I remember chanting “Kobe sucks!”
I’ll never forget the 2001 NBA Finals. My dad and I travelled down to Philly to watch game three. Dad’s a Lakers fan. He moved to the U.S. in the 1980s, so it’s hard to blame him for loving the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers. But I developed a deep love for the Sixers and for Allen Iverson. And so we went down to the game, and I remember chanting with the congregated fanbase how much we hated Kobe Bryant. Of course, we hated him because he was better than us. We hated him because we thought he betrayed Philadelphia. But really, we hated him because we respected him. You don’t waste your breath for guys that you don’t respect, and no one saved their breath when booing Kobe.
And even when Kobe passed his prime, my respect for his game stayed. I’d still get into arguments with my friends about how I thought Kobe was better than Bron (not better than Jordan, though). All in good fun, but also in admiration of one of the greatest players of the game.
After the Sixers miraculously won game one in L.A., Kobe and Shaq would go on to win four straight, throwing daggers into our hearts. The Sixers wouldn’t return to the Finals again. The Lakers, with Kobe at the helm, would win another one (making them win three straight), and then Kobe would win again in 2009 and 2010 (those two without Shaq, with whom he feuded). Five titles. Two Finals MVPs. One regular season MVP. Eighteen All-Star appearances (four of those earning him an All-Star MVP). Rookie of the Year. Slam dunk champ. Twenty years in the NBA. The accolades are endless. The man is a legend in basketball, and a legend of humankind.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that. Because we’ll all remember where we were when we heard of the tragedy of his death. When I first heard the news, I thought it was a joke, because LeBron passed Kobe in scoring the previous night. I assumed saying he died was just a bad attempt at humor. But then I realized it wasn’t. And then I couldn’t believe it. It actually broke my heart.
What is it about death that reminds of us of how human we are? How we are all connected? What is it about death that unites us in a way nothing else can? The human experience fully magnified by witnessing the death of someone everyone knows. That’s what’s powerful about a death; it brings people together. And the more tragic it is, the more humanizing it is; we see how vulnerable we all are. Kobe, 41 years old, died with his daughter in an entirely preventable helicopter crash. And now we mourn and grieve in our common humanity, longing for something more. We all do that. Even Kobe fans that proclaimed how much he sucked at the top of their lungs, much to the chagrin of their Lakers-loving fathers.
The temptation to write a hagiography for Kobe
The temptation, of course, is to just repeat those accolades and then add some. Howard Eskin told us how nice of a guy he was. Allen Iverson wrote about how he was a family man. The way he’s being remembered is really saintly. And people grieve that way, and I think people need to do that. Jimmy Kimmel called him a “bright light,” in a teary-episode. And I have a hard time not watching it too and making him into a perfect figure, elevating him to whatever status I can. Because when something so tragic happens, we tend to glorify the victims of it, maybe to alleviate our pain, or to justify how we feel.
I think it’s OK to feel all your feelings, though, without losing sight of who Kobe Bryant’s humanity. As amazing of a performer as he was on the court, he made egregious errors in his life, the pinnacle of which was allegedly raping a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. Kobe admitted to a sexual encounter, but denied assault. The case was dropped, settled in civil court, and Kobe lost some of his public persona, but eventually got a mega contract and regained commercial endorsements.
Kobe apparently moved on in a way the woman he raped couldn’t. Since the courts didn’t decide what happened, I am hesitant to make such a statement. Kobe denied raping her, confessed they had sex but said it was consensual, and eventually half-apologized. But she tells another story and the evidence is damning.
That’s part of the story. We have to remember that, too. And allow our grief for Kobe to illuminate that our love for humankind is not eclipsed by all the evil humankind can commit. Kobe’s best moments don’t make up for his worst moments, but his humanity is exactly why we grieve him.
And of course, the woman he raped, we grieve her too. What has her life been like? What is it like to see the man that raped you celebrated in the newspapers with nary a mention, save for a sentence in the third paragraph, of your plight? I’m praying for you, sister.
