Your version of Kobe Bryant doesn’t need to match anyone else’s
This article was originally published in January 2020 following the deaths of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven others in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif.
No matter what Kobe Bryant did, he made you feel. There was no middle ground with him. For the majority of his 20-year NBA career, you wanted him to win triumphantly or fail miserably, and there was no in-between.
Bryant’s rare blend of excellence and charisma propelled him to a status reserved for only the most compelling figures in sports history. The impact of his sudden death stretched well beyond the basketball floor and forced people around the world to grapple with their feelings in a way only the loss of life can.
Many recalled the Bryant who took the floor for the Lakers, captivating fans on his way to five championships, 18 All-Star teams and more than 33,000 points. The anticipation of waiting for a final Kobe jump shot to reach the basket with the game hanging in the balance could take your breath away. His accolades were impressive, but his signature moments elevated him from man to myth.
Bryant’s unstoppable will to win and endless supply of energy turned him into a superhero more than a superstar. He was held in a higher regard, even among the game’s elite. He can still be seen through the next generation of NBA players, the youngsters who grew up watching and worshipping Bryant as he chased greatness with reckless abandon.
Those qualities also provided plenty of material for his detractors. Another side of Bryant could be selfish, arrogant and sometimes downright mean to others.
His former teammate Lamar Odom said Bryant once elbowed Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic in the face for no apparent reason. He turned Smush Parker into a punchline. Everyone knows his history with Shaquille O’Neal. He was fined $100,000 in 2011 for hurling a gay slur at a referee. (He later apologized and earned praise in 2013 for telling a Twitter user to not use the word “gay” as an insult.)
Perhaps Bryant’s competitive fire, with all of its intended and unintended ripple effects, was the only way he could have reached such a high level of success. It takes insane self-belief to launch some of those trademark clutch shots, let alone drain them. Critics may have argued about Bryant’s playing style and abrasive nature, but for him, that was how he found what he needed. He challenged those in his circle the same way he challenged himself.
Then there was Bryant’s public persona. He could be charming and intriguing, the kind of famous person who stands out in a room of celebrities. His 6-6 frame, his voice, his articulation — there was a certain command and magnetism he could have over a room.
(Note: Strong language in the video below.)
My favorite Kobe story, and one of his favorites to tell me: After studying Michael Jordan on film, what it was like the first time a trademark dunk move happened before his eyes the first time he played MJ & the Bulls. I think he would have wanted you to all know this one… pic.twitter.com/XuMfa0x0aR
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) January 28, 2020
Bryant’s image also changed drastically when he was charged with sexual assault in 2003. The charges were dropped after Bryant’s accuser declined to testify, and a civil suit was settled privately in 2005. As part of an apology to the woman, Bryant said: “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.”
Following Bryant’s death, arguments quickly formed online about how to discuss this case. Is it too soon to talk about it? Isn’t it always “too soon” to talk about it? How much should we talk about it?
Legacies are always complicated if you look beyond the surface. There is no right answer. ESPN’s Pablo Torre came the closest to finding one.
“We should think of Kobe Bryant as a human being, as hard as that is right now,” Torre said. “To mention his flaws is not to dilute his myth. To acknowledge his sexual assault case in Colorado, for instance, is not to dishonor his greatness. It is merely to complicate it.”
We witnessed a post-retirement Bryant enjoy being a husband and father. He expressed such a profound love for his wife and four daughters. We saw how he passed on his passion for basketball to 13-year-old Gianna, one of the nine people killed in Sunday’s tragic helicopter accident. She brought out the best in him, the dorky dad and coach following her around to the next game and snapping photos at every opportunity. This is who Kobe was on his final day.
Bryant transitioned into different phases of his life before our eyes, and he had so much more left to do. His curiosity was limitless. He dabbled in sports, business, TV, movies and literature. He won an Oscar less than two years removed from his final NBA game. Once closed off and unwilling to share his secrets, he became a role model for current players, both men and women. He had so much left to share.
No matter what Kobe Bryant did, he made you feel — and your feelings are just as valid as anyone else’s.