I never loved Kobe Bryant. I never idolized him. He never played for my favorite team, and I rooted against him on the court. Always. I am a woman with anger about the rape allegation that is inextricably linked to his legacy. I am a Boston Celtics fan, resentful of his five titles — one of which he earned at my team’s expense.
I also spent all of Sunday crying. Kobe Bryant’s death was sudden and tragic and deeply traumatic, and not because he was a hero or a role model, but because he wasn’t those things, and it marked the end of an iconic man’s journey to live a life more nobly with an unearned second chance that he seemed determined to make the most of.
Many feel that the alleged rape in that Colorado hotel room, and how he treated his accuser in the aftermath, should precede any attempt to memorialize him, and it’s hard to blame them. But who would that preamble be for, now, in 2020? It’s not for his wife and three children, who have lost their husband and daughter and father and sister in unimaginable horror. It’s not for his alleged victim, who has understandably chosen to live her life in anonymity. It’s not for other survivors of assault, because who is left to face that belated reckoning? He died a brutal death alongside his daughter and seven others — her coach, her teammates and their families and the pilot — all of whom have loved ones who deserve a semblance of peace while they deal with immense grief.
Society unfairly decided a long time ago that Kobe had been forgiven. I never felt comfortable with it, but I’ve also watched him closely. I work in sports media and live in Los Angeles, where Kobe The Myth and Kobe The Man are barely distinguishable from one another. I’ve seen his impact. I know what he did to empower his daughters, and how much he supported women’s basketball and female athletes. I know what he means to an entire generation of NBA players who were inspired to become greater than their circumstances and to elevate their own expectations for themselves.
Most profoundly of all, I see what he’s meant to the nameless millions of Los Angeles for whom Kobe and the Lakers were an escape from the divisiveness of a city as segregated by wealth and race as any in America. When young kids in L.A. needed a way to connect with one another, Kobe and the Lakers were there. When people of different religions and cultures and incomes needed something to help them relate to one another, Kobe and the Lakers were there. When their counterparts in Boston needed something to unite them in collective hatred, Kobe and the Lakers were there. That’s what people like Kobe become — avatars for our basic human need to find something or someone to make us feel safe with one another.
Athletes become fairy tales more often than any other kind of celebrity. They’re superheroes who come from our cities and towns and wear our colors and represent us to the rest of the world. Sports are tribal, and they’re one of the few things our modern society has left that still unite more than they divide.
Kobe was adversarial and flawed with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and ego. He was an arrogant, dangerous young man who grew into a moody yet charismatic adult and then, perhaps inexplicably, a loving father and an inspired mentor. He began earnestly supporting young people in achieving their dreams. He genuinely believed in the power and talent of women in sports, and he didn’t just talk about it. He walked the walked. Without any press conferences or official statements about his new philosophical approach to his own life, he just … did it.
When we lose someone who is universally beloved and lived a public life of constant honor, it feels more like losing your favorite TV character than a real person. You miss the idealized version of the world you were able to experience through them. You can mourn them in peace. But Kobe and Gianna are something different — a man finally, maybe, becoming the best version of himself through fatherhood, and the child who helped to inspire that change. Kobe was mythologized and demystified so often across his two decades as a basketball superstar that we are left with whiplash trying to decipher his true legacy.
So for now, I have to settle for being honest about what he represents to me. By the time I had enough agency to explore professional sports on my own, because such interests were not fostered in young girls in the 1990’s, Kobe was already a star. I don’t know what sports look like without Kobe Bryant, and his shocking death has left me deeply sad.
Perhaps it’s because, in the end, I need to believe in a different kind of Kobe fairy tale. The parable of the man who hurts women and then stops. The mythological changed man.