Kobe story reminds us: We’re all human, fragile

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The tragic news involving Kobe Bryant and eight others who died in a helicopter crash in Southern California had me thinking of a couple of near-misses involving UVA Athletics teams.

The nearest-miss was back in 2016, when the reigning national champion Virginia Baseball team was involved in an accident when the driver of the team bus suffered a medical emergency and lost consciousness.

Coaches seated toward the front of the bus sprung into action, according to published accounts, and were able to gain control of the bus, but it veered off the side of the road and hit three parked cars and a motor scooter, and the impact sent a fence post to penetrate the windshield into an area where the coaches had originally been sitting, blocking the exit door.

No one was injured, but it seemed a grace of God kind of thing that this was the case.

The other what I call near-miss wasn’t really anything near, but I remember well the trip home from the 2014 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, because of how white-knuckled I was coming back up Route 29 on a snowy evening.

Just a couple of hours earlier, I was among the last in the locker room to interview Joe Harris, now of the Brooklyn Nets, that day the ACC Tournament MVP, after the Cavaliers had won the program’s first tournament trophy in 38 years.

Harris was still in uniform, trophy at his side, when a media-relations staffer quickly intoned to him that it was time to go, because there was snow in the forecast, and Harris, after protesting that he hadn’t yet showered, headed out toward the bus in uniform with his trophy.

Sure enough, by the time my colleague, Scott German, my wife, Crystal, and I made our way back into Virginia, the flurries began to fall, and somewhere around Tightsqueeze, a throughway familiar to people who travel 29 between Virginia and North Carolina, the flurries turned to steady snow.

We stopped at the McDonald’s there to catch a quick dinner, then got back out on the road, and by Lynchburg, it was full-out blizzard.

For us, we had to veer west toward the Blue Ridge to get back to Waynesboro, and I’m not the most religious sort, but in the line of thinking that there are no atheists in foxholes, I was praying to various gods and higher spirits for safety, and sanity.

The thought that kept popping into my head that evening: man, I’d hate to be that bus driver.

All the millions that UVA had invested in Tony Bennett to build the basketball program to a place where it was winning the ACC Tournament, learning on the drive back that it was a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a few years away, as it turned out, from winning a national title, and for a couple of tense hours, it all came down to a guy being able to keep a bus on the pavement in a whiteout snowstorm.

You take for granted that sports teams, top athletes, celebrities, just get there, right? What you don’t think about is how much they’re constantly traveling, on buses, on planes, and when you look at it on aggregate, the one-in-millions chance of something bad happening is going to result in some tragedies, like the one involving Bryant.

When I Googled transportation accidents athletes, among the first items to come up was a Wikipedia page that listed a lot more than I had assumed would be there.

The page reminded me that Knute Rockne had died in a plane crash. There was a plane crash in 1960 involving the Cal Poly football team that killed 22, and reportedly had something to do with recent alum John Madden not flying.

The 1970 plane crash that killed 37 players and nine coaches from the Marshall football team is still something that people here remember like it was yesterday.

One that my colleague Jerry Carter remembers vividly is the 1977 plane crash that killed 29 people, including the entire Evansville University basketball team, its coaching staff, media members, boosters and crew.

NASCAR has lost Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, John Hendrick.

Just a year ago Argentine soccer star Emiliano Sala died in a small plane crash on his way to join his new club.

My deep dive into this topic has been sobering, to say the least, and I’m saying this from the perspective of being a notoriously bad traveler, who didn’t fly for 19 years, and only got back on a plane because Minnesota is a 20-plus-hour drive, and the only thing I hate worse than the idea of flying is the idea of being on interstates fighting big trucks and idiots darting in and out of traffic at 100 mph for really any amount of time, much less 20-plus hours.

There is a fine line between how much Xanax and hard cider can keep me relatively calm without rendering me comatose, basically.

And now we can add the Kobe Bryant tragedy to the list of cautionary tales.

I think among the reasons for the outpouring for the Bryant story is that it reminds us that even the most celebrated among us is human, that bad things can happen in an instant even for someone like a Kobe Bryant, or a team on a bus or a plane on its way to a game, a driver or team owner on his way to a NASCAR race.

The numbers suggest that these kinds of tragedies are rare, but they do happen, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why.

And we don’t like having to think about that kind of stuff.

Though I have to say, since I’m still thinking about it, thank God the UVA Baseball and UVA Basketball teams are OK.

And … prayers for Kobe’s family.

Story by Chris Graham



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