This article was originally published in January 2020 following the deaths of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven others in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif.
The first time I lost a close family member, I was not yet a teenager. This was someone I never had met, though. It was someone who’d never shipped me a Christmas present, who’d never put five bucks in a First Communion card and sent it along. He did not attend my ballgames or school plays.
These things did not matter. Roberto Clemente and I had a different sort of relationship.
On New Years Eve, 1972, Clemente and four others boarded a DC-7 cargo plane loaded with earthquake relief supplies in San Juan, bound for Nicaragua. An engine failed soon after takeoff, and the plane went down into the Caribbean. There were no survivors. All of this happened as I slept and 1972 turned into 1973.
I wept for hours upon hearing of his death. One of my sisters told me about it when I woke up, but it was such a shock I refused to believe until it was confirmed on television — not with a breaking news report, but rather by the host of the morning movie discussing it as he introduced that day’s feature.
There was no such doubt possible for a generation of basketball fans who certainly felt the same way about Kobe Bryant as I did about Clemente. There was no way to hide, to stall reality for just a little while longer so the tragedy could be more easily processed.
Not long after Bryant’s helicopter crashed in Southern California, TMZ reported the news of his death via Twitter. Almost instantly, there were discussions on nearly every news channel, comments on Sunday’s college basketball games by former players-turned-analysts, including Jim Jackson, who was Bryant’s teammate for a short time in Los Angeles.
Clemente had been my first sports hero, although it always seemed like more than that. Like so many of my generation, baseball was the first sport with which I fell deeply in love — through Little League, baseball cards and radio, mostly. Clemente’s achievements were an indelible part of my childhood. It was what he did and how he did it: the batting titles and the way he whipped around that big club he took to the plate, the balls he ran down in the gaps, the runners he threw out, his uncommon baserunning style that usually led to his helmet flying loose and falling to the ground.
It was the World Series MVP he won in 1971 with his .414 batting average and two home runs — at age 37, one of the oldest players to win the award. A neighbor’s father drove us to downtown Pittsburgh that night to be a part of the celebration. We thought the Pirates would come through after landing at the airport. That never happened. It still was a magical night.
Not long after, it all was shattered. Clemente still was an active player at the time of his death. He’d just completed his 18th season with a .312 batting average, another All-Star Game and the Pirates’ appearance in the National League Championship Series.
Bryant, by contrast, had retired five seasons ago. There is an army of young basketball fans, though, who grew up obsessed with his performances with the Lakers. Coping with his sudden loss is not simple. It is common for such fans to feel as connected to their heroes as I did to Clemente.
And for those who are older, it strikes differently, though just as powerfully. Because even though many of us haven’t the means to engage a private helicopter service, we recognize such a calamity could have occurred had he been traveling to his daughter’s game on a freeway and wound up in the wrong place at the wrong moment. We understand: That could have been me.
The loss of Clemente was felt most powerfully in the regions he called home: Western Pennyslvania, where he played, and Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised and had become the greatest sporting icon. Clemente was revered throughout the baseball world, but he was not ubiquitous in the way Kobe Bryant has been. That’s a product of modern media, which placed Bryant on national television in a way that allowed him to become the favorite player of millions throughout the U.S., as well as in Europe and China.
It has been too long since Clemente’s passing for me to remember how I eventually came to terms with it. I can tell you it didn’t happen quickly. For a while, because his body was not recovered, I honestly hoped he would turn up on some tiny island or jetty somewhere off the coast of Puerto Rico. I didn’t know whether geography permitted such an outcome; it wasn’t a rational fantasy.
The walls of my childhood bedroom always had been adorned with photographs of sports stars cut out of SPORT magazine, or covers from Sporting News. I chose to devote one entire wall to Clemente for years until, eventually, when I went to college, my father requested I take it all down, repair the tack marks and tape tracks and re-paint the walls.
As much as I may loathe participating in household repairs, the part of that process that hurt was removing my Clemente shrine. But it only was a physical manifestation. Even though we refer to this process as loss, he still is with me.