I have been thinking a lot about Kobe Bryant, more than I ever thought I would again, following his retirement in 2016. In the wake of last month’s helicopter crash, some aspect or another has been capturing the conversation around the accident, the career, & the life of the former NBA superstar, often narrowly focused on the primary worldview of the speaker. This winter, I have been engulfed in basketball, playing pick-up games again a couple times a week, watching several games, & listening to an abundance of hoops-related podcasts, unable to get enough of trade rumors, big-night recaps, & waiting for a whisper of praise for the over-achieving Indiana Pacers. Needless to say, the conversation on those airwaves turned grim with the news of Kobe’s passing, & with my hoops immersion, my first inclination was to forefront Kobe, the basketball player.
Yes, Kobe Bryant is easily a top-10 all-timer, probably the second best shooting guard of all-time behind His Airness. In fact, by all accounts he is second to only Jordan in mentality, scoring ability, & winning edge, a combo that led him to five NBA championships (as well as two other Finals appearances), 15x All-NBA selection / 12x All-NBA Defense selection, & the second highest-scoring game in NBA history, an 81-point game in 2006 against the Raptors. Undeniably divisive but also undeniably great at his craft, Kobe Bryant was as polarizing & memorable a player as I have seen in my lifetime as a basketball fan.
Everyone seems to have a Kobe memory burned into their memories, often from him torching their team. As is clear from this blog, my memory ain’t so good, but I do remember being 12-years old, the Pacers playing in the NBA Finals against the Lakers; they were down 2-1 in the Best-of-Seven series, but with a chance to win Game 4 in OT, after Shaq fouled out half-way through the bonus period. Then it became clear that 21-year old Kobe Bryant wasn’t going to let that happen, rattling off two clutch jumpers & a clever put-back off the offensive rebound to seal the game in front of the Pacers home crowd.
This, along with his final game, a sixty-point clear-out fest, are the two memories I most remember of his playing days. Be it the out-pouring of love from the Lakers community & NBA circles (including the necessity of cancelling the Lakers next game) after his death to Bill Simmons’ recollection on his latest Book of Basketball 2.0 podcast of a 2012 phone conversation with Kobe about leadership, Kobe undeniably left a legacy in basketball, one larger than I even understood a week ago.
However, both his life & his death, too, stretched farther than the basketball court, for better & for worse. The startling details of this tragedy have woken people up. Many parents I know have been reminded of the preciousness of that journey with their kiddos, are forced into rethinking priorities & plans, & are filled with sympathetic grief for Kobe’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, & their three surviving daughters. Others have remarked about not letting Bryant’s immense shadow shade out the other eight lives lost (his teenage daughter Gianna, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester; Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser; & the pilot Ara Zobayan). One of the more honest emotional responses came from Bill Burr on his Monday Morning podcast, where Bill takes the tragedy as a chance to think about his own ambitions as a helicopter pilot, his relationship with his own daughter, & how we view sports in our society.
I am five paragraphs in & I haven’t directly mentioned Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case; it is clear we, as a society, must talk about the rape allegations. Some folks felt compelled to force it to the forefront, even as the bodies were still literally on the ground; on the other end, others wanted to keep it a footnote. Both the Today Explained podcast & The Outline boldly explored the necessity of including Kobe rape allegations in the conversation around his life & legacy. As someone who has been wrapped up in his own abuse scandal (the online magazine that first published my ex-girlfriend's account has now been folded), one obviously with less social significance, I am particularly interested in how Kobe is perceived in totality, how he moved beyond that horrendous act, & how we make room for everyone to speak, create, & grow.
Can we & how do we hold everything at once? That is a question I often ask myself when faced with a person’s guilt & a longer resume of noble acts, neutral moments, & other not-so-good choices, including my own. Around these situations, I often hear the reminder that just because someone does good, doesn’t mean they can’t do bad. In a deep hole--depressed, hopeless in terms of reconciliation, & even suicidal--I was hung on the end of that statement; after talks with the people I respect most in this world--my future wife, my parents, close friends, strangers who bravely approached me on this topic--I remembered that I was a whole person, capable of & having done both good & evil acts in my life.
In the criminal system, in the public sphere, & especially in private conversations, I am glad we’re recognizing the harm folks cause, supporting victims & opening up about violence, substance abuse, & mental health. As much as we might want to banish people from the planet or wish “they just fucking die” (as one person wrote to tell me), it won’t happen, & even if it did, the ripple effects of harm it would do would be high & the actual good it would do for the victim is likely zilch, squashing chances for reconciliation, growth, & redemption from all parties. If our goal is to reduce violence, increase support for victims, & create better people in general, we have to have nuanced, difficult, & sometimes unresolved conversations about abuse, abusers, & the causes of such actions.
