Kobe Bryant and Dale Earnhardt: Legendary Athletes Who Passed Too Soon

It’s February- my favorite month of the year. It provides nice, cool weather in the south that teeters on the verge of spring as the month progresses. It features the Super Bowl, Daytona 500, and the day I was born. It legitimately does feel like three birthdays in one month. February has always been the dawn of one of the most exciting times in all sports.

The sadness of football’s lengthy exit after the Super Bowl’s completion in early February is soon but diminished by the return of NASCAR and its very own Super Bowl- the prestigious Daytona 500. After the 2021 Daytona 500 featured a remarkable turn of events with an underdog winner in Michael McDowell, I felt uneasy heading into this week as Thursday marks the twentieth anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death. When I think about this, the uneasiness multiplies as I think about another legendary icon we lost far too soon, and it stays fresh on my mind.

On January 26th, 2020, the world lost Kobe Bryant- one of the most famous athletes of his generation at forty-one years old. He was a very polarizing figure in the basketball world for his twenty-year career. If you didn’t love Kobe, you probably hated him. I don’t know that I have ever spoken to a basketball fan who was just simply indifferent about Kobe. He was the center of so many topics and arguments regarding the ever so entertaining “GOAT” conversation amongst basketball’s most remarkable figures to play the game. He was a great ambassador and was one of the most recognizable names in his sport.

He was going to be heavily involved in the sport as long as he lived. Even if you knew absolutely nothing about basketball, you probably knew who Kobe Bryant was. Kobe felt immortal to everybody. When watching the Lakers win back-to-back titles in 2009-2010, Kobe felt immortal. In his final game, as my Dad and I watched him light-up the Jazz for sixty points, he felt immortal. Even listening to him on ESPN+ breaking down plays- he felt immortal.

I felt like I grew up with Kobe, and I know I speak for many when I say that. When he passed, the world stood still. Millions were devastated. People didn’t go to work. It was a nightmare, and everything just seemed unfair and hopeless, and it still does.  

Kobe Bryants Final Game With The Lakers

One of the topics that swirled around on social media after the death of Kobe Bryant is people attempting to grasp at “the last time” something like this happened. Common answers I noticed included Michael Jackson, Tupac, Prince, Sean Taylor or Len Bias. However, I always viewed Kobe Bryant as an immortal athlete. Sean Taylor and Len Bias are undeniably tragic instances, but they had just begun/not even begun their careers yet. So, did they really feel “immortal”? I wouldn’t say so, but some may disagree; emotional attachment is key along with established legacy.

Michael Jackson, Tupac and Prince are relevant regarding their legendary status on a global level, but they were not professional athletes. Kobe’s presence on the court along with his consistency of caring so much about winning and winning alone solidifies his legacy to millions as one of the greatest athletes of all time. So, who was the last seemingly “God-like” figure in the world of sports to pass so tragically? The answer is Dale Earnhardt, and the parallels about their legacies and deaths are more similar than you would think.

Dale Earnhardt and Kobe Bryant both were so often associated with the villain trait. They embodied the “you either loved him or you hated him” personality. Dale was often known as “The Man in Black”. Kobe Bryant was the “Black Mamba”. Dale was the “Intimidator”. Kobe preached “Mamba Mentality”. Both conveyed an intimidating, frightening presence to their competition. Both competitors were the hardest working, the scrappiest, and the most seemingly invincible of their respective sport and era. They shared the eye-of-the-tiger mentality of hating losing more than loving winning. They did not complain; they just grinded harder than any of their adversaries, and they consistently had those very adversaries rattled because they were just flat-out better. They were recognized as the most fearless of their respective sports.

Dale wrecked a lot of race cars (his own and his opponents) and made hundreds of costly mistakes on the track. Kobe took so many bad shots throughout and had a remarkable number of bad, low-percentage shooting games. Neither cared; they came back to work the next day/week and treated how they performed no different than the event before regardless of the outcome. Earnhardt won seven championships. Kobe won five championships. Each of those merits is nearly at the top of their respective sports. The saddest comparison of them both is the numb conception that their fans intuitively believed they would never die. They were invincible.

On February 18th, 2001, the world lost Dale Earnhardt-one of the most famous athletes of his generation at forty-nine years old. He was a very polarizing figure in the NASCAR world during his twenty-plus year career. You either loved him or you hated him. Never have I ever spoken to a NASCAR fan who was just simply indifferent about Earnhardt. He has been a part of the “GOAT” conversation amongst NASCAR’s greatest drivers for so long, even after his death. Unlike Kobe, Earnhardt did not make it to retirement. However, you could say he began his retirement before his career ended; this is something that is possible in the sport of NASCAR. In this case, he started his own team and fielded his own cars.

He was beginning other ventures. He was a great ambassador and one of the most important, recognizable names in his sport. He was going to be a part of the sport as long as he lived. Even if you knew absolutely nothing about racing, you probably knew who Dale Earnhardt was. When he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, he felt immortal to me. When he won his final race at Talladega going from eighteenth to first in five laps, he felt immortal.

