My 17-year-old nephew called me sobbing — that’s how I heard that Kobe Bryant had died.
The news arrived by hot emotion in my nephew’s voice. He was shrieking into the phone, “Why’d they take Kobe?!?! Why’d they take Kobe?!?!” I had no idea who they were; I still don’t. But I eventually learned what he meant by “taken”: The NBA legend had been lost in a helicopter accident. The shock of his passing is still too fresh to properly grasp. It doesn’t seem possible. Right now, two words are being spoken over and over again, “Not Kobe… Not Kobe…”
Bryant was indisputably one of the greats, not just of his sport but all sports. On Saturday night, mere hours before Bryant perished, LeBron James scored the 33,644th point of his career, passing Bryant to become third on the list of all-time scorers in NBA history. Not typically one to hype up anyone who’s come to take his throne, Kobe was gracious about it:
But for as much as Kobe was known for his fierce competitiveness and all-around athletic excellence, he was also a source of endless arguments. If I’m being all the way honest, I didn’t particularly like him as a player. He reminded me of athletes I’d played against, the ones who’d elbow you in the face and play it off like it was an accident.
I also remained skeptical of him as a man after his rape trial. Some pointed out that his wife forgave him; other friends of mine focused on the fact that the young woman who brought the charges against him later settled out of court, as if that rendered Bryant innocent. Years later, when yet others forgot about that event, I’d recall it for them in conversation so it didn’t seem like he’d gotten away with it.
But that was when Kobe was alive.
My teenage nephew had a much different relationship with #24. He only ever looked up to the man. In his eyes, Kobe could do no wrong. He was his hero and the perfect championship-ring-wearing emblem of his hometown of L.A. He was the personification of relentless game and unapologetic ambition.
My nephew was so broken up by Kobe’s passing that he called me back a few hours later to talk some more. He asked, shyly, if I’d listen to a rhyme he’d just written about the man he considers the G.O.A.T. in every way. As I took in his bars, I mulled what I should say to my nephew about his fallen hero. He clearly needed to hear something, but for all of the reasons above — and for what happened in that Colorado hotel room back in June 2003, most especially — I didn’t know what to say about Bryant and his legacy.
When we miss someone who mattered to many of us, the process of public grief is important. It’s also wildly difficult to grieve in a way that pleases everyone, which leads to the current trend of policing public grief. For survivors of sexual abuse and trauma, to see a man who admitted that he raped someone be celebrated as a hero can be triggering, to say the least.
How, then, do we hold space for such varied reactions and different forms of grief? I wondered about my nephew: Do I need him to know that his social media posts about the Black Mamba may cause other people to feel awful, in completely different ways? Is he to blame if he posts about his feelings of loss, and it causes someone else to feel immense pain? Does it make a person’s grief more palatable for the rest of the world if they’ve been told that who they grieve is problematic?
The other issue here, of course, is race. When people jump to denigrate Kobe, yet sit silent whenever a white man faces similar allegations, it says a lot. If you ignore President Trump’s rape allegations but shout out Bryant’s, it suggests that your agenda isn’t justice but, rather, social order. The same can be said of Bill Clinton’s allegations, or Woody Allen’s, Roman Polanski’s, Tony Robbins’ or Bryan Singer’s. The list of men whose sexual crimes and credible allegations have been dismissed or overlooked is long. It’s also very pale.
When a person’s too quick to label a Black man — or any man of color — a rapist but balks at calling a powerful white man the same, that’s racist. If we allow Matt Lauer back into society’s good graces but castigate Kobe, even in death, that says something. In fact, it says the ugly shit a person never actually intends to say. This is true for liberals and conservatives alike. Politics doesn’t divide racism down the aisle; it shows up on both sides and all across the culture.
This isn’t to excuse Kobe Bryant’s self-admitted rape. It’s also not dismissing that crime to say that he was a great basketball player and hero to many. Both can be true. But how we discuss these twin truths is the more difficult grace to grasp, especially on social media.
The temptation of performative moral supremacy that many succumb to on social media — i.e., the need to be woker-than-thou — isn’t really about justice either. If anything, in many cases, a person’s moral supremacy starts to look a whole lot like another kind of supremacy.
Think: David Bowie. A complicated man to be sure. But one the world was all too happy to forgive and apologize for (his affairs with underage girls easily forgotten and obscured by his genius). “It was a different time,” they say. “She wanted it!”
Besides, as I listened to my nephew sob-rap through the bars dedicated to his hero, as he celebrated Kobe with his breaking adolescent voice, I realized he wasn’t recording the truth of the man anyway. He wasn’t weighing whether Kobe was a good man or a bad one. He was simply expressing how Kobe made him feel.
He was talking about the meaning of Kobe (to him, to basketball, to L.A.), not the man (about whom he knew very little beyond the court and his Lakers fandom). That’s why he called me in the first place: to process his loss, to wrestle with a confusion too big for him to make sense of alone.
A boy like my nephew knew only how Kobe made him feel. I don’t want to take that away from him. Not right now. I may wish that Kobe wasn’t his hero. But at this moment, I need to focus on how he feels. To listen to him. It’s what we should do for anyone who’s in pain, such as those for whom all this talk of Kobe is bringing up their own. Maybe later, my nephew and I can talk more about Kobe, about sexual assault, about how we speak about it with others, about how we hold people accountable, particularly our heroes.
But today doesn’t have to be that day.