‘Grief Comes Out of the Clear Blue’: The Death of Kobe, the Father

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Abetted by the news media, the public invariably mythologizes its sports heroes, but in doing what we do, we typically overdo. In death, Bryant was hailed as an emergent champion of women’s basketball, as if there weren’t elements of self-interest — Gianna’s apparent love of the game and especially Bryant’s post-playing-career brand rehabilitation from a 2003 sexual assault allegation in Colorado — probably driving his passion. (His besieged accuser became unwilling to testify, and the charges were dropped.)

What Diana Munson realized early on was that her children needed to know their father the way she did: as a complex man who survived his abusive father, and who was self-protectively gruff to the world at large but tender at home to the point of being the preferred parent to brush his daughters’ hair.

She could predict that Bryant’s three surviving children, especially the two who were younger than 5 when he died, would have questions as they grew up and would deserve and demand more than a highlight reel. The young Michael Munson, having repeatedly studied video of Thurman’s mammoth home run that won Game 3 of the 1978 American League Championship Series against Kansas City, was moved to ask: “If my daddy was so strong, how come the other two men got out of the plane and he didn’t?”

“Grief comes out of the clear blue,” is what Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, graciously advised Diana in a phone call decades ago. She was reminded of that days before my 1989 visit. She and Michael, then 14, went to see “Field of Dreams,” knowing only that it was a baseball flick, not a father-son story that would leave them sobbing in each other’s arms when the father’s ghost — in full catcher’s gear — materialized at the end to toss a few balls with his son.

She knew then that they couldn’t live in the past if they expected to have a future. Vanessa Bryant touched on the same theme — generously for the hundreds of thousands in mourning over the past months — when she posted on Instagram recently: “One day you’re in the moment laughing and the next day you don’t feel like being alive. I want to say this for people struggling with grief and heartbreaking loss. Find your reason to live.”

Diana Munson never remarried but her family grew, adding seven grandchildren. Tracy and Michael remain near her in the Canton area, while Kelly relocated, coincidently to Tampa, Fla., the Yankees’ winter home, which Diana visited shortly before the 2020 dinner. Out with the family one night in a restaurant, she ran into Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ owner. There were introductions all around and suddenly, thankfully, there was another moment to remember. But surely not to mourn.

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