friend, my mentor, and the person I aspired to be like. I used to call him “brother” and when my mom told me his name was George, not brother, I cried because somehow calling him George made him feel distant to me. Whatever George wanted or expected from me became my life’s mission because he was my big brother. When neighborhood kids bullied me, George showed up, when I was afraid, George comforted me, when I needed to hear a hard truth, George told it like it was.

Picture of older brother before passing away.
My brother George and Mom around 1995

As much as he meant to me, he wasn’t a saint. George got involved in drugs and alcohol when he was 13 years old. Most of my memories of him are either the best memories or nightmares. Sadly, by the time I was 15, drugs and alcohol had overtaken my brother. He developed cirrhosis of the liver and the last memories I have are my brother bed ridden, angry, and a shell of himself. One of the biggest regrets in my life is the last time he and I spoke we argued. To pour salt in the wound, while he was in the hospital dying he asked for me to be by his side and I chose not to go… I wasn’t angry I just didn’t want my last memory of George to be him dying. The only time my big brother asked me to be there for him I didn’t show up.

This year will be 20 years since my brother died and I still feel the pain and guilt of not being there when he needed me. Over the years, four other deaths have occurred that have brought me back to the pain and grief I felt when my brother died.

Paul Walker

In 2001 the original Fast and Furious hit theaters. It came out almost exactly a year after George died. I remember seeing that movie for the first time with my friends and feeling like life could exist after the death of my brother. Like Paul Walker I owned an eclipse, which immediately made him my new hero.

Paul Walker in car for Fast and the Furious
Paul Walker in Fast and the Furious

On November 30, 2013 I was hanging out at home when my wife told me, “Babe! You’re not gonna believe this, Paul Walker just died in a car accident!” After denying it and writing it off as a hoax, I broke down. I remember sitting with my hands in my head just sobbing. My wife thought I was joking at first. When she realized I wasn’t she asked, “why is this hitting you so hard?” My response was something like, “Paul Walker helped me pick up the pieces after George died.”

Chester Bennington

Linkin Park has had such an influence on me that I have their first album cover tattooed on my left arm. As a matter of fact, it was my first tattoo. At the peak of the Rock/Rap fusion craze in the early ’00’s Linkin Park was a healing balm to my grieving soul. Specifically, Chester Bennington, whose voice had such a painful whine, felt like I had someone who intimately felt the pain I was experiencing.

Chester Benington of Linkin Park

I was with my family driving to Book People, a local bookstore, when news broke on the radio that Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, committed suicide. He died on June 20, 2017. For the next hour, my family and I drove up and down the same street so I could weep and process my emotions. Again, the reason I was so broken up was because Chester put into words the pain and grief I felt at 15 but didn’t know how to express.

Nipsey Hussle

March 31, 2019, Nipsey Hussle, the Rapper and Entrepreneur, was assassinated outside his Marathon Clothing Store in Los Angeles. Nipsey is actually younger than I am. He wasn’t someone who was a comfort or influence in helping me deal with the grief of my brother’s passing. What makes Nipsey unique on this list is that he reminded me of George. What I admire most about Nipsey was his Robin Hood and Machiavellian approach to life. Both of those traits could be used to describe my brother.

Nipsey Hussle at basketball game
Nipsey Hussle

George was the kind of guy who would see a homeless person on the street or young woman who needed help and talk to them like they were his best friends. It was common place for my brother to give complete strangers rides, give them money, take them grocery shopping, or help them however he could. I’ve learned more about Christian mercy and compassion from my alcoholic brother than anyone in the church. That’s not meant to be a knock on Christians, it’s the truth.

Like George, Nipsey used what he learned through drug dealing and gang banging, to create his own record label and invest back into his neighborhood. Nipsey looked at the world as it is, not how we wished it was, learned the rules of our cut-throat capitalist game, and leveraged the rules to his advantage. He then used his income to invest in providing jobs to former inmates, invested in small businesses and schools in his community, and sought to create opportunities for everyone around him.

When Nipsey passed away I went back home to San Antonio for a week to grieve. Here was another young minority gone too soon because of a completely preventable cause, just like my brother.

Kobe Bryant

I wrote an open letter to Kobe on Sunday sharing how he has impacted my life. I won’t belabor the point here, but I will say Kobe was more than a great basketball player to me. Kobe Bryant represented hope, a fighting spirit, and the mamba mentality.

Image of Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant

The last thing I expected watching NBA on TNT last night was for Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neal to help me process why I’m so heartbroken over a man I never met. I completely agree with you Kenny, Kobe’s passing hurts so bad because part of my story was tied his story. The lives of each of these men impacted me in significant ways and at pivotal moments in my life. It is only fitting that their deaths have impacted me just as much.

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