Bruce Lee & Me
A reflection on the 50th anniversary of my friend's death.
What If Bruce Lee Had Lived?
Fifty years ago, I was on my way to visit Bruce Lee when I learned of his death. He was 32, and I was 25. He had been not only my martial arts teacher but my close friend, and I was still young enough to not yet have experienced much profound loss in my life, which is why his death hit me so hard. I felt like I’d tumbled overboard from a ship that had sailed on without me. I was alone in a vast dark ocean, bobbing up and down in the turbulent waves, struggling to tread water.
Fifty years later, I am way too familiar with profound loss. Family. Friends. Heroes. With each loss, I still feel the pain of my heart being twisted and squeezed like a sponge wrung dry. But I recover. And await the next loss.
There’s a poem by Richard Wilbur called “The Juggler” that begins:
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It's not
A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.
That ball is our heart, and though we are resilient in overcoming life’s tragedies, sometimes we resent it and even grow weary of having to bounce back. Motivational speakers are fond of saying it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up. But sometimes, it does matter how many times you get knocked down.
Bruce was 32 when he died, in his physical prime of muscle, sinew, and athleticism. He had a cocky smile that the young can afford because their bodies haven’t yet begun to betray them in a hundred small and big ways. To the world, he remains frozen in youth with all its vitality and possibilities.
If he’d lived, he’d have been 83 today—the same age as Chuck Norris, John Cleese, Al Pacino, Lily Tomlin, Smokey Robinson, and Ringo Starr. He wouldn’t be jumping and flipping and hitting, but he’d probably be making movies in which other martial artists would be jumping and flipping and hitting. He’d still be telling stories. He’d still be a husband, a father, a grandfather.
He’d still be my friend.
To celebrate Bruce, I’m reprinting the excerpt from my autobiography Becoming Kareem, in which I describe our friendship. I hope it captures my appreciation, admiration, and love.