Kobe Bryant managed to remain a local kid with Philly cred long after he left the city for the West Coast.
The NBA superstar managed to remain a local hero, even though he gave his talent to the Lakers, a team that no true Sixers fan can stomach. Kobe managed to remain an authentic citizen of this most authentic of places by coming back on a regular basis, by loving the local teams (and never saying a bad word about his dad Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant’s NBA alma mater, the Sixers,) by keeping close and loving ties with his own alma mater, Lower Merion High School, and by rejoicing when the Eagles won the Super Bowl with the same emotion that the guy at Broad and Pattison, holding an empty Budweiser can, could muster.
Now is the time for mourning him, and shedding tears over the lost years and the unspeakable tragedy of his passing, alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gigi. And now is also the time for prayers, and the deeply felt hope that they are together in a place that has basketball courts, endless sunshine and peace.
But mixed in with the sadness, we should try and grasp at those memories and moments that make us smile at the time Kobe was with us. For those of us in Philly, many of those memories are filled with flashes of his brilliance as a boy, a teen and a legend foretold.
One of these memories comes to me from David Walsh, cousin of Monsignor Vince Walsh. Father Vince, as they call him, is a humble man who now lives in retirement in what my great friend Monsignor Joe Corey used to call “beautiful downtown Darby.”
One day, Father Vince was visiting a parish in Lower Merion when he decided to take a little break, and pulled a basketball out of the trunk of his car. It might seem unusual that a priest would carry around a basketball, but if you’ve ever seen Bing Crosby or Spencer Tracey in one of those old black-and-white classics like “Going My Way” or “Boys Town,” you know that priests and basketball go together like wine and wafers.
Father Vince found a court, and intended to just shoot some hoops by himself. But lo and behold, there were three young guys already playing a game of pickup, and they wanted to play two on two. Figuring they could beat this older priest with their youth and skill, they asked Father Vince to join them, and he agreed.
Well, the whole “beating this older priest” idea evaporated pretty quickly as the boys saw this particular shot that Father had mastered, something called the “Fade Away Banked Hook Shot.” Because of that shot and Father Vince’s skill, the boys put their best guy on him. That best guy was a young Kobe Bryant, then a high school All-American.
Kobe and Father Vince kept in touch over the years, united by a love of the game they both adored, and their faith. In fact, in the wake of the Laker legend’s untimely and tragic death Sunday, many commentators talked about the fact that Kobe Bryant was a practicing Catholic whose faith was deeply important to him. One can only imagine how Father Vince, who has keys to St. Philomena’s near his retirement home and still plays hoops, felt when he heard about the tragedy.
Life is unpredictable, and we need to cherish every moment. The day that Kobe Bryant passed away marked the 22nd anniversary of my own brother’s death, under equally tragic circumstances. Jon was barely 31, Kobe only a decade older. Trying to find an explanation for these losses is fruitless, and will produce more pain than actual answers.
We can only find comfort in the joy experienced here, when we crossed paths with these important people, and by keeping their memories alive by talking about how important they were to us, and praying for their souls. I am certain that Father Vince is going to be out on the court shooting hoops very soon, and that each one of his “Fade Away Banked Hook Shots” will be accompanied by a loving prayer for the soul of his longtime friend.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.