The first time I saw Kobe Bryant play live was at the McDonald’s All-American Basketball Game in 1996. The game was played in Pittsburgh that year, and I went to the Civic Arena downtown to watch it. I’d already had a relationship with the idea of him. He was the top high school basketball player in the country that year, had already become legend in Pennsylvania, and if my team had won three more games in the state playoffs, we would have played his (Lower Merion) in the championship. But this was the pre-internet era, so the only film I saw of him were grainy clips on high school sports TV shows. I wanted to see, with my own eyes, if his game justified the hype behind it, so I did in person.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t go to the game that year. I went to the Dunk Contest (won by Lester Earl) a couple nights before, but I watched the actual game on TV. In the 24 years since, I’d somehow convinced myself that I was at the game, too. My mind apparently fused my recollections of the game, the dunk contest, and the legend of Kobe together into a new (and false) memory. It wasn’t until last night when I began to plot how I was going to write this today, that I remembered that this memory was an invention.
The most iconic public figures compel us to bend reality to intertwine our stories with theirs. 1.8 million people, for instance, attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and I’d bet that at least another million or two sincerely believe that they were there, too. These aren’t lies, though. At least, not lies in the way we’ve agreed to define them. They’re micro-myths that gradually congeal into a larger, more comprehensive, master myth.
This is particularly true with how we think about and assess athletes. Physical feats, accomplishments, and defeats are assigned mystical qualities. You don’t just win the game, you wanted it more than the other team. You don’t just make a game-winning shot, you possess a nebulous clutch gene. You don’t succeed because you’re just physically better and/or more skilled (or just plain lucky), you have a killer instinct.
I’ve been struggling for a day now with making sense with how I’m taking Kobe’s death. I’ve lived through the sudden deaths of Biggie, Tupac, Aaliyah, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Hank Gathers, Lisa Lopes, Big L, Big Pun, Reggie Lewis, Prince and other celebrities that had an impact on me, but none hit me the way Kobe’s has. (The only news with a similar effect was when we learned Magic Johnson was HIV-positive because I was 11 and assumed it was a death sentence.)
The myth—and how the largest and best and worst myths possess inherent sentience—is the only thing that makes sense to me right now. Because myths aren’t supposed to die, especially not a myth you’ve been a part of since your junior year of high school; a myth that appears to be so vibrant, so alive, so coiled into and entangled with how we think of ourselves and understand the world that it’s too overwhelming to imagine life without it.
I go through an elaborate ritual each time I fly—a process involving a prayer that I’ll repeat if I don’t say it perfectly, a moderately specific seat (window with ample legroom), a specific time to arrive at the airport (90 minutes before boarding), and Advil PMs. (Alcohol is also occasionally involved.)
It helps alleviate the anxiety I have about being in the air; the more comfortable and drowsy I am, the more protected I feel. But of the dozens of flights I took last year, the one where I was the least anxious was when flying from Los Angeles back to Pittsburgh in February.
There are no direct flights from L.A. to Pittsburgh (well, there’s Spirit, but it’s ... Spirit), so I had a layover in Charlotte, N.C. It happened to be the Friday before NBA All-Star weekend, which happened to be in Charlotte last year. Dozens of NBA-related people, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were also on my flight, and my anxiety-alleviating rationale was, well, morbid.
“Well, if Kareem’s on this flight, I’m gonna be fine, because he’s too important to die in a random plane crash.”
Of the medley of strange and sad thoughts circulating through me today, one that I haven’t been able to escape is the possibility that the other passengers on that helicopter, his daughter Gianna included, assumed a similar sort of metaphysical protection because they happened to be riding with Kobe. Things like that just aren’t supposed to happen to people like him. It doesn’t fit within the ecosystem of mental and emotional negotiations necessary to exist without driving yourself mad. And this, I think, is the other thing that makes this death so stunning: It doesn’t make sense. It does, but it doesn’t.
I still don’t know what to do with this reminder that, if any sort of metaphysical protection exists, it’s spiritual. And if spiritual protection exists—and I believe it does—it doesn’t account for celebrity. It should be reassuring, the idea that if protection exists, I have as much of it as someone like Kobe does, but it’s not. Not today.
