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Nicolais: Tragedy touches us all, even world-class athletes like Kobe and Mikaela

The deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant coupled with the recent passing of Mikaela Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, shook many of us to the core

Famous athletes always seem set apart from the ordinary. Their faces and exploits dance across our televisions. We see and associate them with the ability to perform in their sport with an almost magical transcendence.

Maybe that is why it is so jarring to see them beset by personal tragedy.

Two recent occurrences have driven that point home for me. First, the death of Kobe Bryant and his young daughter, Gianna, followed by the passing of Mikaela Shiffrin’s father, Jeff.

Mario Nicolais

When Kobe’s helicopter crashed on Jan. 26, it immediately swept across the globe via social media and television chyrons. As soon as it came across my Twitter feed, the need to share the shock ran so deep that I dashed upstairs to tell my wife.

Though I’ve never been a big fan of the NBA, much less Kobe, the news struck me deeper than I would have imagined. At first, I thought my reaction might have been because Kobe was only a few months older than me.

He was the first real superstar from my generation. I have distinct memories of watching Laker games in my dorm with other 18-year-olds awed by someone our age dominating professional athletes. 

Kobe’s early exploits on the basketball court gave us the belief that we could take on the world, too. Conversely, his untimely death exposed our human frailty.

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That initial nostalgia quickly gave way as reports about his daughter began to surface. If Kobe’s death seemed like a gut-punch, Gianna’s felt like cancer eating my stomach from the inside.

I cried when one of my favorite writers – and the author of the fantastic Basketball (and Other Things) – wrote about the “familial architecture” and timelines we all build in our own minds and how the deaths of Kobe and his little girl shattered those beliefs.  

Just as the shock of their deaths began to subside, my wife came down our stairs to share the news of a tragic accident much closer to home. 

Jeff Shiffrin’s death didn’t make the same international waves as Kobe and Gianna, but it shook me far more. While I only got to watch Kobe, and didn’t know much about Gianna, I’ve known the Shiffrin family for years.

Before Mikaela became Colorado’s sweetheart and the best skier in the world, the law firm where I worked represented the Shiffrins on a variety of matters. As Mikaela’s talent developed, I had the opportunity to work with Jeff on her first professional endorsement contracts.

Smart, funny and kind, Jeff loved his family. He did not live vicariously through Mikaela or her brother Taylor (a member of the University of Denver national champion ski team), but instead took immense pride in their happiness. 

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While Mikaela trekked between European ski resorts accompanied by his wife, Eileen, Jeff stayed in Colorado and continued his life’s work as an anesthesiologist.

I’d get calls from him to talk about new sponsors or contracts that Mikaela had been offered. He worried more about the pressure it might put on his daughter’s shoulders than the fame or riches they might provide.

Jeff knew being a father always trumped being a business manager.

Anytime Jeff came into the office, everyone always knew. Not because of his relation to a famous athlete, but because his booming voice filled the halls and his ever-present and mustachioed megawatt smile always seemed to brighten every room he entered. He possessed a rare charisma that drew people to him.

When sportscasters or news anchors marvel at Mikaela’s kindness and character, I don’t. I know exactly where it came from.

World-class athletes like Kobe and Mikaela spend their lives highlighted by what makes them different and special and set apart from the rest of us.

But when tragedies like those over the past two weeks strike, it’s the commonalities that shake us to the core.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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