Heaven Can Wait

By Ramzy Nasrallah on January 29, 2020 at 1:05 pm
Duane Washington's tribute to Kobe Bryant, Ohio State at Northwestern 1/26/2020

A tragic and preventable death should make the rest of us better.

It's a final gift from the departed, who shoehorns an abrupt and unwanted lesson right into our grief. Humans are smart and relatable, so this cautionary tale should make us all smarter, more guarded, careful and gracious.

Our capacity for empathy and introspection become charged as legacy and tributes overwhelm us. We're more aware, except that as humans we are doomed to be at least as emotional as we are informed. In a battle of organs, heart beats brain nine out of 10 times.

So their gift is downgraded to footnote, if it gets unwrapped at all. Bacteria gain survivable exposure to antibiotics, learn, evolve and grow resistant. Humans gain survivable exposure to preventable accidents and we are doomed to repeat them. Humans may be smart, but bacteria are intelligent.

The best non-LeBron basketball player of the current century (yeah this is absolutely not the time, I know, I'm sorry) is dead at 41. His daughter is dead at 13. Seven other people are suddenly gone, families and communities are shattered, basketball enthusiasts my age who grew up watching Kobe Bryant grow up faster are left breathless - and in all likelihood it's because a helicopter was traveling in conditions deemed so unsafe that the LAPD grounded its entire fleet that morning.

We know there is a gift to unwrap in a tragedy, but no one wants it. Still mourning. Offensive. Bad timing. Heart clobbers brain, again. Bacteria are quite literally heartless, which is part of the reason they're so much better at this than we are. For us humans, November's second-to-last Saturday in the SEC football schedule is more competitive than heart v. brain.

What is the lesson from nearly every life that's cut tragically short? Slow down. This all ends so damn quickly. Yeah, we know. We're wired to go fast for insufficient reasons. We're just too imprisoned by the velocity of our lives to downshift them. 

Last Sunday's morning basketball practice at the Mamba Academy could have been missed, postponed or canceled. Let's sweep aside the element of hindsight and focus on foresight - just about everything can be missed, postponed or canceled.

We've wrecked our weekends by cramming them full of obligations and manufactured urgencies to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of what is supposed to be downtime. We're far too efficient at work and that velocity has seeped into our personal lives. The boogeyman is that if you dare to slow down, your competition will make the gap between you larger. No Days Off is an inspirational disease.

I remember watching Bryant's cocky declaration to go pro out of high school. I had never seen a more confident teenager snicker away the idea of wasting his time playing college basketball, especially in an era where Kevin Garnett was the only early entrant that had not disappointed or flamed out spectacularly.

He wore sunglasses atop his head behind the podium, made his announcement, took Brandy to prom and then became the youngest player in NBA history to both play in a game and start in a game. He was an All Star 18 times in a league where the average career is four seasons. You can read about his basketball legacy in any of the tributes that have been written about him since his retirement four years ago.

Bryant's entire life was a fast break. He was always in a hurry, all the way until last Sunday morning. The discipline to separate and prioritize hardwired tendencies from everyday life is difficult to master, if not impossible. So if you have even some of the same emotional wiring he had, you too may be a prisoner of manufactured urgency. I am wired exactly like he was. I just suck at basketball.

But it's impossible to become an icon at any other speed. Bacteria have different problems than we do.

Most life events are mundane and negotiable, yet I find myself getting pissed off in traffic just about every week while I'm heading nowhere important. I miss college football even when I'm presented with perfectly adequate non-college football Saturdays to savor. We move too damn fast for no good reason, and we miss too much because of it.

And we all know this. We just...forget.

Sudden change is nature's way of grabbing our attention. When Will Smith was murdered in a road rage incident, both men had been drinking and both were armed. Our focus was drawn to the sadness of his loss and the senselessness that inevitably comes from mixing alcohol with weapons. That's surface-level distraction. Every preventable traffic incident is a symptom of urgency. We move too fast.

You can always retrieve your car later when you're sober. It can wait. You can always send that text message when you're parked. It can wait. If you're not bleeding to death or on the verge of cardiac arrest then a red light is worth obeying. That hostile, selfish driver has not earned the right to raise your blood pressure. All of this is so much easier to write than it is to live by.

Our indifference around our own mortality is appalling. Jordan McNair was in diapers when Korey Stringer died from heat stroke, then 20 years later he died under identical, preventable circumstances. Football players die every year from heat stroke. Football players will die this year from heat stroke. They don't know it yet, but they will be a helmet sticker and a moment of silence. The only mystery is who they will be.

Kobe‘s unwanted gift, the lesson we’ve been taught innumerable times but refuse to practice, is that it can wait. We can slow down if we choose to. We can cancel without being flaky. We can still be great without flying too close to the sun or against a low visibility cloud ceiling. It's not so much a position of wisdom as it is one of conscious vulnerability.

Our life arrangement comes with exactly one guarantee, and nine people reached theirs far too soon over the weekend. Bryant's extraordinary career is tethered to a litany of gifts; lessons in greatness and fallibility. His final unwanted gift that accompanied his death will likely stay sealed.

Because we know what's inside. We just won't slow down long enough to unwrap it.

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