My first thought upon hearing that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash at 41 years old on Sunday was, “Good Riddance. He was a bad person.” I did not consider his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, I did not consider the other passengers on-board, or the pilot, for that matter. I callously and flippantly thought, “Good.” I was disappointed in myself. That is not how I would like to think of the dead, even those who were controversial, or even bad, figures in their time. Yet, I have been conditioned to believe that the world is better off without someone who has committed monstrous acts. Bryant did have a wonderful and storied basketball career worth celebrating. Furthermore, the tact, dignity, and humility Bryant showed in the aftermath of his monstrous act requires a more thorough examination of how it has affected his legacy.
In July of 2003, Bryant was arrested by the sheriff’s office in Eagle, Colorado after being accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old woman who was an employee at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in nearby Edward, while he was staying there between June 30 and July 2 to undergo surgery. Bryant was 24 at the time. The woman was found with bruises around her neck, with evidence of strangulation in the midst of the sexual act. Bryant fully admitted to having an extramarital sexual encounter with this woman. And he admitted to strangling her, admitting it was a kink he regularly performed during sex. He even publicly apologized for the incident. In a statement, he 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.
Despite the mounting evidence that Bryant had raped this woman, the charges were dropped against him, because his accuser decided not to testify. A civil lawsuit was settled out of court about a year later, and any semblance of Bryant having committed this act was erased from legal record, as well as the popular conscious.
Rarely had any conversation surrounding Bryant or his legacy as a basketball player gestured toward this incident. Bryant admitted fault. He did not call this woman a liar. He said he did understand that she did not consent, which shows that he examined the situation from her perspective and inwardly felt that he was culpable and responsible for his transgressions that night. However, rape is still rape. Short of murder, it is the most vile, degrading, and humiliating act you can perform on another person, and Bryant, allegedly, did rape her. Bryant committed a horrible act, and then he took full responsibility for it.
Although, maybe it is easier to absolve your sins when $2.5 million can be used to prove your commitment to change. It also helps to have at your disposal an entire team of public relations professionals to orchestrate a serious of changes rehabilitate your image. And Bryant did just that. He shaved his Afro and changed his number from 8 to 24. He was more than ready to move on, and because America loved Kobe Bryant and his legacy as a basketball player, they were more than ready to move on too.
And what of Bryant’s legacy as a basketball player? He is in the pantheon of the greatest players to ever play. He is fourth on the NBA all-time scoring list. He has an MVP award, two NBA Finals MVP Awards, and five NBA championships. Furthermore, his reputation as one of the most clutch players in history cannot be understated, as his performance in high-stakes postseason games was unlike that of any other player of his generation. Bryant could win games on his own, if it came down to it, simply by finding ways to get the ball in the hoop when it mattered by any means necessary: be it driving for a tough layup and drawing a foul, pulling up for a mid-range jump shot, or draining a deep three under pressure. He was a tremendously gifted and brilliant scorer in a ball-dominant offense, and he was the guy with the ball in his hands in some of the most important NBA games over the course of two decades.
Furthermore, Bryant’s hyper competitive nature and stand-offish attitude made him an enemy of opponents and teammates alike, and admired by an American sports culture that values winning above all else. He had an uncanny ability to piss off and alienate the very best players he played with, such as Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, and the great Shaquille O’Neal, who was just as, if not more, important to the early-aughts Lakers that won three championships in a row. I recall one particular instance where he casually elbowed James Harden in the back of the head while walking past him to his bench during a timeout. Players like Bryant are often lauded for their work ethic, competitiveness, and will to win, which is absolutely valid. It also makes them officious pricks. Bryant was not unique to this archetype, but he did embody it more so than any other player of his generation. And the sports world ate it up, loving every sneer and eye roll, every screaming match with a coach or teammate, every shoving bout with a player from another team. Kobe just wanted it more than anyone else, and you just had to deal with it, they would say.
Some fans and basketball analysts, particularly those in the greater Los Angeles area, will argue he is maybe the best to ever play the game. This may seem like a bit of a stretch, when you consider the existence of Michael Jordan and LeBron James and Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain. Bryant was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA’s flagship team, out of high school when he was only 18. He spent the entirety of his career with them, and in the process became one of LA’s most prominent and beloved residents, an impressive feat for someone who was not a movie star. In a lot of ways, Bryant benefited from the Derek Jeter effect, in that he played and led the most recognizable team in his sport in a very large market for two decades. Is Kobe Bryant considered to be possibly the greatest player in history because he was, or is it because he spent the entirety of his storied career as a Laker? This is difficult to parse, and of course an arbitrary argument (although, what conversation about sports isn’t?). The way basketball is played is different now than it was 15 years ago, when Kobe Bryant was in his prime, just as it was different 30 years ago, before Bryant was in the NBA. For what it is worth, Bryant was the dominant and premiere shooting guard of his generation, and should be remembered as such.
Bryant is not just a beloved figure in sports, pop culture, and in his adopted home of Southern California. If any Los Angeles residents or Lakers die-hards read this essay, they will probably be wishing for my untimely death in a similar fashion. He provided Lakers fans with a treasure trove of victories and precious memories, and that is extremely difficult to smear. But Bryant’s place in pop culture has been permanently implanted through activities outside of competitive basketball. He had numerous endorsements and made many appearances in commercials on television. He won an Academy Award for a short film he produced titled, “Dear Basketball.” There have been countless pieces and statements of mourning from the sports world dedicated to Bryant because he was not only a tremendous athlete, but also a hugely recognizable personality and cultural icon. Think about every time somebody shoots a piece of garbage into a trash can and jokingly squawks, “Kobe!”
In the later years of his career, Bryant had become something of an elder statesman in the basketball world, mentoring rookies and other young players by inviting them to workout with him at his home in Newport Beach. He had retired to being a husband and a father, another quiet middle-aged celebrity man who was willing to leave his tumultuous life of fame and glory behind to focus on the important things. He focused on his wife Vanessa, and coaching their kids in basketball, including his daughter, Gianna.
This is the point where Bryant’s legacy gets hairy. Because he was such an incredible athlete, and because he had become such a beloved public figure. Many have been willing to not only forgive, but forget any of his past wrongdoings. Anyone who besmirched Kobe was wrong, because the charges were dropped. Extramarital affairs are normalized and easily forgiven among young, twenty-something professional athletes. And that’s all this was, legally. An extramarital affair with no foul play. You just had to deal with it. Hypothetically, if this had happened today, Bryant would have been cut from the Lakers and made a pariah. But this happened in 2003, before Twitter shaming, before cancel culture, before the Me Too Movement. Furthermore, Bryant, or whoever was managing his public image, handled his wrongdoings with humble care and empathy for the person he wronged, which added complex layers and nuance to the aftermath.
It is easy to paint with broad strokes and call Kobe Bryant an awful abuser (as I initially did), just as it is easy to call him a hero for his basketball prowess and public-facing image. However, I think he was a deeply flawed human being who lived his entire adult life in the spotlight, and we, the masses, never knew Kobe Bryant, the person. Is it unfair to mention a crime for which Bryant was not found guilty? Is it rape apology to censor his crime, or argue against it because he was not charged? Can we even adequately judge or remember Kobe Bryant if we only ever knew his manicured public image? I do not know. I am not one to take away the memories of a beloved player from his fans, but I also cannot stop thinking Bryant more than likely sexually assaulted a woman, and that has permanently blemished him in my mind. Kobe Bryant, as a media event, warrants nuanced thought about how the public remembers celebrities, and the efforts they make on their journeys to redemption. An adored American icon died in a helicopter crash with his young daughter and seven other people. That is a tragedy, and worth mourning.