Why You're So Upset About Kobe Bryant's Retirement

Photo: Heikki Saukkomaa/REX Shutterstock.
On November 29, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement on The Players’ Tribune, a media platform founded by Derek Jeter. In a poem entitled "Dear Basketball," the Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard explained quite beautifully that his "body knows it's time to say goodbye."

Lakers fans — and even those who aren't Lakers fans, but respect Bryant's basketball career — took to social media to share their sadness. "Kobe got grown men in their feelings everywhere," one Twitter user wrote. "Got them watching highlights reminiscing about the good times." Kobe retiring got my feelings all over the place today," another user wrote. The hashtag #ThankYouKobe turns up a plethora of emotional responses from those who cannot believe Bryant is retiring.

The reaction on social media was quite similar to that of The Walking Dead fans, who used social media to grieve over the possible loss of a major character. So, I asked Nancy Mramor Kajuth, PhD, health and media psychologist and author of Get Reel: Produce Your Own Life, to help decipher why Bryant's retirement was such a blow to so many people.

Dr. Kajuth says we develop parasocial relationships with athletes, "relationships that, over time and with exposure, feel personal, and you feel as if they are a part of [your] social circle." Bryant took on a greater importance in the lives of his fans, and, as Kajuth notes, "Once a parasocial relationship occurs...you may even experience some grief after they retire."

Though Bryant's announcement was heartbreaking, Dr. Kajuth said this phenomenon extends to athletes in general. "Athletes are people young people want to grow up to be," she says. "They are the heroes that accomplish what young people wish they could, and so they identify with them even more. You will see young people who are in financial difficulty wearing the shirt with their favorite player's number because these men represent what is possible and bring the idea and the feelings of athletic fame closer to them."

Our relationship with athletes, then, becomes aspirational. For many, Bryant represents a dream. So, if that motivation is taken away from you — as in, he won't be on the court anymore — it's easy to see why it can feel like a more devastating blow than, say, when your favorite uncle retires from his job at the insurance company.
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