The Ultimate Competitor Leaves Behind a Complicated Legacy

Amid the daily churn of life, each passing day can be seemingly indistinguishable from the next. But, occasionally, there are those moments when people say, “I always remember where I was when I heard the news.” Last Sunday was one of those days for me. Kobe Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash. When a friend texted me TMZ’s tweet reporting the story, I just couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem real. Eventually, like everyone else whose attention was rapt by the unfolding news, it became clear—Kobe was gone.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I am a Kobe-stan. He was my favorite player growing up. Everyone in my family loved the Lakers and loved watching him. I’ve had countless arguments with fellow NBA-philes about where he ranks among the all-time greats. I mean, my dog was even named Kobe. This was an increasingly unfashionable position in today’s analytics-crazed NBA world: Kobe was inefficient, he didn’t pass enough, they said. Whatever. Watching Kobe play basketball was so damn entertaining and, by the time he retired in 2016, I’d watched that dude play for two-thirds of my life.

It may be hard for some to remember now, but Kobe was an extremely polarizing player—some hated his supposedly selfish play, others said he only won three of his five titles because of Shaq. Back in 2012, Bleacher Report made the case that Kobe was “the most polarizing player of all time.” This all despite his remarkable resume: five NBA championships, 18 all-star selections, two finals MVPs, a regular season MVP, 12 all-defense selections, 11 all-NBA first-team selections, and two Olympic gold medals. Kobe played for the Lakers for 20 years and is inarguably the most loved athlete in LA sports history. Outside of LA, Kobe was one of the greatest heels in NBA history. He would come into your hometown—“with no regard for human life,” as broadcaster Kevin Harlan said after a ferocious dunk in Madison Square Garden—and rip your heart out.

There’s a line from Zack Snyder’s insipid Batman vs. Superman that always reminded me of Kobe. Batman had outwitted and seemingly defeated the invincible Superman. As Batman prepared to deliver his finishing blow, he explained the differing motives of the two superheroes. “I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re hear for a reason,” Batman grunts. “My parents taught me a different lesson … They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.”

That last line encapsulates Kobe’s Nietzschean ethos. At 18 (and probably before that) he believed he would enter the NBA and immediately dominate and eventually be considered the best player of all time. And then, like an existentialist hero, he basically made it happen. It wasn’t his prodigious talent nor his preternatural physical gifts that made him so great. What made Kobe so great was between the ears—his sheer force of will, his indomitable determination, what he called the “Mamba Mentality.” As balletic and beautiful as his game was—the flawless footwork, the gorgeous fadeaways, the hound-dog defense, the gravity-defying dunks—he was known above of all for his resilience, his unbridled competitiveness, and his endless drive to be better.

Sure, he isn’t the greatest player of all time (that would be LeBron James, don’t @ me), but for many NBA players and fans, he was the most important. Just the night before Bryant’s death, James—after passing Kobe on the all-time scoring list—waxed poetic about the impact Kobe had on his life and on basketball globally. Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George put it best, saying Kobe was “his Michael Jordan.” Today’s players grew up watching Kobe and like Kobe tried to emulate Jordan, they try to emulate Kobe.

It’s funny how Kobe Bryant’s death inspired the one thing he never could as a player: universal adoration. He could be petulant, once refusing to shoot during the second half of a playoff game to prove that the Lakers couldn’t do it without him. He could be hard on his teammates, once saying of his teammate Smush Parker that he “shouldn’t have been in the NBA, but [the Lakers] were too cheap to pay for a point guard.” In the 2014-15 season, Kobe hilariously said that his young teammates were “soft like Charmin.”

Kobe’s own coach, Phil Jackson, was very critical of Bryant. “Kobe can be consumed with surprising anger, which he’s displayed toward me and toward his teammates,” Jackson wrote in 2004. Then again, maybe this was all a little overblown. Drafted at 17 years old, Kobe grew up in front of our eyes. Who wasn’t a little irascible and a little insolent in their teens and early 20s.

