After my post about Kobe Bryant two weeks ago, I heard from a number of you who couldn’t get over the accusation of rape that still metastasized in the middle of his legacy.
I’d acknowledged that Bryant was an introvert who still needed to tell his story about the struggle between good and evil inside him—and, by implication—how laudable that was. But as I read it again, the shortness of the piece didn’t do justice to the darkness in him, at least in part because so many of Bryant’s mourners didn’t seem to be grappling with his dark side at all. They were fans who had lost a hero, and for them the “Mamba” in him was mostly, if not entirely, a good thing given the adolescent ways we think about winning and sum up complicated lives while the grief of loss still stings.
So I’ve poured over the memorial articles about him, including those that Longreads (an on-line curator of stories) assembled into “The Ugliness of Greatness Reading List” about his life, his passing and our reactions to it.
After he retired from his obsession of playing basketball better than anyone, Bryant reverted to an even deeper preoccupation, making it (along with his family) into his fulltime projects. Since his retirement from basketball in 2016, a big part of his life work became telling the story that had always interested him most, so that he could profit (and others might too) from his portrayal of struggles like the ones that were inside of him. Stories about competition and the pursuit of excellence and falling along the way. Like his storytelling heroes created Darth Vader, Voldermort and Jaws, Bryant would tell stories that spoke to his alter-ego and how to hold him in check.
I thought it a worthy encore career for him (or for anyone, really), but again the short-form of my research and subsequent post didn’t remove the suspicion that this might be a marketing proposition for the Kobe Bryant product line instead of the kind of soul-searching that could impact the ways that we saw ourselves too. So I wanted to read more, and by seeing him through others’ eyes, decide whether I’d been right in concluding that there are deeper lessons in his life, in his death and in what we seemed to be taking from them.
What follows are excerpts from articles that were written about Kobe Bryant after his helicopter fell from the sky and his story risked getting lost in the shuffle of our grief. My job was easier because the Longreads editors gathered so many terrific stories, with the haunting (but unattributed) photograph up top coming from one of them: Jeremy Gordon’s “Two Things Can Be True, But One is Always Mentioned First” in The Outline.
I brought three questions with me while I read, and I’ve grouped what I discovered about Bryant and the troubling ways we process the passing of conflicted heroes under them.
What set Kobe Bryant apart?
First off, it is useful to recall the range of his excellence as an athlete. In his article in The Outline, Gordon says of Bryant:
He exemplified excellence as grim-jawed killer instinct (murder your opponents on the court), relentless hard work (practice for hours, because the sport demands it), blunt honesty (if your teammates suck, call them out), and beatific monologing about loving the game, which to him was a way of life.
Of course, as it turned out, “his way of life” was what he wanted to tell us about most. Writing about Bryant in The New Yorker, Louisa Thomas beautifully observed:
It seemed, for a while, that he only saw himself as a winner, but it turned out that he saw himself as a storyteller. At times, this quality could make him seem a little slick, aware of his own personal mythology. But as his career progressed—and as he fought back from injury after injury—he became more expansive about the narrative power of sports, its ability to transform an inner struggle into an outer one. He didn’t hide the fact that he was angry, that he could be selfish, that he was warped by his overwhelming competitive instincts. In a 2014 [New Yorker] profile by Ben McGrath, Bryant, in discussing an outburst by the football player Richard Sherman, talked about the “ugliness of greatness.
Part of it, surely, was because Bryant’s focus was narrow, inwardly focused and relentless. In his piece “What Made Kobe Different” Jonathan Abrams began with Bryant’s own words to describe his careers as a basketball player and more recently:
I have such a narrow focus. As you can see, I didn’t have much time to socialize at all. When I wasn’t training, I was writing and I was studying the art of writing, of filmmaking. My days were booked. It wasn’t that I went out of my way not to be social. It was just that I was busy preparing for what I’m doing now.
Abrams quotes Del Harris, who was Bryant’s first NBA coach, to similar effect: about his player’s isolation from others and his mesmerizing obsession with doing his best. That he was so unsocialized may also help to explain his troublingly anti-social and often predatory side.
[Bryant] never paid attention to any outside activities that I could tell. He never went out. Of course, he was only 18 and 19. On the airplane, he never had any particular fun—no cards, no video games. He was always looking at basketball things on his computer. In those days, we did not have the DVDs of games to take with us right after the game, no iPads, etc. But he had plenty of DVDs from our earlier games, or of the next team or of [Michael] Jordan. He was a total student of the game.
And, Abrams might have added, to the contributions that he wanted to make and ended up making as a positive role model, but Bryant knew there was more to his story than that.
Around the time he was charged with rape, he started talking about Black Mamba. As he explained in “Muse” (a documentary about his life), Mamba personified his attempt to channel his mean, relentless rage more productively both on the court and off of it, vividly incorporating the serpent into a personal struggle that made sense to him, and maybe to those who were watching too.
The New Yorker’s Thomas brings that story down to today as Kobe Bryant worked with his customary diligence and single focus to continue writing it.
After Bryant retired, in 2016, he made an animated movie that won an Oscar. He launched podcasts, movies, television shows. Many of them were about why he was set apart from the world, even as he tried to connect with it…Bryant’s stories involved rage and self-discipline and anger and, yes, greatness. By all accounts, he was as involved—and even obsessive—with those projects as he was with anything else.
Bryant’s need to write his story was far more than a marketing angle for an encore career. It was like he was fleshing out his character in his own morality plays.
