, 28 January, 2020 / 4:35 AM
A day after the sudden and unexpected death of the basketball superstar Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna and seven others, a section of clergy, religious, and lay Catholic faithful in Africa have, amid shock and disbelief, paid glowing tribute to the 41-year-old retired NBA player, expressing appreciation for his talent, for being a role model to many, and for practicing his Catholic.
“I have learned, with a great shock about the untimely death of our superstar and my superstar, Kobe Bryant. I knew him in his activities. I have followed him since the time I came across his conduct and name and with his performances,” Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of South Sudan’s Tombura-Yambio Diocese told ACI Africa Monday, January 27.
Bishop Hiiboro said the late Bryant touched him “not only by his way of playing (but also by his) simplicity and humility displayed in the field, his conduct with his brothers and colleagues in the team, and above all, his uprightness in terms of his Catholic faith.”
Referencing Bryant who, it has been revealed, attended Mass on Sunday, January 26, the very day he met his death, the South Sudanese Prelate continued, “He was not shy. He was not ashamed to show his Catholic faith. And he also knew that behind his talents, there was actually God who was providing him with those talents.”
The Bishop said he admired Bryant’s reliance on God even in failure demonstrated in the basketballer’s “ability to have a moment to pray whenever he went for competition and whenever he would not perform well, he will always continue to thank God.”
“For me, Kobe is a saint. He is a patron of African superstars in basketball, in sports, in faith and he will continue to stand out there as a leader in faith and as someone who has died in action,” the South Sudanese Bishop said and added, “We have lost a leader, a man who believed that he came from God. This man is with God. He is the patron saint for the young people.”
He recognized Bryant’s global outreach saying he did not keep “the talent to himself. He has touched Africa. He has touched many people around the world. He has tried to extend the skills across the continents and across the globe. He was never a selfish person.”
“He wanted really to transform the young people in our continent, to have a value in themselves; that they should believe in themselves and move on,” Bishop Hiiboro said.
“On behalf of the people in my diocese of Tombura-Yambio and on behalf of the young people who aspire to be great, I express my condolences to his closest family, to the nation from where he comes and above all, to the African people, to the young people as such, to the basketball players and to the people of the world,” the 55-year-old South Sudanese Prelate who has been at the helm of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SCBC) said.
The Bishop said he would celebrate the Holy Eucharist on Wednesday, January 29 in honor of the basketball superstar “with the number of young people here in my diocese and those who are his fans and also the many young people who love his sport here.”
“My sympathy to all his coach and fans and friends, those who have missed him a lot like myself,” he reiterated and added, “I don't play basketball, but he made me to love it. And whenever I see people playing basket, I look out at him. So may God grant him eternal life.”
Bishop Hiiboro concluded, “May God grant him eternal peace. And may He give us consolation. And may there be more Kobe in Africa and in the world to continue the same legacy. Amen.”
On his part, Bishop Victor Hlolo Phalana of South Africa’s Klerksdorp Diocese appreciated the late Bryant’s talent as a gift from God.
“We thank God that people like him used all their talents while they were still here on earth. That with his own success he tried to reach out to the marginalized and to try and promote sports among the poor,” Bishop Phalana told ACI Africa Monday, January 27 and added in reference to Kobe Bryant, “we are also grateful that he did not lose his faith. That is another great thing about him, that he died a believer, he died a true Catholic.”
“We pray for his wife, we pray for his remaining children and we pray for the souls of all the other passengers who died with him,” he said and added, “The reality is that death is a tragedy but it is also a doorway to the joys of heaven so let us pray that since they left in such a tragic way they may receive the consolation of heaven and be able to enjoy life with God.”
The South African Prelate expressed the wish that Kobe’s demise helps those in “Africa to support basketball, to make sure that basketball becomes a sport that can lift our young people from mystery and poverty into the wealth stage.”
Bishop Phalana prayed, “May more and more Africans reach their full potential in basketball.”
Widely considered among the greatest basketball players of all time, Bryant retired in 2016 after a 20-year-career with the Los Angeles Lakers having won five NBA championships, two scoring championships alongside other distinctions to his name.
Born and raised as a Catholic, Bryant got married in the Church in 2001 and was blessed with four daughters. He credited his faith with helping him through a challenging period in his personal life and that of his family.
When he was arrested in 2003 for sexual assault and the matter became public, Bryant went through the ordeal of losing sponsors in the face of criminal charges. He denied allegations of sexual assault but admitted a sexual encounter, Catholic News Agency reported.
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter,” Bryant was quoted as apologizing to the women in 2004.
The criminal charges were eventually dropped and in recounting the experience, Bryant said he had been helped by a Catholic priest.
“The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest,” Bryant was quoted as saying.
He had other family challenges including the 2011 incident when his wife, Vanessa Bryant, filed for divorce, which she justified by irreconcilable differences. Bryant did not give up on his marriage. In 2013, Vanessa withdrew the divorce petition she had filed.
“As a longtime fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and unapologetic fan of Kobe, I am filled with sadness and speechless at a death so surreal and unreal! Though I didn’t personally know him, I have followed him from afar because of his pursuit of excellence, hard work and commitment to the mastery of his basketball craft,” Nigerian-born Fr. Kizito Raphael presently serving in Omaha, Nebraska in the U.S. told ACI Africa.
