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Published June 12, 2024

Clarke: Heroes who never die

Why do fans react so strongly to celebrity deaths?
Sidney Clarke
Sidney Clarke

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, along with several others, were tragically killed in a helicopter accident last Sunday. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kobe hoped to attend his eldest daughter’s high school volleyball game that evening. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant’s childhood hero stated, “Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. He was a fierce competitor, one [of] the greats of the game and a creative force. Yvette [Jordan’s wife] joins me in sending my deepest condolences to Vanessa, the Lakers organization, and basketball fans around the world.”

This response, in addition to others from figures such as Shaquille O’Neal and Lebron James, was to be expected. Close friends of the Bryants and prominent figures in the game mourn an incredible loss this week. However, the confounding response, which is a phenomenon foundational to popular culture, is the one from Kobe’s massive fan base.

Following the announcement of Kobe’s death, thousands of people sporting jersey no. 24 gathered at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to grieve. However, L.A. isn’t unfamiliar with these kinds of crises. Eleven years ago, over 17,000 fans attended Michael Jackson’s memorial service in the city of angels. For weeks, the city was bursting with floral arrangements, candles, concerts and even a parade of elephants in the artist’s honor. Fan grief reached its height in arguably the most famous funeral procession of all time, when hundreds of thousands of mourners swarmed the streets of London to wish former Princess Diana of Wales farewell in 1997.

Kobe’s unexpected and sudden death rattled fans across the country — and rightfully so. He was a young, well-liked personality whose impressive athletic career spoke for itself. Kobe’s humanitarian work and mentoring of young basketball players undoubtedly played into the eruption after his death, in that his life extended past a small circle of people.

However, death occurs every day in proportions much greater than those contained in a small engine aircraft and rarely instigates grandiose processions. The difference, some might say, is that we don’t know enough about strangers kicking the bucket to illicit a meaningful emotional response. However, despite having little to no personal relationship with most celebrities, they feel like family. This strange, but seemingly natural occurrence reveals more about ourselves than those we mourn. 

A community’s guttural reaction to a celebrity passing as it relates to other daily tragedies illuminates the severity of our emotional exhaustion. Critics protest dramatic memorialization of celebrities in favor of more pressing humanitarian issues. In fairness to that argument, Kobe Bryant’s death in a privately owned aircraft pales in comparison to other tragedies like terrorism, which killed approximately 21,000 people in a year over the last decade. 

A certain level of global awareness is vital, but it would be cognitively impossible to process every issue that modern technology offers access to. Most of us lack the necessary coping mechanisms required to recognize every human loss equally, so these inconsistencies in receptivity aren’t indicative of ignorance, but of a balancing act for the sake of sanity.

Celebrity deaths also tend to expose the depth of our dependency on media. Audiences comfortably develop trust for figures founded in pixels and soundbytes without questioning the one-sided nature of these relationships or differentiate their distinctly separate personal and public identities. Their constant influence in our lives — on TV, cereal boxes, and Cartoon Network commercials — allow us to perceive them as personalities not far from ourselves. Consequently, we discover the true appeal of a celebrity: despite being bound by the same limitations as anyone else, he accomplishes what no one else can. 

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