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Death Of Kobe Bryant And Daughter… A Tragedy From A Familiar Setting Leaves More Powerful Feeling

February 4, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


PHOENIX — Actually having been at a certain location can make a subsequent news event there all the more vivid. During my one and only visit to Rome, for instance, I went to the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica, looking down into the Square, then climbed the stairs to the top of the dome. When I sometimes hear of pilgrims there now, or a Mass inside that huge church, it means more.
So I was struck when news reports said that retired basketball luminary Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, Calif., for 7 a.m. Sunday Mass and Communion shortly before they and seven other people died in a horrific helicopter crash near Calabasas on January 26.
Our Lady Queen of Angels was one of the churches I’d attended in Orange County, Calif., when I lived and worked there decades ago. It’s different now, with a newer and larger church structure, but I recall the church building that had had a very large cross on its exterior front wall that a person could see while walking around the field across the street in the coastal coolness.
After the crash, the home page of the church’s website ( said, “Rest in peace. Our Lady Queen of Angels mourns the loss of our parishioners Gianna and Kobe Bryant. We offer our prayers and support for all those who have lost their loved ones.”
Another of the site’s announcements said, “Dynamic parish. Be bold. Be Catholic.”
I hadn’t known that Bryant was Catholic before the tragedy called forth a flood of information about him, including the early-on identification of his religion. When I’d been in that church, he was just a youngster growing up far east of California.
But he became very wealthy, famous, and a veteran resident of the Golden State as the years passed. Had he succumbed to the allure of power and money that often draw people away not only from active religious practice but even from being down-to-earth human beings?
The tragic crash occurred before 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Inclined to the pessimistic view in light of today’s culture, I pondered Kobe’s flying off in his chartered helicopter to a secular activity with basketball-playing daughter Gianna when many practicing Catholics could be attending church instead.
Of course, any Catholic could have gone to a Saturday evening anticipatory Mass (as I usually do), or be planning for a Sunday evening Mass after doing something else earlier in the day, and be perfectly in accord with active faith observance. Still, we often hear of Catholics for whom the faith seems more of a convenience to suit themselves than a requirement.
So it was more than reassuring to learn that these Bryants had gotten up early enough to go to Mass even before boarding the helicopter at nearby John Wayne Airport.
Kobe hadn’t lived a perfect life — who has? — but he apparently knew to turn to the source of forgiveness and mercy. Catholic News Agency reported that in 2015, Bryant, referring to an earlier potential scandal, said in an interview: “The one thing that really helped me during that process — I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic — was talking to a priest.”
Former Wanderer columnist Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, writing at his blog ( on January 26 about the famous basketball player’s death, reminded readers that each of them is as valuable to God, to whom He desires to give a place in Heaven, as Bryant.
“Sudden death happens. It happens to quite a lot of people, as a matter of fact,” Zuhlsdorf wrote. “Bluntly, if sudden, unforeseen death happened to Kobe Bryant, it can easily happen to you.”
He concluded by begging readers to go to Confession, especially if they hadn’t received the sacrament in a long time. (See p. 5A for the full text.)
Zuhlsdorf says his blog “is like a fusion of the Baroque ‘salon’ with its well-tuned harpsichord around which polite society gathered for entertainment and edification and, on the other hand, a Wild West ‘saloon’ with its out-of-tune piano and swinging doors, where everyone has a gun and something to say. Nevertheless, we try to point our discussions back to what it is to be Catholic in this increasingly difficult age, to love God, and how to get to Heaven.”
Abortion survivor Gianna Jessen tweeted on January 26, with a broken heart emoji, “Today has been a somber reminder that we are not promised tomorrow. Lord, please, somehow comfort all who mourn tonight.”
David Marcus, the New York correspondent of The Federalist site, posted on January 28: “For many Americans the ways of Catholicism seem strange, and I guess they are. But as one, when I learned Bryant had been to Mass I felt glad.
“My friend Billy is as Catholic as they come,” Marcus continued. “I remember taking a flight with him once from Geneva to Warsaw, it was a little plane, and I mean a little fragile plane. I glance over at Billy and there he is, rosaries and prayer book out, crossing himself, I thought he was gonna light incense. He was literally preparing to die, which frankly us Catholics do a lot of.
“In our Nicene Creed, which we say at Mass, we say that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” Marcus wrote. “Knowing that (Bryant) uttered such words just hours before his passing means a lot. For all his wealth and fame and ability, Bryant was first and foremost a humble child of God. Which is the best thing any of us can hope to be.”
Humility seemed evident about Bryant in another report, this time by a woman who noticed he was in the same pew as she at daily Mass at the back of Holy Family Cathedral in the city of Orange, before they both went up to receive Communion.
“Thank God I had the veil so I could stay focused on Jesus, not this insanely talented basketball player my whole family has looked up to and watched our whole lives,” wrote singer and actress Cristina Ballestero. “As we went up to Communion, he waited for me to go….He said I have a beautiful voice. I said thank you and went up to Communion.”
Holy Family Cathedral was another of the Orange County churches I attended. When I started working at the Orange County Register daily paper, I’d start my lunch hour by driving straight up Grand Avenue, passing beneath elevated freeways 5 and 22, while Grand changed its name to Glassell Street in Orange, and the cathedral was on the left for noontime Mass.
I hadn’t mentioned where I was going during my lunch hour, but after a while my newspaper boss indicated that during the news day, it’d be better if I stayed closer to the office, so I revised my churchgoing schedule.
I remember a Holy Family pastor at that time mentioned in a weekend homily that he looked forward to celebrating the Sunday Mass, yet people would come and go, without appreciating staying for the full celebration.
Farther north in Orange County was another church I attended, whose parishioners included Jose Feliciano, the singer-musician who composed and recorded one of the world’s best-known Christmas songs, Feliz Navidad.
As part of Southern California, Orange County is home to many celebrities in entertainment and other professions, but they all have daily lives apart from the spotlight. They may be just down the pew from you, like Kobe at Holy Family Cathedral.
The accidental death of Kobe, one of his four daughters and their seven helicopter companions in a fireball underlined the uncertainty and preciousness of life.
Life may not always be easy despite some good circumstances or surroundings — I recall walking amid the private boats and yachts harbored at Newport Beach on a sunny summer weekend but feeling despondent — but it’s the time we’ve been given to work toward eternity.
On January 27 KNBC, Channel 4, in Los Angeles recalled that in 2001 Bryant invited Noelle Camara, a woman paralyzed from the waist down, to attend one of his Los Angeles Lakers games courtside, then he gave her Lakers memorabilia that she, a “huge” fan of the team, kept close ever since.
The television station posted: “Holding on to the size 14 shoe that the basketball superstar wore during a 2001 game she attended, she said, ‘He talked to me. He’s like, “Always pursue your goals and don’t give up.” And I think that always stuck with me. I was in the low point in my time because I was still getting used to being in a wheelchair’.”
Meanwhile, the People magazine site posted on January 28 that a close source said Kobe’s widow, Vanessa, “can’t finish a sentence without crying,” but “is working very hard to pull it together for the other girls” in the family.
This story recalled that in 2019, Kobe took Vanessa to the Disney theme park in Anaheim to celebrate their having met 20 years earlier. People referenced a Kobe interview at Maria Shriver’s site where he spoke of his role as a father to four girls.
“Being a father is the thing I am most proud of in this world; it’s my greatest accomplishment,” Kobe said. “I’ve learned so much, but perhaps the most profound thing has been the fierce, unconditional love you have for your children when you become a parent. I’m blessed to have had that experience four times now and there’s nothing more powerful in this world.”

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