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It’s Impossible to Remember the ‘Right’ Kobe Bryant

The NBA legend's shocking death casts his life in a confusing glow

The helicopter came down in fog — a fog that has clung to L.A. for some time. The other night I tried to take a picture. But my phone’s camera couldn’t parse this cloud, nor show how diffracted and eerie it was. It was like the fog of an old L.A., the setting of a noir mystery. You felt the tingling of the past as well as dread of future, what lay in wait.

The Sunday morning helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, that killed Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (Gigi); husband and wife John Altobelli and Keri Altobelli, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton; and pilot Ara Zobayan — this plunged us into another fog, an atmosphere thick with confusion and anguish. TMZ reported Bryant’s death in the accident first, apparently before his family could be notified (for which the tabloid site was later reprimanded by the police), allowing some to hope that the headline was unfounded. 

But soon enough it was confirmed, and the public was free to have their say. There was, of course, the mass outpourings of grief and disbelief at the sudden, violent end of an NBA megastar who united the region, but also reminders not to forget the disturbing elements of his story, plus moralizing attacks on those who were ready to speak ill of him at once. There were tasteless, brutal jokes and macabre speculation, many of these posts then hastily deleted with apologies as it emerged that Kobe may have been flying with his daughters.

Authorities told fans to avoid congregating at the Staples Center, where Kobe had played most of his legendary career, since the Grammys were happening there that evening. But the Lakers faithful turned up to mourn, while some commentators tried to livetweet both the award show and breaking developments in the helicopter disaster, for a uniquely dissonant overview of the day. Adding to the musical chaos, a bunch of K-pop stans and bots spammed Kobe-related hashtags with concert videos of their favorite groups, dissing the dead athlete as they would a rival performer.

No wonder so many chose not to offer a tribute or opinion, only remarking that we were headed into a nightmare cycle of takes about what had happened, and on Kobe’s messy legacy. Even in shock, people adjust their reactions, and right away, it looked impossible to say exactly what had been lost. Though a national figure, Kobe was meanwhile a higher order of local hero, representing the fragmented whole of Southern California. He was someone who went from dismissing the murder of Trayvon Martin to calling out systemic racism in law enforcement when Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson two years later. Growing up a New Jersey Nets fan, I felt dumb rage at his talent when the Lakers swept us in the 2002 finals; it takes a true contrarian to dispute his renown as “an overwhelming force of nature and peerless solo act in the clutch.” The flipside of this unstoppable competitive drive, they say, was egomania, selfishness, bullying and a villainous mindset. The Asshole Theory of the Great Champion.

If these tensions are not too difficult to reconcile — in retirement, Kobe seemed eager to grow beyond his dark side — it’s harder to manage the conflict between his image as a supportive, loving father to his daughters and a credible, horrifying allegation (along with forensic evidence) of rape from a 19-year-old hotel employee in the summer of 2003. Indeed, one is tempted to wonder how that case might have unfolded in the middle of the #MeToo movement that followed more than a decade later. His accuser recounted how, after a few minutes of consensual kissing, he began to choke her, blocked her exit from his room, held her tighter each time she said “no,” and penetrated her while she cried, demanding assurances of secrecy: “You’re not gonna tell anybody right,” she recalled him saying. “I said no,” out of fear, she later told police. “And he didn’t hear me or asked me to say it louder. Wanted me to turn around and look at him while I said it.” 

Widely smeared in the media, this woman eventually decided not to testify in a criminal trial, agreeing to the dismissal of charges while pursing a civil suit. By way of pseudo-confession, Kobe went with the Rashomon defense: “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.”

And yet some of the text in this apology remains essential and unrepeated. Bryant acknowledges the survivor’s pain and point of view, and that her claims are legitimate. He sees how she has been not merely his victim but victim to a culture that would rather destroy her than take her trauma seriously. “I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman,” he wrote. It’s not the sort of pronouncement you hear from men accused today, happy to encourage the absurd idea that their survivors must be profiting, financially or reputationally, in seeking plain justice.

Even so, Kobe’s fame and success put this woman in grave peril, and they helped him to frame the alleged assault as a fleeting low point — a lapse in focus. Where the case is remembered in eulogies, the harrowing details and the woman herself are not. Likewise, the global scale of Bryant’s prestige creates a grim hierarchy within tragedy: First, Kobe, the sports icon, is dead too soon, at 41, with his second-eldest daughter and basketball protegé Gigi the next most important loss of life, per media standards. These are the names that lead the articles and tributes. Then there are the seven other dead, including two of Gigi’s teammates — all were flying to a game — who will not be the subjects of national sorrow, as we did not know them.

Except such a division is false. Kobe was a household name, but very few knew him in a meaningful sense. We knew his reputation. We knew what he could do on the court, what he’d say to the press before and afterward. It is the usual fallacy of American celebrity, to imagine that how someone navigates the currents of their hypervisible job tells us all we need to understand their deepest character. If it did, we wouldn’t be arguing the dimension of Kobe’s significance. The lessons would be clear to anyone who watched his journey.

And they’re not. This is an incomprehensible death because it was instant, arbitrary and cruel; because Kobe had never fully settled into any archetype we had of him and was finding new ways to achieve; and because it revealed the sheer precariousness of life, even for the figuratively immortal. That death is indifferent, no matter the promise a person holds — and is perhaps always closest to the extraordinary individual, who occupies a seat of danger simply by being head and shoulders above the rest, where they are more exposed to fate, and their failings are unmissable.

We cannot accept this as invitation to summarize what has no legible shape. The “correct” version of Kobe’s story may never exist. Which is true of anything, and anyone, we call unprecedented.