When Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna arrived at the private aviation section of John Wayne Airport on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 26, the waiting lounge was not empty. It was filled with passengers whose flights had been delayed by the fuzzy blanket of coastal fog that had moved onshore overnight across Southern California.
The Los Angeles police department and county sheriff had grounded their helicopters because visibility, a spokesperson later said, “did not meet our minimum standards” of 2 miles and an 800-foot cloud ceiling.
Commercial jets in the air were flying on instruments.
“It was thick,” a man in Calabasas said of the conditions there. “Imagine jumping into a pool filled with milk and opening your eyes.”
But Bryant and two other families with 13-year-old daughters got on a 29-year-old Sikorsky S-76B helicopter anyway … that was not equipped with a terrain warning system recommended (but not required) by the Federal Aviation Administration … was operated by a charter company not certified to fly on instruments in inclement weather … and had a pilot who was “counseled” by the FAA in 2015 for improperly flying into LAX airspace in poor visibility.
Because they were going to an eighth-grade girls basketball tournament 80 miles north in Thousand Oaks.
Because Team Mamba had a noon game on Court 4 of the Mamba Sports Academy in the second day of the Mamba Cup.
Because of youth sports.
As a public memorial is held for Kobe and Gianna at Staples Center on Monday, a month after they and seven others perished when the Sikorsky S-76B slammed into a hillside in Calabasas in soupy fog, there are lessons about life’s fragility. But also buried in an impact crater 15 by 24 feet wide and 2 feet deep, lost amid a 500-foot trail of smoking debris, is a lesson about life’s priorities.
Are youth sports really that important?
The answer is they are, in this country, in this culture. And that’s a problem.
Kobe knew it. I know it. Anyone with a kid playing club sports knows it, from the weekends with parents screaming incessantly on the sidelines, from the car (and plane and helicopter) trips to tournaments, from the hotels and restaurants and Team Moms finding laundromats at midnight to wash the uniforms, from the endless practices and camps and clinics and $60 per hour “privates.”
From the breathless Facebook accounts of reaching the final of an under-9 soccer Memorial Day tournament.
From the tangle of medals clanging from your kid’s bedroom doorknob, some of them for finishing second or third or fourth.
From our bank accounts.
It is the perfect financial storm, a system that feeds on a willingness to do anything (and pay anything) for our children; a fear that our kids will fall behind if they miss a practice or game because someone, somewhere is working longer and harder; a lust for what psychologists call “reflected glory” when they hit a home run; and an insatiable, insidious thirst for victory. In the United States, by some estimates, it is a $17 billion annual industry.
Deep down we know it’s dysfunctional, we know priorities become distorted, we know an eighth-grade girls basketball tournament isn’t really that significant in the grand scheme of life. And yet we are powerless to stop it, to resist it, to change it.
I still drive my daughter, who plays both club soccer and water polo, all over California for weekend tournaments. A year ago, I was in Santa Barbara shivering on a pool deck where the lights were on. The lights were on because the sun hadn’t come up yet.
Kobe, Gianna, an assistant coach and two other families still got on the helicopter.
Kobe knew it. He often talked about the pitfalls of American youth sports (and I say American because they’re not like this, even close to this, in the rest of the world). He even served as a spokesman for the Project Play and #DontRetireKid campaigns sponsored by The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., that has become the conscience of youth sports.
“Sports used to be something that kids went out and did for fun,” Kobe said in an ESPN interview last August about his involvement in Project Play. “Now it’s become so regimented where parents are starting to inject their own experiences or past failures, if you will, onto their children and it takes the fun out of it.”
He coached Gianna’s basketball team, and by all accounts he was a calm, reserved presence on the bench. But Team Mamba also practiced seven days a week, according to a Facebook post last October by the parent of another girl on the roster.
“That’s Mamba Mentality,” the father wrote. “Three years ago, they were a local team. Now they are one of the best eighth-grade teams in the country. Thanks Kobe.”
In September, a month after telling ESPN that “it’s not about us as coaches and us winning or losing,” Kobe posted a picture to his 20.9 million Instagram followers. It showed Team Mamba jumping in unison with the scoreboard in the background that read: 115-27.
“Two years ago, we lost to the same team 22-21,” he wrote, followed by the hashtag: “hardwork.”
It got 532,724 likes. But it also was the source of biting criticism on social media, and Kobe, to his credit, realized he had succumbed —like we all do —to the dark, petty side of youth sports. The team they beat by 88 points was from San Diego. He called the coach. He felt awful. He wanted to make it right.
So he flew down on a helicopter one afternoon in October and conducted a two-hour clinic. Just him and a dozen 13-year-old girls at a public rec center in Carmel Valley.
“He walked in with a bag of balls and said, ‘Hey, let’s go,’” says Chris Moeller, the varsity girls coach at Our Lady of Peace whose daughter plays on the youth team that lost to Gianna’s. “No fanfare. Other people started walking into the rec center and going, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s Kobe Bryant.’ “
Then he got on the helicopter and flew home.
It is the push and pull of youth sports, the yin and yang, the charm and the curse. The solution and the problem.
Kobe spoke eloquently about burnout in youth sports, but the Mamba Cup just wasn’t another tournament. It was 12 weekend tournaments across seven months for boys and girls from third to eighth grade, with open, gold, silver, bronze and copper divisions. Teams were required to enter at least four tournaments if they wanted to qualify for the championship event in late March.
“Of course,” the tournament’s website says, “Coach Bryant’s very own Girls Eighth Grade Mamba Club Team will participate.”
In that August interview with ESPN’s Cari Champion, Kobe was asked about creating a healthy environment for young athletes.
“Get them to think,” he said. “When they can think and problem solve on their own, the game becomes something that they own. It’s something that becomes more enjoyable to them versus having another parent on the sideline that is just barking out orders.”
Six months later, Champion’s response is chilling: “Helicopter parents, as they would say.”
Kobe chuckled and replied: “Exactly.”
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