“Kobe is dead.”

Those were the first words out of my middle son’s mouth when I answered the phone. I paused, waiting for the punchline to this really bad joke. He said it twice more. My mouth fell open. Was he serious? It felt like words had become disconnected from meanings.

I put him on speaker, went downstairs calling my wife. “Marilyn, did you hear --.”

She finished the awful sentence. “Kobe is dead,” she said. It had come through on a grandson’s phone. Another grandson called, and she put him on speaker. For maybe five minutes we stood around saying, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”

That’s all we said. It was all we could.

Marilyn wept. Me, I held it together.

Until I saw this video of the Toronto Raptors winning the opening tip against the San Antonio Spurs and instead of going on offense, they dribbled out the shot clock. Then the Spurs did the same. The shot clock runs 24 seconds. Kobe Bryant, in the latter part of his storied career with the Los Angeles Lakers — my Los Angeles Lakers — wore No. 24.

That’s when I lost it. And I kept losing it. Lost it when Madison Square Garden wreathed itself in Lakers purple and gold. And again when Boyz II Men joined Alicia Keys at the Grammys in Staples Center — the Lakers home arena — to sing “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.”

Meanwhile, the news kept getting worse. The helicopter crash in the hills near Malibu that took Kobe’s life also took eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Vanessa Bryant, the mother of his three surviving daughters, finds herself a widow at the ludicrous age of 37.

And I kept waiting for a punchline that did not come.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how the loss of someone you never met can feel like a death in the family? I had a fan’s complex relationship with Kobe.

When, as a teenage phenom, he stubbornly put up four airballs in a critical playoff game, I would’ve traded him for a sandwich and a glass of milk. When he and Shaquille O’Neal feuded like overgrown children, I wanted to throttle him with a two-by-four. When he was arrested for sexual assault — he proclaimed his innocence and the woman who accused him declined to testify and he settled a civil suit with her — I could’ve happily strangled him.

But oh, when he crossed over Scottie Pippen and threw that lob to Shaq in the Portland series, when he hit the afterburners and notched 81 points against the Raptors, when he single-handedly outscored the entire Mavericks team over three quarters, when he blew out his Achilles tendon, then stood at the free throw line and sank two shots, when he led my hometown team to five championships, I yelled and pumped my fists in awe of his will and skill.

And when he left it all behind, when he reinvented himself as filmmaker, author and doting dad and seemed to find a serenity he never allowed himself as an alpha competitor, I was happy for him. I was eager to see what came next.

This is what came next. He was just 41 years old.

The suddenness of it feels brutal, but also instructive, a reminder from on high of how ephemeral our existence really is. And thus, how urgent.

It made you reconsider what seemed important just hours before. It made you want to hug somebody, squash a beef with somebody, love somebody — now, while you can.

As Tanya Tucker sang from the Grammy stage, “We all think we’ve got the time until we don’t.” That truth is the fundament of our existence, the thing that makes it bitter — and sweet.

Kobe is dead. There is no punchline.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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