One of my most vivid childhood memories is of hating Kobe Bryant. I was a Sacramento Kings fan, and Sacramento was always losing to the Los Angeles Lakers because of Bryant. In the memory I’m alone in the basement of my parents’ friends’ house, watching the Lakers beat Sacramento in the 2003 NBA playoffs. That summer, Bryant was accused of raping a woman in Colorado, and I remember being happy that something bad was happening to him. More people started hating him then. Just as many didn’t.
Bryant died in a helicopter crash this Sunday. He was only forty-one and hadn’t even been retired for four years. Gianna, one of his four daughters, was in the helicopter and died as well. They were on the way to her basketball game. She played like her father (who after 1996 didn’t try to?), and when fans would come up to Bryant on the street and say he and his wife Vanessa had to have a boy to continue the family’s basketball dynasty, Gianna would smirk at her dad and say she already was.
NBA teams paid respect to Bryant this week by starting games with twenty-four-second shot clock and eight-second backcourt violations. Many commentators noted the eerie mysticism of Bryant’s two numbers—in 2006 he switched his number from “8” to “24”—being so fundamental to basketball’s rules. One commentator joked that with Bryant you never had to worry about a shot clock violation. Jokes pause grief, but they don’t alleviate it. Bryant was supposed to be around forever. Legends aren’t supposed to die, only grow.
Every basketball fan can recall a memorable Bryant moment. The game-winner in the finals against Detroit, the night he scored eighty-one points, the playoff game where he limped to the foul line on a ruptured Achilles, the famous video of Matt Barnes fake throwing the ball at Bryant’s face and Bryant not flinching—not even blinking. He didn’t flinch from things. When, in 2011, he was fined for calling a referee a “fucking fag,” he didn’t cry about people being too sensitive or justify what he said as just him being old school. He recognized he was wrong, changed, and helped others change too. Bryant knew the easy way out was no way out at all. As someone once said, hell is locked from the inside.
In response to Bryant’s death, there’s been almost equal praise for his parenting as for his basketball. A black man holding his baby cried as he told a Los Angeles TV anchor about how Bryant was his male role model growing up. Stories also circulated about Bryant’s work on behalf of the dignity of others. He offered financial help to other players during the 2011 NBA lockout; he supported women’s basketball and the WNBA; he personally reached out to players when they were injured or had bad games; he was invited by the Ultimate Fighting Championship to talk at a fighters’ retreat and while there encouraged a fighters’ union (non-unionized UFC fighters get about 10 percent of company revenue; unionized NBA players get about 50 percent.)
Praise, however, obviously hasn’t been the only response. A Washington Post reporter was for some pathetic reason suspended by the newspaper for posting a link on Twitter about Bryant’s rape case. More than a few women wondered why NBA games have been observing a moment of silence for an accused rapist. (Neither the criminal or civil case went to trial; the prosecution dropped the charges after Bryant’s accuser refused to testify, and the civil case was settled out of court.)
Then there was the political reaction. How many black men have been killed or ruined by white women lying about being raped? How could Hollywood liberals talk about believing women while spending thousands of dollars a seat for Lakers’ games? How could you call yourself a radical and mourn the death of some rich celebrity?
It made me think of journalist I.F. Stone’s response to being asked how he could count a slave-owner like Thomas Jefferson as a hero. “Because,” he said, “history is a tragedy, not a melodrama.”
None of us are wholly good or wholly bad. None of us are redeemed, said political commentator Murray Kempton, and none of us are irredeemable. We are self-centered animals and judge others mostly by the effects they have on our own lives. To the man crying while holding his daughter, Bryant’s effect was to encourage him to be a good man and a good father, and there isn’t a man or woman on this earth who can convince him that mourning Bryant’s death is wrong.
Bryant’s life brought people together and so did his death. Murals of him and Gianna have been painted on city streets around the world.
In moral judgment we are torn between a person’s net effect and the consequences of their individual actions. I don’t think Bryant not being charged with rape taught anyone anything they didn’t already know: that the rich and powerful enjoy more lax rules than the rest of us. But he also inspired quite a few people to not flinch from responsibility or failure—and showed quite a few men that being a father was a joyous burden. He showed that equality and greatness aren’t at odds: that in fact there’s no greatness without equality. If not everyone gets a fair run, then all placements are tainted.
A lot of people were happy to assume that the woman who accused Bryant of sexual assault was a lying gold-digger. Others were happy to assume that he was guilty and that anyone who defended him was unconsciously defending rape in general. Hearing people say these things, and remembering myself as that kid who wished something so horrible to be true, I just keep brooding on that line about hell being locked from the inside. The best we can ever say is that someone’s death will do the rest of us good—that we will take it as an opportunity to apply the lessons from their life to our own. None of us are the worst thing we’ve ever done nor the carefully scored net effect of everything we’ve ever done. We are each a story, and most stories are tragedies.