For an immeasurable cross-section of Americans and sports fans across the globe, “Where were you when you heard Kobe Bryant died?” will become a seminal topic of conversation. I was in a LongHorn Steakhouse eating lunch with my brother. First, my phone started to vibrate incessantly. Text messages from friends pouring in, spreading the news of the helicopter crash, while simultaneously hoping that it was a hoax, that it couldn’t be true.
Then came the push notifications confirming the carnage. My eyes began to water. By the time the rumor mill was replaced with established reporting, it felt like nearly everyone in the restaurant was mourning: Bryant and his bright young daughter Gianna, 13, were killed along with seven others just a few dozen miles away from Los Angeles. They were on their way to play basketball at an academy dedicated to gender equality in sports that Bryant founded and where he served as a coach.
Just earlier this month, Kobe and Gigi, as everyone knew them, had gone viral in the most touching of ways: a GIF of Kobe, scooted close to Gigi court-side at a basketball game, beaming as he explained the Xs and Os of some play that they had just seen, Gigi sweetly giggling at the advice.
Kobe Bryant was so great, it almost seems redundant to say it. Like Beyoncé or Oprah, the single word of his name is synonymous with success. Boasting several MVPs, world championships, and Olympic gold medals, Bryant shined as the brightest star in the NBA galaxy for the better part of a decade. He was the basketball player non-fans knew. He loomed, an American icon. And yet for many black folks, he meant even more.
Before Barack Obama became president, Kobe Bryant was arguably the coolest, most famous black man in the world. He was a book-reading, Italian-speaking, larger-than-life retort to all those who size up black athletes by only their athleticism. His skill, excellence, and grace broke racialized barriers and expectations. It is on his shoulders and in his footsteps that players today have accrued the power to transform the league into a rare corporate voice for racial equality.
Right now, the NBA community is convulsing with his family’s loss. That’s in part because, largely through his word and deed, Kobe molded the league into a fraternity of love. Sparring with a pantheon of great players like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson, Bryant fought, cried, bled, competed, but at the end of the day, they loved, particularly as he transformed into a statesman of Los Angeles and of sports in his veteran days.
Kobe Bryant was a pioneer, a legend, practically a statesman. This didn’t make him immune to committing wrongdoing. He was implicated in serious wrongdoing when sexual assault charges came to light in 2003 that forced many fans and nonfans to see him in an entirely new, terrible light. Certainly, if what happened then had instead happened in today’s cultural era, then maybe Kobe Bryant would have been better held accountable.
Kobe’s status as trailblazing African American athlete makes many want to wish away his flaws. Yet, as Michael Eric Dyson writes, the urge to protect “black icons is understandable, but it is an impulse that is often misplaced and easily exploited.”
What Dyson wrote about the messy, complicated legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. also applies to Kobe Bryant. “He could withstand the truth, and …his singular strengths meant that we should look at history squarely in the eye and take note of his overwhelming greatness and his undermining failures.”
So as fans like myself honor the good Bryant has done, it’s important that we do not allow the myth-making that inevitably comes with remembering greatness to transform into erasure, particularly of those who he hurt.
Fellow fans: When people complain about the way he is being glorified in the coming days, don’t be “that guy.” Kobe isn’t being canceled. He’s embedded in the game. His jerseys will hang in the rafters, he’ll undoubtedly receive many posthumous awards. His sporting legacy will live in every buzzer-beater, every triple-team opponents give a star player, and in every mid-range jump shot that falls to the bottom of the net. Truly memorializing someone, especially in public, means wrestling with the entirety of his humanity.
For now, we mourn an amazingly talented daughter and a loving husband and father who, by his own admissions later in life, was still growing.
There was something rare about seeing a tragedy recognized as universally as this. Presidents of different eras and different parties, celebrities, athletes, fans around the world and everyday Americans all cut—deeply—by the flimsiness of helicopter blades, of life.
I cried when I first heard the news at the restaurant. I cried on the way home. I cried as I watched the videos posted on social media of the memorials mushrooming outside of the arena where he played for the city of Los Angeles for 20 years. I cried when I saw players last night, holding back their own tears, dribbling out the 24-second shot clock at the start of each of that night’s league games, all to honor Kobe Bryant, number 24.