On Sunday, February 8, 1998 my mother’s only brother got killed in a car accident (he was waiting for his turn to enter a roundabout when a drunk driver lost control and slammed violently against his car). He was just 52 years old.
It was the first time that I had to deal with the concept of abrupt death in my personal life. Sure, I had already lost three grandparents – to be fair, I never even met two of them, my mother’s parents – and had seen my fair share of old people succumb to multiple health problems, but I never had to witness what such an event brings into your inner personal nucleus.
Frankly, it was devastating. It wasn’t exactly devastating for me: somehow I always had this attitude towards tragedy where I’m apparently unflappable because in the end I’m a fucking pussy who’s so afraid to feel pain that tries his best (worst?) to feel nothing at all. But when it comes to tragedy for the few people who’re close to me, I don’t know how to deal with it. It’s like I have this switch that clicks inside of me: I can comfort people as well as anyone but then everything inside of me resonate with sadness because I physically see the angst and sorrow of the people I let into my life so sooner or later I burst into tears and become as vulnerable as can be.
While my uncle died around 10:00 PM of February 8th, the news of his death didn’t get to my mom until the next day. On Sunday night we were at my father’s mom place to eat a pizza after the basketball team I played for lost badly in the afternoon (as we always did. We fought, we scrapped, we lost by twenty. I still remember I scored 11 in that game hitting 2/2 from three) and, given that at the time cellphones weren’t a thing, we just got a message left to the answering machine where my uncle’s wife asked to be called the next day.
The day after, the 9th (which coincidentally was also my mom’s 50th birthday) I went to school completely oblivious ot the fact. I discovered what happened just as I came home and I knew it even before anyone said anything. It was self-evident just by looking at my mom. My uncle was the last close relative she had left.
My mom is from Sicily. In the 1950s the Sicilian hinterland was a very poor area, and people were leaving left and right to search for more favorable economic opportunities elsewhere; my mom’s father left his family when she was 3 to find his luck in Argentina. Nobody ever knew anything about him after that. When she was 19, my mom, her brother and her mother left her Sicilian hometown to come to Bologna where an uncle of hers made a not so small fortune selling military spare parts. Sadly my grandmother got sick and by the time my mom was 21 she was gone too. My mom were left to tend to her brother until he finally met his eventual wife a few years later. Still, my uncle was everything that was left of my mom’s roots.
My mother is the portrait of selfless sacrifice. She’s not very attached to her regional roots, and if I have to be honest she doesn’t even self-identify as Sicilian; nevertheless, family roots are an entirely different thing. Her brother’s death was the definitive blow about that: she was left alone. Not in the sense that she didn’t have anyone else: of course she got my father, she got me, she got friends and a job and everything else; but she didn’t have anything that could have worked as a geographic origin compass.
So, looking at my mom, going to comfort her, everything broke inside me. I remember everything very vividly. I remember exactly what I was eating while we were in the very early stage of coping with the tragedy (a surpirisingly tasty maccheroni with ricotta, parmesan and black pepper; even in utter despair, my mom couldn’t bear the idea that me and my father would eat less than perfect food); I remember watching how the neighbour was parking his car in the backyard (badly, and slightly grazing the tree that was in the middle of the parking area); I remember the fact that my mom asked us not to say anything at all, since even a single word would have been too much (and this is one of the things that I have more trouble at doing: I need to rationalize things, and I’m unable to do that if I can’t talk to people).
I also remember that Italia1, a national TV channel, would have broadcasted the 1998 NBA All-Star Game starting at 2 PM. So after we ate in total silence, shedding countless tears, I retreated into my room to… I don’t know. To try to feel better and to get emotionally stronger.
You probably remember how All-Star Games used to be. They never were deeply competitive, but they weren’t also the ridiculously showboaty thing that they are today. You could see that the players were actually giving a damn. It was still basketball, played by the best players in the world.
In the second half of that game, there was something that was immediately able to soothe a bit the numb, deaf grief that was pervading me. A 19 year old Kobe, at his first ASG, went streaking down the right lane, ball in his care, while Dikembe Mutombo was backpedaling, ready to protect the rim. This was peak Mutombo, mind you. Kobe just dribbled the ball behind his back, throwing Deke off just a bit, and went on to score on a weirdly gracious sideways baby-hook.
It was a thing of beauty.
It was something that calmed me a bit. The inherent poetry you find in many aspects of life. The song you listened when you finally got over the fact that your first girlfriend dumped you. The wine you drank after those lab tests came back and were positive. The movie you went to watch and laughed at even if you had been fired from your job just three hours earlier.
I always thought of Kobe everytime I thought about that day. It was the first ray of light after the deepest sadness I had known till then.
I wasn’t a Kobe fan for much more. It was just two-four years after that game that teen Kobe made way for arrogant if ubertalented, young brash threepeater Kobe; six years after that game there was the Colorado thing (it’s ok if you want to overlook it today, but it never faded away, and I can’t condone it – I have to say, though, that he handled things as admirably as possible after it got settled out of court); then Kobe went on to fully embrace the MJ myth by essentially marketing himself as a basketball perfectionist psycho maniac, alienating a lot of people in the process. There was the second half of game 7 against the Suns where he took only three shots in evident spite of his teammates (it was the Smush Parker years in Lakerland). There was his second stint as NBA champion, where he was clearly the main man out there for the Lakers but sometimes it looked like the team was playing better when he wasn’t doing too much. There was his career twilight, dictated both by father time in general and an Achilles’ injury in particular. Through it all, I found it hard to root for him. I’m not at ease rooting for guys who aren’t team players, and I’m even more put off by guys who are heralded by mainstream media. I simply loved seeing the 2004 Lakers losing against the team-driven Pistons.
I wasn’t a Kobe fan, but he would always have been the guy who reignited my heart on that fateful day.
Oh, we won the game. Mike Miller kept on being a disappointment (even if I keep on saying that’s a disappointment by proxy, ultimately it’s Pills’ fault) and played the vets a lot and the youngsters a lot less. Who cares anyway. This was a tragic day, and the only thing we can do when tragedy strikes is to hold our dears close and don’t let go, like I did with my mom when my heart started beating again after a young man performed a wondrous athletic feat on a stupid basketball court.