Charles P. Pierce, in remembrance of Kobe, writes:
There was no way to work that night in the Colorado hotel into the biography that unspooled thereafter and came to such a sudden end on Sunday. In Massachusetts, for decades, political writers wrestled with where to place Chappaquiddick into the saga of Ted Kennedy, and too many of them gave up and erased the event and Mary Jo Kopechne. But it is 2020 now, and Jeffrey Epstein is dead and Harvey Weinstein is in a New York courtroom, and erasing a female victim is no longer a viable moral and ethical strategy.
It was never a viable “strategy,” and it’s an immoral act to forget the woman Kobe harmed, but it also does a disservice to Kobe. We don’t need to misremember him as a perfect figure to grieve his death. We do better to remember him in all of his humanity.
I love what Jill Filipovic wrote:
There is no shame in grieving the end of a human life; it is good to feel, especially for the people who knew and loved the person who died. No matter how painful or complicated a person’s legacy, considering their death with softness and grace calls on us to draw from the best parts of ourselves.
That same work of compassion also calls on us to remember that no person is an island. All of our lives leave ripples. Some lives are tsunamis. Compassion is not summarizing the beauty of the wave; it’s picking through the wreckage, reckoning with who was hurt. Awe without honesty isn’t respect; it’s myth. Admiration of only the easy parts is fanaticism, not reverence.
Turning his story into a hagiography actually stunts our grief. We grieve his untimely death and his daughter’s with him. We grieve for his wife, Vanessa, who lost her husband and daughter together, in a moment (and heard of the news on the way we all did, sadly). And we grieve for this young woman and assault survivor.
Kobe’s untimely death cost him the possibility of restoration
I don’t think all of the reports of the improved and changed character of Kobe are false or hagiography. Apparently he called his teammates to apologize for his tenacity during practice. And grew closer to his family, and even to God. One report says he observed communion the morning before the helicopter crash. I don’t know what restoration he did with the woman that he half-apologized to or what he was going to do. But now he can’t.
And that’s a sad thing about a life ending to soon. The work of reconciliation and restoration is stopped short. It reminds us that we don’t have all of time to try to fix our errors and make things right. Apparently, Kobe was estranged from his family and working on mending those wounds. But his untimely death is a reminder that we shouldn’t delay reconciliation and restoration. Nor should we assume a single apology is enough to overcome the harm we’ve caused, and I mean that especially for men who have committed similar acts to Kobe.
The damage he did was irreparable in many ways, and I think our man-dominated society wants us to forget that. And forget that even the best men do the worst things. We want to cover it up for them. Do the work for them. It’s why Brett Kavanaugh proceeded to sit on the Supreme Court while Christine Blasey Ford still got death threats. It’s why you have to Google Mary Jo Kopechne to know that she was the woman that Ted Kennedy abandoned after he crashed his car and escaped.
When we don’t remember the totality of a person like Kobe Bryant, we don’t interrogate the toxic sexism that touches everything in our society, and we don’t learn from their mistakes either. We don’t grieve fully unless we remember everything.
In order to remember the impact of Kobe Bryant on the game of basketball and all of us, we have to remember the impact he had in his worst moments too. Because of the monumental tragedy that crossed borders and touched the whole world, it is even more important not to ignore his sins, but to learn from them, knowing that it isn’t talent, celebrity, or success that wipes them away, but the work of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. And that was on Kobe. No matter how much good work he did, reconciliation and repentance don’t undo the actions we did. And that is something for all of us to remember.
Jesus loves us into our fullness, despite our sin. He doesn’t hold our sin against us, but moves us toward redemption. But the harm we cause isn’t miraculously gone because of the salvation of God. We’re still in the in-between time. Don’t take Kobe out of it because your grief is that extensive. Don’t do a disservice to Kobe and forget his humanity. Remember it. And grieve it. And do so with the rest of us.