“He never wore his faith on his sleeve but when it mattered most, he would let the world know how his faith and encounter with a Catholic priest changed the trajectory of his life and empowered him to “let go” and refocus only on the things he could control,” Fr. Raphael recalled.
The U.S.-based Nigerian cleric added, “If there is any consolation in the death Kobe, it is the fact that it was a good ending, and like a good actor and entertainer he bowed out when the ovation was high! Good night to the Mamba.”
Fr. Samuel Nyattaya, a priest heading Caritas of Kenya’s Archdiocese of Kisumu described as “something admirable in him” the fact that “Bryant can openly give tribute to his Catholic faith as the one thing that helped him move past a challenging period of his personal life and the life of his family.”
“This is reminiscent of what Pope Francis calls the LIGHT OF FAITH. He says that once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique: it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence,” the Kenyan cleric explained.
He added, “Isn’t it striking that Bryant admits that it was a priest who helped him to make some important personal realizations during his difficult moments? His turning point was what the priest told him,” Fr. Nyattaya told ACI Africa Monday, January 27.
He expressed appreciation for “the openness with which Bryant shared his experience of that encounter with the priest, an openness which glorifies the role of the priesthood in our life” and concluded, “Just as the priest is reported to have told him ‘to Let it go! Move on!’, may Bryant move on into the eternal mercy of God.”
Meanwhile, for the Kenyan-born Secretary General of the Franciscan Missionaries of St. Joseph (FMSJ), Sr. Brenda Makokha, Bryant is special because he did not let his fame dim his faith practice.
“I must admit my limited knowledge Kobe, but one thing I admire of him is that as a superstar, the fame did not overshadow his call as a committed Catholic, which is attested by the fellow parishioners,” Sr. Makokha told ACI Africa and added, “what stands out most is his devotedness to his family in a society where the family is at threat.”
Being a husband and a dad, Bryant’s belief in the indissolubility of Catholic marriage, Sr. Makokha said, was “demonstrated when the couple called off their divorce and reunited. That's for someone whose Christian background and value are the pillars of his faith.”
“He died at peace with his God. May he enjoy the rewards of eternity. My condolences to his wife and the remaining ‘princesses’ as he always called them,” the London-based FMSJ nun, a native of Kenya’s Kakamega Diocese said.
For the Ghanaian Conventual Franciscan Gabriel Boateng, “what I like about Kobe is his personal discipline. He is a guy who put seriousness in everything he did: in his Catholic faith and in his basketball game, and this discipline of his is what made him famous and very popular. May his soul and all those who died with him Rest in Peace.”
Robert Dela Mawuenyegah of Ghana’s Ss. Anne & Joachim Catholic Church who has been reading tributes to Bryant and his daughter has had his faith challenged.
“My faith has even been challenged when I learnt he attended Mass on Sunday before their tragic death. He demonstrated he had great love for the Catholic faith. I personally admire how he shared stories of how a Catholic Priest guided him during some difficult times. May his wife and children find comfort with the Lord. May the former Laker and father of four find eternal rest with the Lord,” Mawuenyegah told ACI Africa.
Eunice Wesonga, a Kenyan Catholic studying in Australia described Bryant as “a great man no doubt.”
Ms. Wesonga expressed her sympathy with Vanessa Bryant saying, “It's so sad and even more for his wife who didn't just lose a husband but a daughter too. I can't imagine the pain she is going through.”
Hilda Osike, a communications student at the Nairobi-based Tangaza University College and a parishioner at St. Mary’s Parish, Rongai of Kenya’s Ngong diocese, said, “Kobe was a committed catholic who loved his faith. The Catholic church has lost a good Christian. It is sad. We pray that our Almighty God may give them eternal rest and peace to his wife and remaining children.”
“The first thing that struck me was to hear that Kobe Bryant was a believing and practicing Catholic. I usually do not associate celebrities with the Christian faith, talk less of Catholicism. They always seem to me to have one thing in mind, and one thing only – fame and the accompanying wealth,” Martin Jumbam, a Cameroonian Catholic journalist based in Douala told ACI Africa Monday, January 27.
Jumbam said he was “truly” surprised when he learned about the testimony from a Catholic faithful of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach that “they attended Mass with Bryant the morning of the day of this tragic accident. The person even said he stepped aside to let them go ahead of him to receive holy communion.”
“I also heard that at a particularly difficult time of his life, he did confide to a Catholic priest and found solace in the confessional. And here l am, passing judgment on all celebrities as people of little or no faith. Forgive me, Lord,” Jumbam said and made known his prayer, “I pray for the peaceful repose of his soul, of his daughter's soul and the souls of those who were with them.”
“Goodbye artist. Thanks for all those sleepless nights waiting for the Lakers and watching you play,” Laments the Coordinator of the Catholic Youth and Cultural Centre in Cameron’s economic capital, Douala, Didier Nyoumi
“The sports world has lost a legend, but most especially a fervent Catholic Christian. I always used you as a model to teach young people to persevere in life in order to succeed. You were faithful to the Lakers, to basketball and to the world,” he added.
In his death, Bryant’s faith and talent seem to speak loud about the man he was, with many seeing him as an inspiration to future generations across the globe.
Magdalene Kahiu and Jude Atemanke contributed to this story.