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Hope, heartbreak and hoops

January 30, 2020 - 16:41
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The sports world — and the world in general — was rocked Sunday afternoon.

We learned about the tragic, untimely death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. There were seven other lives lost along with the Bryants in a horrific helicopter crash.

Time crawled by Sunday, at least for me. I found myself gasping for air when I first read about the accident, and the rest of the day seemed like it would never end.

And I never met Kobe or any of the other victims.

I just couldn’t believe Bryant, a megastar who seemed larger than life, had lost his life. And when it was confirmed that his daughter and another young girl were involved, it just made things worse. They had barely begun to live.

This was more than just the death of a beloved sports star. This was one of those world-stopping moments.

Bryant was ubiquitous. He was a basketball player by trade, sure, but people who weren’t even basketball fans knew his name. He transcended sport.

I’ve seen people compare Sunday to the day Michael Jackson died. I think that’s an appropriate comparison, but it’s not the first one I made myself. To me, this was reminiscent of Feb. 18, 2001.

That was the day NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt lost his life in a last-lap crash during the Daytona 500. I had turned 7 years old a few months before, so I have vivid memories of that day and the aftermath of Earnhardt’s death.

We were all speechless. We were all shocked that a seemingly invincible person was dead long before it was his time. We were in anguish over the pain that must have been coursing through his family members. We were all mourning someone we never even met and only admired from afar.

Just like we did Sunday.

By now, you have likely read and/or heard multiple personal testimonies regarding Kobe and his legacy. That’s something I can never offer.

But I felt it was only appropriate to open this week’s column by mentioning this unthinkable turn of events. My heart goes out to the families of those involved. This is truly one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard of.

And I don’t care what you think about Kobe’s ranking among the NBA’s all-time greats, and I don’t care what you want to say about his checkered past. Those things will be remembered, as they should, when discussing the totality of the man Kobe was. But let the family grieve first.

With that said, it’s time for me to touch on a topic I’ve written about before: The power sports have to heal and encourage.

That’s directly related to Kobe, because there are countless examples of people who were inspired when they learned more about him. Just like Kobe touched their lives from a distance, sports can connect with us at all levels and at any given time.

Our sports section this week includes what might be the most inspiring story I’ve ever written. It’s got nothing to do with me — it’s all about the subject matter.

Greene County senior basketball star D.J. Wright tore his ACL last September and had surgery in late October. Somehow, he made it back to the court last Friday night. I’m still amazed by it.

I encourage you to read my story about D.J. It’s a long story, but you will walk away feeling uplifted. He’s got a powerful testimony.

I’ve known of D.J. for a long time now. He probably doesn’t remember this, but he showed up in the Greene County Recreation Department one day years ago when my brother, my cousin, a friend of ours and I were shooting around. He walked in and asked if he could play. We scoffed at the idea of that little kid, who had to be in elementary school at the time, hanging with us older folks.

Y’all, he schooled us. Those of us on the receiving end still laugh about that to this day.

My heart went out to him when he told me about his injury. He told me back then that he was going to work hard and return to action before graduating later this year.

Again, I scoffed. And again, I was wrong.

It was a privilege telling D.J.’s story. I got chills when I talked to D.J. and GCHS athletic trainer Bruce Lovin about the improbability of something like this happening. I got chills when I transcribed those interviews. And as I wrote the article, I got chills once again.

That’s because sports have a unique power. They can break our hearts, of course, with devastating losses. But they can also give us an escape and lift our spirits in times of despair.

This week was a solemn reminder of that truth.