Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people died as the result of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. on Sunday morning. Kobe Bryant was 41 years old.
Other than the facts that have been revealed about the incident to this point, any more words to add to this incomprehensible loss are hard, if not impossible, to come by.
For now, I will try my best to add to what has quickly become an incessant, necessary discussion about Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers legend, and his legacy.
Kobe’s legacy as a professional basketball player is indelible to at least hundreds of millions of sports fans. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, you respected his uncanny, Michael Jordan-esque ability on the basketball court. (If the saying is indeed true that we really “hate” the ones we love, almost no trace of enmity existed in any spectator who ever critiqued him for his basketball sense.) His presence between the 94′ x 50′ playing surface captivated us, as much as one tried to deny falling into his trance with every spin move, slam dunk, and buzzer beater that added to his ever-growing highlight reel.
For those in my generation, we were either finishing up elementary school or were underclassmen in high school when a fresh-faced, skinny-legged Pennsylvania high schooler announced he was going to forego college altogether to enter the NBA Draft. The discovery of that news captivated so many teens like me, especially since making the jump from high school to the pros was, at that time, still perceived as an exceedingly rash decision. Though future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett had made a similar high-school-to-NBA leap a year prior, he was close to seven feet tall and would tower above almost every player he would come up against. The notion that a guard, much smaller in stature, would test the waters before ever plying his trade in college to play at the sport’s highest level conjured up reactions that ranged from ballsiness to impudence to asininity.
The Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant. The Los Angeles Lakers traded for him that same night. And the rest, as they say, is history: 20 NBA seasons, 18 All-Star games, 11 All-NBA First Team selections, an NBA Most Valuable Player Award, two NBA Finals MVP Awards, five NBA championships titles won and a cemented status as an icon in a city full of stars, Los Angeles. Many adolescents, a number of which who currently play in the same NBA that Kobe Bryant reigned over, grew up going to the playgrounds and gyms while perfecting their on-court footwork and dreaming of hitting buzzer-beating shots in the manner of Kobe Bryant.
We grew up with Kobe Bryant. We did not know him, yet we knew him so well. And today’s news hurt the sports fan and competitor in us a great deal.
Kobe Bryant’s legacy is complicated, especially in the backdrop of the #MeToo Movement that gained steam in 2017 in light of the sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. In 2003, Bryant was arrested and charged with sexual assault after a complaint filed by a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colo. The accuser stated that Bryant raped her on the eve of Bryant having a surgical procedure done to his knee. In a subsequent press conference, Bryant admitted to having an affair with his accuser, but denied sexual assault.
In September of 2004, the case was dropped when the accuser refused to testify at the trial, though she did file a separate civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court. Bryant agreed to apologize to her for the incident, Bryant released a public apology:
Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.
Parallel to the trauma suffered by the accuser, Bryant’s actions saw his once sky-high popularity and reputation nosedive. His on-court success, the birth of his daughters and his reconciliation with his wife, Vanessa, made many fans morph Bryant’s past sexual assault accusation into a footnote, but the recent reexamination of past transgressions stemming from the lack of comeuppance for violence against women by men of influence caused a number of people to downplay and/or refuse to acknowledge Bryant’s accomplishments to amplify the voices of women who have been victims of sexual assault.
And rightfully so.
While it is a conflict for me as a sports fan and a journalist to balance basketball brilliance with the knowledge of a credible sexual assault claim, numerous women and allies of women who have been sexually abused did not afford Bryant such slack. I do believe credible sexual assault claims can and do open your past and your future — as exemplary as one’s actions might be — to be scrutinized as nauseam. My judgement about Bryant regarding his treatment of women has also been weighted by the unmistakable love he regularly showed to his four daughters when in the public eye. I also grant one reading this article that my judgment might very well be specious in nature.
Kobe Bryant’s legacy in social circles is unquestioned. He spoke fluent Italian — a byproduct of living in Italy while his father played professionally in the country — which surely was a culture shock, and an inspiration, to see a young, successful African American give off such erudition. Once he coined the “Black Mamba” nickname, he became synonymous with the moniker and, in turn, made the sobriquet as popular as any in the history of sport, ranking alongside nicknames such as “The Greatest” and “Say Hey Kid.” His line of Nike “Mamba” shoes raged in popularity and sales. Bryant became an entrepreneur, an Academy Award winner and an ambassador for women’s college and professional basketball.
It is without question that of all the men and women who have had a positive impact in the African American community in the past quarter century, particularly in sports and entertainment, Kobe Bryant arguably is that group’s premier luminary.
Over 1,000 words in, and I do not think I am any closer to providing the right ones to use about a great athlete, a flawed individual and an icon in sports and the African American community. I’ll try one last time.
Thank you, Kobe Bryant. Requiescat in pace.