On The Bill Simmons Podcast, J.A. Adande, legendary sportswriter & director of the Northwestern Sports Journalism department, offered grace for how Kobe’s legacy is contextualized, taking in account timing, context, & audience. For instance, it is the manner in which we are talking about Kobe that dictates how, when, & why we mention the rape case; if we are talking basketball, then his greatness is the cornerstone; if we are talking about his life’s story, then absolutely a large bullet point is the rape situation. Regardless, there is necessary room to talk about all aspects of his character & choices.
It might sound silly or reductive, but in terms of celebrities or strangers, I often take the approach of Wikipedia. There is the introduction, which contains the key bullet points, & then down the page holds a larger discussion of personal life, professional achievements, controversy, etc. Looking at Kobe’s page, the opening section primarily pinpoints his rise as a basketball player & his accomplishments, but it does not bury the sexual assault case; there it is in the second half of the second paragraph: “In 2003, Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Criminal charges were brought and then dropped after the accuser refused to testify, with a civil suit later settled out of court. Bryant denied the assault charge but admitted to a sexual encounter, and issued a public apology, but the allegations were considered to have harmed his public profile and led to the loss of several sponsorships.” Of course, that is not the end of the conversation, but the point is still made: this is a moment in this man’s life that matters, on par with his accomplishments.
Though a few online were tweeting about the rape case, surprisingly many people were focused on his tragic death & secondarily, his enormous impact on the game of basketball. Somehow Kobe had seemed to reconcile with larger society in some combination of the passing of time following his acquittal & apology, his continued success in basketball & beyond, & his public advocacy for women, especially the WNBA & his own daughters. Clearly, it still was not definitive, as agreed upon through any sort of deliberate, societal system.
Sam Harris reiterated on his news-break episode in conversation with Paul Bloom our need for a specific system for rehabilitating abusers. In America, we have the penal system as our only real, public course for rehabilitation, both of character & perception, but rightfully so, we often don’t trust that system & recognize its flawed ways--disproportionately incarcerating people of color & the poor, lacking in funds, & often providing more psychological harm than repair. Often it is left to the social media discourse, a field dominated by the loudest, often anonymous, among us, instead of processes for true listening & change.
It seems very clear Kobe did immoral acts in Colorado; that can’t be discredited or forgotten. But is it okay for that to be contextualized in the larger story of Kobe Bryant? I would hope yes. Beyond the trial, he apologized & settled a civil suit. He continued to excel at his craft. He reconciled with his wife & took care of his daughters. He advocated for women, especially young female players in his sport. If that’s not finding a better lane & staying in it, I don’t know what is.
As Sam Harris says in that same podcast episode, Kobe might be one of the prime examples of celebrities who have rehabilitated their image & as someone who wants to make amends for what I have done, has gotten the help I need, & am on a great path to live productively, meaningfully, & safely with a psychological disorder & admitted dark side, I must believe that it is okay to keep on keeping on in a positive, whole-hearted direction. More than rehabilitating my image, the important thing is the process as the progress, right?
I am not Kobe Bryant, both in my mistakes & in my accomplishments, but as a man who caused serious harm to a woman I love, I must continue to ask myself how I can better the world, prevent this from happening again, & give back to the communities that support me. In another episode of his podcast, Bill Simmons says Kobe was always on-brand. Remembering that last game, Kobe scoring 60 points (awesome!) on 50 shots (not awesome!) & winning one last game (really awesome!), his daughters & wife cheering on the sideline, engulfed in that moment, I could certainly agree.
For me, it goes back to values, the driver for brand. Kobe’s mamba mentality, with a foundation of a relentless, competitive edge, & a desire to be the best, carried him as his number one value. In his original Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons called it Bryant’s Fox vs. Wolf, nodding to Michael J. Fox’s movie Teen Wolf, where a mild-mannered boy has the ability to turn into a basketball-dominating werewolf. Kobe couldn’t escape this duality of his character--at once a passionate, intelligent, & hilarious guy also capable of being cruel, violent, & selfish--& ultimately had to face both the positives & negatives of that mentality.
It was a humbling moment the other day, filling out disability paperwork alongside my wife, mine as the disabled, her as supporter of the disabled; after years of denying it, I had to face the facts stacked in front of me--the inability to hold a job for more than a few months, the difficult-to-control paranoia & mood swings, & the weekly sickness (a blending of dissociative spells, migraines, & extreme exhaustion). Back where I started, this is where I’m moving beyond the past, not on from it--contextualizing over condemning, forgiving over forgetting, improving over ignoring--in conversation with the world around me.
If my mentality, both the one inherent in my make-up & the one I’ve nurtured, is intense weirdo / hick artist, then I must see the good & bad in that as a means to be my best self. How can my passion overtake my other values? How does my “weirdness” affect others? What parts of my hick identity are consistent with my values & which are antithetical? How can making art improve the other areas of my life? How can I explore this respectively and mindfully in the public sphere? These are questions I am just beginning to answer.