So where was I? I was enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon after joining friends for a birthday lunch for my wife. I was watching golf – the Farmer’s Insurance Open was extra interesting this year since the hotel we stayed at in San Diego last summer bordered the course – and scrolling through Twitter when the Tweets began hitting. There was that half hour or so between the first Tweet and when someone other than TMZ confirmed that Kobe Bryant had, in fact, died in a helicopter crash when I hoped it was some horrible error.
Alas, it wasn’t an error or a joke or some cruel hack. Kobe Bryant, one of the most complex, interesting, and amazing athletes of my life, was dead at 41.
I had a weird relationship with Kobe. Early in his career I was excited about his promise, delighted by his exuberance, intrigued by his unique background, and astounded by his ability. But, in time, his act, for lack of a better word, grated on me. I found so many things he did on the court aside from the actual playing of basketball contrived. The 57 deep breaths before some big free throw. The walking around the court and pumping his fist slowly while making a determined face during a dead ball in crunch time. His weird back-and-forth with Shaq. It all seemed done for the cameras rather than organic and spontaneous.
Soon I was rooting against whoever he was playing against, delighting in those early and middle years when he failed in the playoffs.
I was not alone. I can’t think of another elite, alpha athlete who was so nearly equally loved and loathed. Whether it was for that false feeling air about him that turned me off, or people who hated his ball-hogging, shot-chucking tendencies, there seemed to be a hater for every Kobe super-fan. It made my guy Paul Pierce’s huge NBA Finals performance in 2008 even better because he defeated Kobe in the process. I know Pierce wasn’t better than Kobe. But because he was a better teammate, because he had bested Kobe on the biggest stage, it made the Celtics’ title even more special to me.
In time I learned to love how Kobe leaned into all of this hate. He fucking loved being a villain. He embraced every ounce of hate people sent his way. He knew that we didn’t hate him like a Bill Laimbeer or some other role player. No, he knew that to be a true villain is just the opposite side of the coin as the hero. Both are respected and feared. One is just on your side, the other against you. He could live with that knowing that all us haters, deep down, respected him.
Late in his career I came to appreciate Kobe more. There was that embrace of being the bad guy. There was his tireless work rate. I’m not sure anyone, not even Michael Jordan, ever put as much into games as Kobe did. It drove me nuts that he shot 800 times a game. But in time I was worn down by it and began to marvel at the sheer audacity of his career. I admired how his game didn’t slip much as he grew older, how he played at the highest level until his body literally gave out on him. There was no Willie Mays in the World Series moment, no Jordan on the Wizards moment. Kobe went out as a stone, cold assassin on the court.
The whole Mamba Mentality thing drove me nuts. (Speaking of contrived!) To be fair, though, it was his reality. He might be the most pathological basketball killer the game has ever seen, again more so than even Jordan. At times it was disturbing at how competitive Kobe was in every aspect of the game. There were those interviews where he would speak deeply about things that had nothing to do with sports. Then the interviewer would mention some slight or perceived failure, Kobe’s eyes would flash, he would get restless in his seat, lick his lips, and you would see the straight asshole he was on the court come out.
Kobe came along at a weird time, just as the Jordan era was wrapping up. As Kobe was reaching his peak, LeBron James showed up and revolutionized the game, doing things with a gigantic body that no one had done before in the history of the game. Michael was loved and idolized. LeBron was friendly and open. LeBron would, shockingly, pass to teammates in key moments. When LeBron’s career was still in its early days and we didn’t know how it would turn out – with him rivaling Jordan for the game’s all time best in a way Kobe never would – I told a friend that if I had a son who played basketball, I would much rather he emulate LBJ than Kobe. LeBron was inclusive and warm where Kobe was exclusive and cold.
In that comparison is another irony of Kobe’s career. He was one of the smartest, most intellectually curious players in the modern NBA. Yet he was so closed off in his pursuit of winning.
There is, of course, another huge moment in Kobe’s career that made many people hate him: the sexual assault case against him in 2003.
Although the charges were eventually dropped when the victim refused to testify, it was hard for me, and many others, to get over them.
I had forgotten, until a friend reminded me of it Sunday evening, about the public apology Kobe issued after the charges were dropped. I went back and read it. It is a remarkable document. I found an article that was published four or five years ago that discussed his apology. It pointed out that no prominent athlete who has been accused of sexual misconduct since then has done anything like what Kobe did. Everyone else has denied, denied, denied, sought to find character flaws in the accuser, and done their best to hide behind their attorneys.
Kobe admitted that he realized the woman he had sex with did not see the encounter as consensual. He apologized to her, her family, his family and teammates, and the city where the encounter took place. He said he did not question her motives and understood his apology could be used against him in a civil case. Most of all, he said he understood his actions had made her life hell for well over a year.
What I found most remarkable about the apology was how it does not read like it was run through an entire law firm before it was issued, with dozens of qualifiers added to protect Kobe legally. Although it was surely drafted with the help of others, ultimately it reads as something directly from Kobe’s heart.
My friend who reminded me to go back and read it is a female sports writer. She has little time for athletes who abuse women, physically, sexually, or emotionally. She said from all she heard, Kobe lived the rest of his life in a manner that was consistent with that apology. He learned from his grievous mistake and treated women differently because of that.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in his doting over his daughters. Which is the real motherfucker of the day. It’s one thing for Kobe to die early, leaving a family behind. It is so much worse knowing his daughter Gianna was with him, with one of her basketball teammates and her parents. Kobe had become a huge advocate for women’s sports. I don’t know if he ever actually said these words, but the phrase “If you can play, you can play,” was attributed to him. Former baseball player Brandon McCarthy Tweeted Sunday night that he believed Kobe was poised to do amazing things for women’s sports as his daughters grew older and he threw his weight behind more and more women’s events.
Kobe was a deeply flawed dude. Of course, we all are. His flaws were just so jarring and always out there for public scrutiny. I hated him as a player for most of his career. I was an adult when he came along, still believing to in the power of sports to elevate and unite, but cynicism was starting to creep in. Kobe did a lot to help my sports cynicism grow.
But, man, he was a remarkable player. And a remarkable person. A man who was poised to continue to affect the world even with his playing days well behind him.
Just because I didn’t like him as a player doesn’t mean I wasn’t sad about his passing.
Last night I tried to put Kobe’s career in the proper context. Journalists kept saying he was one of the greatest players ever. But where did he fit in? Rather than try to say he was #3 or #10 or whatever, I approached it from a different angle: what is the smallest number I can get to where I can comfortably say “Kobe was one of the X greatest players of all time?” You can argue he’s anywhere within this list, but putting him lower and including someone else would be ludicrous.
I settled on eight and could be talked into seven. Jordan, LeBron, Magic, Bird, Wilt, Russell, Kareem, and Kobe. I struggle with Kareem a little because he was such a unique player whose immense accomplishments have kind of been lost to time. He was a revolutionary player who won more MVPs and championships and was in more All Star games than Kobe. I’m pretty sure he belongs in this conversation, but a part of me thinks he’s the first guy you can say “Wait a minute…” about.
This morning I read NBA writer Henry Abbott’s thoughts about Kobe’s death. It is from the perspective of a parent. As the father of three girls who has fears for their safety, and as the son of a mother who died in a car accident, this piece got to me.
“This is why mothers don’t sleep” (Henry’s site works strangely and I am unable to link directly to the article. Go to his home page then select the article.)