Article written by Dhruv Nair and Dr. Jason Pappas
Heartbroken, devastated, destroyed, gutted—the various reactions of every sports fan in the world yesterday, as we lost one of basketball’s all-time greats, Kobe “Bean” Bryant. As the world grieves this loss, we’ll hear of thousands of Kobe stories, stories of how he inspired multiple generations, stories on how he defied all the boundaries on and off the court and so on. Everyone will remember Kobe not only for the excellent athlete he was, but his role as a father, a philanthropist, a leader, and as a symbol of greatness.
While it may seem understandable that a legend like Kobe becomes important to teammates and his former teams, it is clear that sports spectators—those fans sitting in the stands, cheering, celebrating after every moment—can also become so passionate about their team that it becomes part of their social identity and affects their well-being. It is also safe to say that fans tend to be socialized to sports early and view it not just as a game, but as a nostalgic or emotional experience.
According to research by Dr. Jeffrey James, professor and chair of the Department of Sport Management at Florida State, "Group identity theory suggests that fans of sports teams see themselves as members of an organization, not just consumers of a product." To a fan, Kobe's death can feel like the death of a family member, not just of a popular athlete. The main reasons fans remain attached psychologically and emotionally to their respective teams or favorite athletes can be explained by factors like brain chemistry, nostalgia, geographical location, social connectivity, loyalty, superstition and the “there’s always next year” mentality. These factors help us as fans build our relationship and attachment to our teams while also influencing our actions. From yelling “Kobe” while trying to throw something into a box or adhering to the “Mamba Mentality” in our everyday lives, many fans embrace the legacy he left behind, and in that way, Kobe will live on and will never be forgotten.
Kobe was well remembered for being one of the few greats to get drafted straight from high school. The Lower Merion prodigy got drafted by the Hornets with the 13th pick in 1996 and made major impacts in the NBA in his rookie year. However, this poses the question of whether student-athletes should be permitted to skip college and join the pro ranks immediately. Players, coaches, researchers and others have debated a number of pros and cons stemming from letting high school students enter the NBA. The pros would include high pay, exposure and getting to play at the highest level of basketball, while the cons would include a lack of education or a lack of understanding of what it takes to “live in the real world.” We have seen many cases where the best professionals are broke after retiring due to poor investments, legal troubles and the fact that they just haven’t received the proper education.
Whether one is a fan or not, people will remember where they were when they heard the news of Kobe Bryant’s death, not just because of the accident’s tragic nature, but because of his legendary impact he made through the game of basketball. Among his great accomplishments, Kobe actively promoted women’s sports and started After School All-Starts, an organization that served 14,000 low-income students in the Los Angeles area. In addition, Kobe was a father who truly made an impact with all of his children–particularly with his daughter, Gianna–by promoting women’s sports and her love of the game of basketball. Gianna was a huge fan of the University of Connecticut Huskies Women’s Basketball program; she followed the Mamba Mentality by following the Huskies with extreme passion and fandom. As a result, UCONN recognized her during a game this past week by displaying a #2 UCONN basketball jersey and nicknaming her “Mambacita,” which serves as an example of the tremendous influence of social identity–even from the children of arguably one of the greatest icons in sport.
It is hard to represent in words the impact players and teams may have on a sports fan, but the passing of the five-time champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the 18-time all-star Kobe Bryant perfectly displays the strong bond formed between fan and players. But maybe explaining in words isn’t necessary. Instead, one can look at the memories shared by celebrities and players; at the tributes taking place at the Empire State Building, The Staples Center, etc., and the respect shown by fans all over the world. It is safe to say the psychological connection between fans and sports teams/players is stronger than ever and impossible to break.