Whatever opinion you have of Kobe Bryant, you’re probably right. Let’s get that out of the way. It doesn’t matter what you think of Bryant’s legacy because you’ll be correct.
If you think Bryant was the brilliant, polarizing basketball great who led a cult of fans to sing his praises? You’re right. If you think Bryant was the guy who sold his own teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, down the river when the heat was on? You’re right. If you think Bryant was the loving father and fierce advocate for women’s basketball and the WNBA? You’re right
And if you think Bryant’s the rapist who used his legal team to slander his accuser and dragged her name through the mud? You’re probably right.
For many, regardless of the side you stand on, the fact that Kobe Bryant’s dead doesn’t feel real. The sentence “Kobe Bryant is dead” is still a shock to the system for sports fans (even those who didn’t like him). Bryant wasn’t supposed to go out this way. He was supposed to become the curmudgeonly old man who decried whatever style of basketball becomes popular 20 years from now. He was supposed to spend a few more years as the god of Los Angeles. He was the man who helped the Lakers take the mantle as THE team in L.A. (believe it or not, that title once belonged to the Dodgers).
Instead we’re left to deal with the mess of his legacy.
When Bryant arrived on the scene, many accused the kid of engaging in Michael Jordan cosplay. He was labeled arrogant and too self-important for someone so young. He was labeled selfish when he waved off a Karl Malone pick-and-roll to go one-on-one during the 1997 NBA All-Star Game in New York. So for detractors, when he air-balled those shots against the Utah Jazz in the playoffs later that season, the kid got his comeuppance.
That moment defined him until 2000 when he and Shaq won three straight championships sparking a new Lakers dynasty. Kobe’s image was reshaped to that of a wunderkind. He was a genius who was mature for his age. He showed grace under pressure. He was cool with a little bit of corniness (One could look to his brief foray into rap as an example of the latter). That mix made him the perfect basketball player in the era of Allen Iverson. Bryant represented “sophistication” while Iverson represented “thuggery.”
So when Bryant was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, CO in July 2003, it surprised much of the sports world. The details of the alleged rape are difficult to read, but at the time they weren’t widely known if you weren’t in court every day or religiously followed the news. Considering the way the boy genius carried himself off the court, most people didn’t believe the accuser. Some prominent figures who now call on society to #BelieveWomen in 2020 weren’t on that train 17 years ago. Nevertheless, the hero was knocked off his perch.
Bryant became the source of mockery and disdain. The rapper Nas dissed him on “These Are Our Heroes.” Many jokes didn’t focus on the actual rape accusations at all, but on the fact that the accuser was a White woman. In Bryant’s apology he all but outright admitted to the sexual assault. He bought his wife a multi-million dollar ring to get back in her good graces.
And yet, Bryant was able to emerge as a hero among many when his brand of hero ball emerged. The night he dropped 81 points on the Raptors. The period during the 2007 season when he scored 50 or more points in four consecutive games. The two extra championships without Shaq. The 60 points he scored in the final game of his career. This was the Kobe many people wanted to remember. This was the Kobe that people loved. His heel turn post-Eagle, CO made people love him more than they did before.
Several years after Nas dissed him, rappers were back to comparing themselves to Bryant positively in their rhymes. Kanye West rapped on the Ego (Remix) about having dreams of playing in the NBA against Bryant. Chief Keef rapped about playing like Bryant. Schoolboy Q rapped about being a living legend like Bryant. In song and in the media, Bryant’s image rehabilitation was complete.
So when he became an advocate of the WNBA, of women’s basketball in general, and developed a reputation as a family man, it was the icing on the cake. The sexual assault was seen as a blip on the radar that was his career and life. It was a minor detail. It was a “mistake.” His untimely death reminded the population that it’s not just a mistake.
When Bryant and his daughter were killed in the helicopter crash, it brought every feeling people had about him back to the surface. He was one of the greats. He championed women’s basketball. He enthralled us with the “Mamba Mentality.” He was a family man. He was also accused of rape. It can be all of these things. It doesn’t mean his legacy is “complicated.” It is what it is.
Maybe that’s the point. No one wants to be remembered for their worst behavior, but being accused of sexual assault is not just bad behavior. Those who love Bryant don’t have a right to scream at those who choose to remember him for that moment just as those who only associate him with the sexual assault have no right to scream at others singing his praises on the court. It is what it is.
Nothing could demonstrate this dichotomy better than the hours after the news of Bryant’s death spread around the NBA. Before the Houston Rockets played the Denver Nuggets that night at the Pepsi Center, the arena held a moment of silence for Bryant. Denver’s about a two-hour ride from Eagle.
It is what it is.