A Saint in Purple and Gold: reflections on Kobe and his faith

There have been a lot of talks about Kobe lately, in the wake of his recent announcement that this season is going to be his last. With that in mind, I stumbled upon an article highlighting a different aspect of Kobe. The article isn’t about Kobe as an athlete, but as a man of faith. I did find out that Kobe is a practicing Catholic. It isn’t something new to me; in fact, a priest I know told me a few weeks ago that he would sometimes see Kobe with his family at a church in Manhattan Beach. Kobe isn’t quite a Stephen Curry in terms of displaying his faith in public, but I think he doesn’t need to be. His very person sheds light on what it means to be Catholic. Why do I say so? Here are two reasons why I think he lives his Catholic faith more genuinely—whether he’s aware of it or not—than most practicing ones:
• In an interview, Kobe pointed out that it is “extremely important” for him to spend the rest of his 20 year career with one team. The entire theology of the Christian faith rests upon the story of oneness. In the beginning, when God created everything, He created Man in His own image. There is, therefore, oneness between God and Adam/Eve—the whole humanity. When Abraham obeyed God in killing his son Isaac, God recognized his desire to be one with Him and, in turn, made him a pioneer of the monotheistic religion which became Judaism and, eventually, Christianity. Many years later, God made a covenant with Moses, which essentially means that He is one with His people Israel. And then in our creed we profess the oneness of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. That there is sacredness in oneness essentially explains why Catholicism doesn’t allow divorce. The very nature of divorce goes against the whole concept of “oneness”. The sacrament of marriage is a sacred pact that forms a man and woman into “one” flesh under the “grace” provided by the Holy Spirit. Any intentions to destroy that grace belong to the craft of Satan. In fact, the original Greek word for “demonic” essentially means “tearing apart”, “destruction”, a stark contrast to the nature of God which is “to bind”, “put together”, “make whole”. Kobe had many moments and opportunities to leave the Lakers. There was his feud with Shaq and Phil Jackson (much more so with Shaq). There was also that moment after back-to-back playoff loses against the Phoenix Suns, when Kobe demanded a trade because he couldn’t stand losing any longer. But somehow, perhaps through the grace of providence, he remained in purple and gold. His greatest trait is his undying loyalty, which stood against the storm presented by those moments of testing. The great thing about him is that he had many good reasons to leave the Lakers, but he chose to stay. In that choice, there is an element of faithfulness which is a dominant theme in Christianity. On a personal level, he and his wife Vanessa have been together for many years. He remained with this woman without no turbulence in their marriage. There was the sexual allegation case in Colorado in 2002, and that was great opportunity for their marriage to falter. They remained strong. Then there was the divorce his wife filed in 2011 due to their “irreconcilable differences”. Yet, Kobe didn’t let those “difference” become a reason for them to go separate ways. The divorce didn’t follow through and made his way back to her heart. Perhaps Kobe couldn’t ever stand the thought of a life without her, which is what true repentance means—a fear of life without God. Whether he’s aware of it or not, Kobe’s greatest gift is his faithfulness and it’s a shame that not a lot of people share that gift with him. Just look how rampant divorces are in our society, how easy it is for couples to give up on each other. With an unsacred society that lacks oneness, it’s amazing to see how Kobe actually became a counter-cultural role model.

• His approach to the game and his attitude towards it genuinely manifest his Catholic faith. Kobe has that single minded approach to what he calls his “first love”. He may be one of those few people who are lucky enough to discover their true passion at an early age. In Catholic terms, he was able to discern his true vocation. He had a calling to be an athlete and he followed through it without any reservations. According to St. Paul, we truly become part of the mystical body of Christ when we answer to our true calling, and exercising our respective charisms (Romans 12:4-5). It doesn’t matter what that calling is, so long as we give ourselves entirely to it. In turn, we become worthy part of the mystical body of Christ by the fruits we bear off of it. The fruits Kobe bore are evident; he has drawn many fans and teammates alike into his passion for the game. That ability to draw others is called charisma, and Kobe certainly has that. Having charisma is a sign of answering to one’s true calling. After 20 seasons, it’s undeniable that Kobe has made the most of his calling: 5x champion, 2x Finals MVP, NBA MVP, 17x All-Star, Third all-time scoring leader, and many more. The inward aspect of Christianity is remaining one with and faithful to God through prayers and the sacraments. The outward aspect of it is answering one’s true calling and making the most of it.
When Christ came down to this world to engineer a path to oneness with all humanity, He came in wrapped in a way that we didn’t expect. Not to liken him to Christ, but Kobe’s personality gave way into what it means to be genuinely Catholic, though wrapped differently from what we have in mind. No one would ever come to think that an athlete can be an evangelical figure to the Catholic faith. We can definitely say that, in spite of his imperfections, Kobe is a living saint.
In Catholicism, the graces we yearn for come in way that we don’t expect. The joy we desire arrives in moments of sadness. True peace is obtained in the midst of tremendous unrest. Courage comes in when we are tested. And faith when we feel like there nothing worth believing anymore. I mean, who would’ve thought that the way we’d be saved is by the death of a Hero on the cross?

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