Even in the winding moments of that final race, running third place shielding his team cars who were first and second from a swarming pack behind him in those final laps, he felt immortal. Earnhardt felt immortal to everybody. So, when he passed, the world stood still. Millions were devastated. People didn’t go to work. It was a nightmare, and everything just seemed unfair and hopeless, and to many- twenty years later- it still does.   

Dale Earnhardt’s 76th NASCAR Winston Cup Win

Sound familiar?

Twenty years later, and the scale of how media works and is interpreted has drastically changed. The situations and causes of death were totally different. Earnhardt’s death included no other person. Kobe’s included eight other people including one of his daughters. The tragedies are not comparable in these aspects, but it’s undeniable that both of these two figures brought out the same kind of horrifyingly sad emotions in fans when they passed.

I was so emotional about Kobe’s death, and it felt somewhat strange. I have never been a diehard basketball fan, and as a kid, I couldn’t stand Kobe! His captivation of the villain figure consumed me. It took until the latter stages of his career for me to begin to love and appreciate him. But I catch myself tearing up thinking about him to this day, and I wonder to myself “why am I still upset about this”.

Obviously, the details of the tragedy are terribly sad, and I would like to think that anybody with a pulse should feel some sort of sadness. A piece of me feels like the extra, long-term emotion comes from the idea that this is what it was like for millions of people when Earnhardt passed in 2001. I always was so curious about what it was like for people when that happened, and now I feel like I understand; it’s terrible. You can never imagine this. Social media’s role in this is prominent as well. It was remarkably heartbreaking, but also fascinatingly therapeutic to see how social media influenced emotions throughout Bryant’s tragedy, and I certainly wonder what kind of difference the existence of social media would have made in the aftermath of Earnhardt’s death.

The tragedy of Kobe Bryant resonates with me on a very emotional level because I constantly think about Dale Earnhardt and how different everything would be if he were still here. I think about him so often and get caught hours at a time watching different videos about him to the point where it almost makes me think that I feel his death almost every day when I get emotional.

My attentiveness to NASCAR along with my emotional attachment to the Earnhardt pedigree is unwavering. Therefore, I really sympathize for the heartbreak that Kobe’s diehard fans went through- and will continue to go through- because, as someone who lives, eats, and breathes sports, I remain heartbroken for the Kobe fans that he provided so much pure happiness, thrilling memories and wholehearted passion to. Just like I imagine with Earnhardt, I think twenty years from now, if I am still here, I will wonder how different everything would be if Kobe Bryant were still alive.

The craziest part about this is the fact that I was not old enough to feel the remarkable, instant impact of Dale Earnhardt’s death. I was four years old. When me and my dad would watch NASCAR throughout my toddler years, I wasn’t yet capable of paying close attention. As I really started paying attention to NASCAR and other forms of auto racing, I grew to love Dale Earnhardt through his son (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), through history, and through memories from my Dad.

Each time we would watch any kind of great memory or a documentary about Earnhardt, I could see clear emotion from him. And it’s the only instance in which I ever see that exact emotion out of him- literal tears. My dad lost his parents at a very young age and I have never seen him get clearly emotional about them during a conversation; I obviously do not say that to undermine them. I say that to provide perspective about what Dale meant to his fans. It seems crazy and unbelievable, but it’s true. That’s how much Dale Earnhardt meant, and that’s how much Kobe meant. The volume of tears shed by sports fans over the loss of these two legendary icons is likely unparalleled in the world of sports.

Leading into the NASCAR season last year I hoped so badly that NASCAR would find an honorable way to recognize Kobe, because if there’s any one entity and group of fans that can directly relate to such a tragedy, it’s NASCAR and its fans- especially Dale Earnhardt fans. As admirers of these athletes, we must realize how grateful we were to get to witness the greatness of these icons for such a long time. In my perspective with Kobe Bryant, that time flew by.

It’s honestly unbelievable that he had been retired for over three years. It’s unbelievable to so many that Dale Earnhardt passed away twenty years ago. Time is precious, and appreciation is so important because you really never know when something’s going to end and the effect it’s going to have on you. And that applies to almost everything in life.

Throughout the rest of my life, I can’t help to believe that I’ll be thinking about Kobe because I will be thinking about Dale. When I think about Dale, I’ll think about Kobe. Their legends are nearly the same, but their identities totally different. To put it quite frankly, one was a white male from Kannapolis, North Carolina who drove racecars; the other- a black male from Philadelphia who played basketball.

It’s difficult to imagine two iconic figures in sports that could be any more different. Yet, their spirits and legacies feel remarkably similar, and the fashion in which they impacted and will continue to impact millions of people’s lives unquestionably parallels. I will always think about them in the same sense, and I think not a day will pass where I don’t think about them both.

Rest in Peace,

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