This is where I admit that I always believed that Kobe Bryant was overrated. And also that this belief might have been an overcorrection from his most diehard fans overrating him. Which means that I might have underrated him. Either way, his place in my basketball fandom life was as both the foil and the spoil.
I preferred Vince Carter, and I rooted against Kobe when they played against each other. I preferred those early-aughts Trailblazer teams to his Lakers, and I rooted against the Lakers when they played each other in the Western Conference Finals. I preferred Allen Iverson, and I rooted against Kobe when they played each other in the Finals. I preferred Shaq, and I rooted against Kobe when they were feuding. And when it became clear (to me) that LeBron had surpassed him, and that I no longer had to stretch and convince people to squint when explaining why my guy was better than their guy, my sports antipathy for Kobe intensified to the point that it bled into how I felt about his fans.
Of course, this aspect of sports fandom is both fucking absurd and the truest, most sincere form of it. Sports fandom is a fundamentally bizarre (read: dumb) practice where, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, you’re essentially rooting for laundry. There is nothing rational in how we assess and process and feel about the things that happen during games. Basketball, however, allows me to pretend I’m capable of rationalizing this absurdity.
I never had a home team—Pittsburgh has no NBA team—and this gives me the freedom to root for players first, instead of teams. (My favorite NBA teams are the teams my favorite players happen to be on.) And because I played and still play, I’ve convinced myself that I’m equipped to make judgments on whether a person is “good” based on the way he conducts himself on the basketball court. And so rooting against Kobe—the unapologetic gunslinger in Michael Jordan cosplay; the (self-proclaimed) Black Mamba—didn’t just feel easy. It felt mandated. It felt justified. (And, honestly, it felt like he enjoyed it.)
And then, for reasons messy and muddy and self-indicting, it felt right.
I played basketball last night, and on the way to the gym, I listened to a podcast discussing Kobe’s life and death. In it, the hosts referred to Kobe’s 2003 rape case as “Colorado” and referred to “Colorado” as a “complication.” In the 16 years since that case, I’ve heard and read other people—journalists, writers, bloggers, hosts—call it an “ordeal,” a stretch of “adversity,” and other bits of euphemistic phrasing. And this is just what often comes from media professionals. Many others are far less interested in even mentioning it as anything other than an unfortunate blip in a great man’s life; a meaningless roadblock built by a money-hungry and fame-thirsty jezebel.
I believe that there’s no such thing as “too soon” when discussing the less-than-positive feelings someone might have about the recently deceased; particularly if said deceased has been accused of an unforgivable thing. Particularly if a person has been victimized by the deceased or victimized in a similar manner to what the deceased was accused of. I believe that the urge to silence those voices—or, rather, to provide them with some sort of rubric on when and where and how they’re “allowed” to speak—is a violent one and reminds me of when white people ask us to be more “civil” when speaking on injustice. I believe that there’s space in the same room to discuss his impact on the sport, his place in the culture, his apparent love for his family and his daughters, and also that he was accused of rape, and that this space only doesn’t exist if the myth-making consumes all the oxygen.
I also know—not believe, but know—that “Colorado” colored how I felt about him as an athlete, and still, today, feel about him as a man. But I question my sincerity. Did/do I genuinely care for the woman who was allegedly victimized, or is/was “Colorado” just a prime opportunity for me to be self-righteous when considering Kobe and comparing him to players I’m bigger fans of? I want to believe that the answer to both questions is “yes.” But maybe I just want to believe I’m capable of making that distinction.
My favorite part of being a dad is the 20-second walk from my car to the building when taking my four-year-old daughter to preschool. Something about that walk—holding her hand while she’s carrying her lunchbox; the reflection in the glass door of us (her half my size, giddy, and usually skipping)—just does something unexplainable to me. And today, when I think about Kobe and his daughter(s), I keep coming back to that walk with my daughter, and I start crying again like I am right now.
I have nothing else.
Correction: 1/28/19, 4:10 p.m.: Kobe’s rape case began in July 2003 and never went to trial. The story has been updated.