I woke up with a startle. It was 5:00 AM and the light from my wife’s phone screen as she scrolled her Instagram feed cut through the darkness. She said, without turning towards me, “Kobe Bryant and one of his daughters died in a helicopter crash.”
I remained silent for a few seconds. She turned towards me and asked, “Aren’t you sad?”
“It’s horrible news,” I whispered, and as I turned away from the light, my mind wandered to a specific memory: In late 2005, a 22-year-old me was at a friendly pick-up game at the neighbourhood club and the guy I was guarding kept yelling “Kobe!” every time he took a shot. I was amused, and also a little intrigued but probably not enough, because I never asked him why he said it. Maybe it was eccentricity, maybe superstition, or maybe he was just hopped up on some plain old love for the Kobester (my nickname for Kobe that never caught on).
For some reason, I never forgot this incident. It became one of those memories that sticks with you for no apparent reason.
Years later, while watching a video on YouTube, I would learn that it was common for kids playing basketball to yell “Kobe!”, specifically while taking a jump shot. It was an attempt to channel this champion athlete’s spirit and his relentless pursuit of excellence. Such was his sporting legend that the expression transcended basketball, and eventually even the sport, becoming synonymous with attempting to channel your best.
So that explained that.
How I personally feel about Kobe Bryant is a little harder to explain.
I loved Bryant, everybody did. In school, I woke up at unearthly hours to watch his games, and despite being one of the worse players on my team, I always tried to hustle for the No 8 jersey. Bryant was a prodigious talent who confidently took the baton from Michael Jordan, something most thought impossible considering Jordan’s storied career, and dribbled it forward without as much as batting an eyelid. At 25, he had three NBA championships under his belt with the LA Lakers (Jordan won his first at 28).
Bryant was also a philanthropist in the truest sense of the world, regularly supporting less fortunate athletes. He was a family man. He was loyal to his team, The LA Lakers, with whom he eventually played 20 seasons before retiring in 2016.
Post retirement too, he remained in the news. This time for his creative pursuits, winning an Academy Award for Best Animated Short for his poem ‘Dear Basketball’ which he wrote in 2016, at the time of his retirement, as a tribute to the game. He was often photographed with his wife and four daughters, and from the few videos available online, you can tell he was a doting dad.
But there is a chapter from his past that is equally important to remember. In 2003, after sexual assault allegations were leveled against him by a 19-year old girl, Bryant adopted the alter ego Black Mamba as a coping mechanism to separate his on-court life from off-court one. He was lauded for this effort, and further, his commitment to his professional career and the sport of basketball at large. In a pre #MeToo world, everyone eagerly wrote off these reasonably credible charges as soon as they were dropped (the accuser refused to testify and an out of court settlement was made along with a public apology from Bryant).
For me personally, this was problematic because I found it difficult to separate his on-court persona from is off-court actions.
I understand we are not binary. We are not always as good as when we do our best, and consequently, not as bad as when we do the worst we’re capable of. So I grapple, unsuccessfully, to limit Bryant’s memory to his sporting genius, philanthropy, and family values and, by extension, to define him singularly as a rape accused who got away scot free.
The absolute truth is that earlier today three girls lost their dad and sister, a wife lost her husband and daughter, and basketball lost a legend.
Unfortunately, equally sad is the plight of Kobe’s victim, who will spend the next few days reading about how amazing he was.
So today, as I can’t help but mourn the death of an amazing athlete because he was such an important part of my life, I can’t help but think of his victim as well. Reconciling these two and eulogising is near impossible. But it’s a weight that most of his fans collectively carry. And that makes things slightly easier to bear. RIP Kobester.
All images: Courtesy Getty