How does public grief reduce greatness by oversimplifying the conflicts that produced it in the first place?
In my prior post, I should have set out more of the facts about the rape charges against Kobe Bryant. Here are some of them.
In 2003, Bryant was accused of aggravated assault by a 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado. She later told the police, “Every time I said no he tightened his hold around me.” A week after he was charged, Bryant gave a tearful press conference where he confessed to cheating on his wife Vanessa, but vehemently denied the assault allegation. What happened next was all too predictable for its time. Jeremy Gordon recounted what was happening in both the courthouse and in the court of public opinion:
Over the next year and a half, his lawyers attacked the accuser’s credibility by pointing out she’d had sex with another man in the week before the alleged assault, that she’d attempted suicide in the past, and that she had been initially excited to meet Kobe. (Her identity was also leaked.) Predictably, NBA fans took his side. I — and almost every other casual basketball observer from that era — can remember multiple conversations about whether Kobe had really done it, most of which concluded that he had not. (A popular line of logic: ‘Why would someone as famous as Kobe Bryant need to rape someone?’)
In 2004, the assault case was dropped by prosecutors after the accuser decided not to testify at the trial. Following the dismissal of criminal charges, Bryant made the following statement:
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.
While Gordon read this as Bryant’s “literally admitting” his sexual assault, Ashley Reese in her “How to Talk About Kobe Bryant’s Legacy” saw it differently. To her:
This came off as a non-apology. Sure, he acknowledged how she felt, but it still read as if her interpretation of the night diverted from reality—namely, his experience. But over 15 years later, the allegations are just a blip in Bryant’s legacy.
While they interpreted Bryant’s statement differently, both Gordon and Reese agree that everything seemed to shake out in Bryant’s favor at the time and both find it unacceptable to treat it “as little more than an aside” in his story now. When Bryant was killed in that helicopter crash, Gordon lamented the two divides that seemed inevitable on social media, between:
those who cared that Kobe Bryant committed a brutal sexual assault, and those who did not, at least not right now, but probably not ever. In a world in which the creative bodies of numerous public figures — some more talented than others — have recently been invalidated because they (allegedly or not) committed sexual assaults, I knew that Kobe was going to receive an infinite number of gauzy, heartbroken tributes from strangers glossing over or even ignoring the worst thing he’d ever done.
Gordon went on to describe the “acceptable” trade-off for too many people this way: “what’s one maybe-rape measured against 81 points in a game and five championships? What’s the private pain of one anonymous person against the public joy of millions?”
Ashley Reese argues that the consequences extend beyond these false equivalents, recounting the experience of Felicia Sonmez, a journalist at The Washington Post, a few weeks ago.
After Bryant’s death, Sonmez posted to social media a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story titled, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” For doing so and triggering a thundering backlash across the internet, she was subsequently suspended by the Post. The newspaper’s argument was, essentially, that her doing so was poor timing while people were still coming to terms with their grief.
In an argument that says a great deal about our inability to hold two conflicting thoughts in our heads at one time and our rush to black-or-white judgments, Reese wrote:
People who work at news outlets are going through these same emotions, but they have a responsibility to tell the truth. It can be hard to tell the truth sometimes—especially when it diverts from the legacy we want from a celebrity; especially one who died tragically and young, one who a city revered, one who his daughters loved and who he loved in return, one who fellow athletes looked up to. But someone has to do it, and while it should be done with care, it must be done. The fact that it cannot be done without death threats as a result speaks volumes, but none louder than when a publication that prides itself on defending the truth acts complicit in that violence.
When our public storyteller’s tell an incomplete story about a hero, they effectively reduce his greatness by oversimplifying the conflicts that produced it in the first place.
Did Kobe Bryant’s full story matter to him and to those who lived (and will continue to live) in the arms of his legacy?
The strength of Bryant’s legacy depends on what you end up believing about him, but one set of beliefs risks losing the almost Greek sense of tragedy in it.
In his Esquire farewell Charles P. Pierce talks about “the terrible irony that he died in a fall from the sky,” because (I think) Bryant’s death speaks to both the lightness of his air and the pull of his gravity. Every mythic figure like him is caught in between, inviting us to look, to never stop looking and to judge him on how he met or failed to meet his internal conflicts head-on. But those judgments are never easy. According to Pierce:
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 [if it ever was]. Kobe Bryant died on Sunday with one of the young women in his life, and how you will come to measure his life has to be judged by how deeply you believe that he corrected his grievous fault through the life he lived afterwards, and how deeply you believe that he corrected that fault, immediately and beautifully, and in midair.
I don’t think Bryant corrected his faults with the stories he’d already told or in a sacrificial fall from the sky. But I do believe he was still seeking redemption through his stories, bringing the obsessive introspection–that only someone like him could muster–to working through his torments and relieving his soul.
My intuition a few weeks ago was to believe in the earnestness of that quest and the more I discover about him, the more I believe that Kobe Bryant would have attempted to reconcile his demons and angels for his benefit and for ours for as long as he walked among us.
The real tragedy is that he won’t be here to keep trying to tell that story. Elemental struggles like his belong to all of us, whether we grapple with our own versions of them or not.
This post was adapted from my February 23, 2020 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning and the contents of some of them are later posted here. If you’d like to receive a weekly newsletter (and not miss out on any), you can subscribe by leaving your email address in the column to the right.