How Does a Fan Mourn the Tainted Legacy of Kobe Bryant?

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How Does a Fan Mourn the Tainted Legacy of Kobe Bryant?

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

K obe Bryant was more than a mere basketball player; he was an international cultural phenomenon. Over 20 seasons, Bryant redefined how superstars are meant to play the ball. He’s the reason people yell out “Kobe!” while tossing a crumpled paper into an office dustbin. He accumulated five championship rings, earned 18 NBA All-Star selections, with three NBA All-Star MVP wins, and a franchise-wrecking 81 points in a single game against the Toronto Raptors. And so, it was gut-wrenching to hear news of a tragic and fatal chopper accident that claimed the life of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers. 

If the NBA had rockstars, Bryant would be the Elvis of his generation. But a person’s worth cannot be judged solely by their professional accomplishments. Not in the times that we live in. We must consider their actions in their personal lives as well, and that casts a less-than-flattering spotlight on the legacy of the man we all knew and loved as “Black Mamba”. With his sudden death, Bryant leaves behind an uncomfortable and complicated legacy.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers adjusts his jersey during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on February 19, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In 2003, an era before #MeToo, Kobe was charged with felony sexual assault after a 19-year-old woman accused him of rape while staying at a hotel in Colorado. Lots has been written about how the woman’s character was assassinated in the press, and the case was eventually dropped as the survivor didn’t come forward to testify. Bryant, however, was forced to issue an apology and admit that the encounter wasn’t consensual. Even though the case was finally settled out of court, the narrative has always been skewed in favour of Kobe’s genius on-court rather than his behaviour off it.

And so, it brings us to the question of how we’re meant to feel about Kobe and his legacy now that he’s gone. Should we celebrate Kobe, the ball player, or should we spurn him in his death for his reprehensible behaviour?

Should we celebrate Kobe, the ball player, or should we spurn him in his death for his reprehensible behaviour?

A journalist from Washington Post did just that. Minutes after news of Kobe’s death broke she tweeted a story about the rape case. Not only did she receive thousands of hate mail including death threats, but she was also suspended from the paper for violating its social media policy. She deleted the tweets after backlash but only after she gave us some food for thought: “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” she said in the now deleted post.

As a basketball fan, I think it’s okay to go through a state of moral confusion because there’s no black and white here. For many of his fans, Kobe Bryant was a genius ball player but a flawed human being. Does that exonerate him? Absolutely not. But can he be a role model for young kids taking their first lessons on a 94×50 feet maple hardwood court? Definitely, yes. In that regard, it’s difficult to imagine that such a rich legacy of accomplishments will be overshadowed by his sexual misdeeds because throughout his career, Kobe, the person, was seen through a kinder lens of Kobe, the player.

Kobe

Nick Kyrgios of Australia wears a Lakers vest in tribute to Kobe Bryant during his Men’s Singles fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on day eight of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.

Fred Lee/Getty Images

Further muddying the waters is Bryant’s charity work post-retirement. Lately, he had become a staunch supporter of the Women’s National Basketball Association, even suggesting last week that some stars “could most certainly keep up” in the NBA. Bryant, as a retired dad figure, instantly found his calling in coaching his daughter Gianna, who also died in the crash. Some of the organisations that Bryant worked with in his capacity as a once-in-a-generation talent were Make-A-Wish Foundation, After-School All-Stars, and Vijay Amritraj Foundation. 

The obits, especially from other sporting greats, are overwhelming. At the ongoing Australian Open, Nick Kygrios wore a Kobe Bryant jersey. Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli wrote, “Absolutely devastated to hear this news today.” And football great Cristiano Ronaldo said, “Kobe was a true legend and inspiration to so many.” But the headlines were not-so-complimentary. A New York Times piece titled “Kobe Bryant’s Brilliant and Complicated Legacy”, says that his legend was not straightforward. “…Bryant earned 18 All-Star selections, a regular-season Most Valuable Player Award in 2008 and two N.B.A. finals M.V.P. awards to go with his five championship rings. Amid all of that, a sexual assault allegation against him in 2003 would change how many people saw Bryant – though he remained hugely popular among N.B.A. fans and especially Angelenos, for whom he increasingly became synonymous with the Lakers — the only team, despite a trade demand in 2007, that Bryant ever played for.”

Kobe

A fan places flowers to mourn former Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant following his death overnight in the US, near the “House of Kobe” gym built in honour of his 2016 visit to the Philippines, in Manila on January 27, 2020.

Maria TAN / AFP

The Kobe Bryant story, then, is not that simple. He’ll always remain a polarising figure in NBA history. On one hand, you have Kobe Bryant, the all-time great, on and off the court. On the other, there’s the Kobe Bryant who became a grim reminder of how privileged and talented artists are often allowed to get away with their misdeeds, his dark history almost entirely whitewashed. 

The truth behind the legend is as uncomfortable as the legend is unforgettable. It’s a shame, but now, it will forever be Kobe’s legacy.

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