As millions of others are this week, I’m struggling to process the heartbreaking helicopter accident which claimed the lives of nine people, including basketball legend Kobe Bryant.
Kobe is, was, only a few years older than me, and has been a fixture in the minds of basketball players like myself for more than 20 years. As teenagers, we’d mimic his acrobatic moves and yell “Kobe!” while attempting ambitious or even ridiculous shots.
His myth extended all the way from the bright lights of primetime television to the ends of the earth, including the remote gymnasiums of my Navajo friends, where scores of players have donned his jerseys and channeled his game.
Now Kobe is gone.
Playing in the Void
Either by a higher intelligence or remotest chance, humanity inhabits the earth. We are citizens on a blue-green orb with a molten heart, suspended in a frozen, dark and infinite void. To this point, we appear to be utterly alone in this void, an invisible speck in the black swirl of space. This awesome and terrifying reality alone should be enough to put an end to all wars.
Nature itself is ambivalent towards humankind, presenting ongoing challenges to our survival in the forms of disaster and disease.
These daunting realities are the context of our existence, what do we do?
We nail a metal ring to a board and pole. A little boy picks up a rubber ball, bounces it, and attempts to throw it through the metal ring. He misses. He tries again, misses. Tries again, makes it — jumping in the air, shaking his fists, and shouting for joy.
This is sport, and I’m not sure I’ve witnessed anything more breathtaking.
Play as Transcendence
Our prone existence, contrasted with the seeming absurdity of inventing and specializing in games reduced me to sobbing at the news of Kobe. He was a ferocious, imperfect, and driven individual fixated on playing a child’s game. The game and the competition stole his heart, producing a lifelong obsession culminating in astonishing physical feats.
Kobe was not alone in such obsession, we know the highest performers across all disciplines are obsessive. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard acknowledged this when he said, “I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession that doesn’t appeal to me.”
Not gifted with any unusual talent worth singling out, I tend to think like Yvon. However, as I approach age 40, regret begins to creep in. Athletes like Kobe and Jordan may face other life deficits due to their obsessions, but for moments they experience perfection. All of the sacrifice and work align with circumstances to produce physical transcendence.
Here we are on a troubled rock in a silent void, and then one of us achieves something so staggeringly beautiful the rest of us gasp in wonder. As an example, just listen to the commentator shout, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” as Billy Mills beats all odds producing an otherworldly final kick in the 1964 Olympics (nobody finishes a 10K that strong).
Sport for Everyone
We awake into this existence entirely apart from our own volition. All we have is what we have, however arbitrarily distributed — including our physical capacities. And these capacities are the most consistent input/output systems I have experienced. Those who lean into these physical capacities can achieve personal feats which touch upon transcendence.
Of course this is relative, there can only be so many “greatest of all time” humans, but we can all be the “greatest me of all time”. I contend that sport, with its expressions of play, camaraderie, competition, and personal effort is a miracle.
Lessons learned in sport directly translate to all other arenas of life, including business.
So whether I watch immortal footage of Jordan flying through the air with true grace or watch a five-year-old crash her bike and then get back on, I’m inspired to challenge myself physically as well.
A couple of years ago, this inspiration meant training to run around Mt. Hood and cross the Grand Canyon twice in a day. This year, it is training for the Pikes Peak Ascent and to play basketball near as well or better than when I was 18.
My Own Moment
Nearly 40 miles around Mt. Hood, Eric and I were running next to a glacier, high above treeline with an astonishing view of Mt. St. Helens to the north. I was tired and extremely thirsty, but the mantra my wife posted above our kitchen table popped into my head, “We can do hard things.”
Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the moment and utterly astonished to be succeeding at such an intimidating personal feat. Tears ran down my face (don’t tell Eric), for just a brief window of time I was my best self. All thanks to sport. All thanks to pressing into the mortal coil instead of waiting for it to cease.
What will you do?