But that part of Kobe’s legacy—the imperious demeanor, the desire to do it his own way—has become to be understood as part of what made him that competitive beast that he was. There are, however, more troubling parts of the Kobe story.

In 2003, fresh off winning three championships in a row, Kobe was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year old hotel worker. The case was dismissed in criminal court and a subsequent civil suit was settled out of court. After the criminal case was dropped, Kobe issued a statement: “First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night … Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”

Who knows what motivated Kobe to issue the apology? He quickly lost millions of dollars in endorsements after the case became public. Was he just trying to burnish his image with the corporations that helped make him so rich? In the context of today’s #MeToo movement though, the statement certainly feels anomalous. Imagine Harvey Weinstein issuing such a statement. Usually when powerful men are accused of such actions, they either go on the offensive or ignore them altogether. As Dave Zirin points out, “It is impossible to even imagine [football players] Ben Roethlisberger or Jameis Winston or any high-profile athlete accused of rape issuing a similar statement.” Neil Irvin of the organization Men Can Stop Rape told Zirin, “Kobe is the only accused individual who I’ve ever seen provide an apology in writing in my 16 years of doing rape prevention work.” In the end, there are no excuses for what Kobe did. But can there be redemption?

Kobe was also widely recognized as being brilliant, as someone who sought answers, who challenged himself intellectually. Among Kobe’s many post-career endeavors—which include winning an Oscar for his short film, “Dear Basketball”—his support for women’s basketball may have been the most important. WNBA player Talia Caldwell, in an op-ed for the New York Times, talked about how much Kobe meant to women’s basketball, both as an ally and a fan. I mean, if Kobe could enjoy women’s basketball, then shouldn’t everyone else? When Kobe’s helicopter crashed, he was heading to a basketball tournament where he would coach his 13-yeard old daughter Gianna’s team.

After spending countless hours of his life in a gym perfecting his craft, Kobe was imparting what he learned to Gianna, who by all accounts was ready to take up the Mamba mantle. “The best thing that happens is when we go out,” Kobe told Jimmy Kimmel in a 2018 interview, “and fans will come up to me. And she’ll be standing next to me, and they will be like, ‘You gotta have a boy, you and V[anessa] gotta have a boy, man, to have somebody carry on the tradition, the legacy.’ And she is like, ‘I got this.’” You can see Kobe Bean Bryant beaming whenever he talked about his daughters.

Longtime NBA reporter Rachel Nichols looked back on a conversation she had with Kobe early in her career. Nichols recalled how when she first became an NBA reporter, she couldn’t get NBA players to speak with her in the locker room—as Nichols recalls, NBA locker rooms were not exactly friendly places for young women 23 years ago. But Kobe came up to her once and sat with her for 45 minutes. He explained how he could sympathize with Nichols because a lot of players didn’t like to talk to a rookie like him, especially one who was so hyped (and arrogant). As he left the interview, he stood up and told Nichols, “We’re going to be just fine, you and me.” In the days since Kobe passed, there have been a host of other stories about him sending words of encouragement to those stricken by cancer or catering a Thanksgiving dinner for Lakers staff when they were stuck in Detroit for the holiday, among many, many others. He had an indelible impact on so many people’s lives.

There was a part of me that felt gross and guilty for being so sad. I’ve always been repulsed by the obsession with celebrity deaths. Usually when it happens, I think about the nameless, countless lives lost every day because of war, climate change, inequality, injustice—take your pick. Not to mention, aside from Kobe and Gianna, seven other lives were lost. They were: John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Christina Mauser; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; and Ara Zobayan, the helicopter pilot. But now I understand better how the loss of someone you’ve never met can be so sorrowful and I hope to be more empathetic the next time a celebrity dies and someone writes a treacly post about it on Facebook.

The news of Kobe’s death was particularly poignant for me because, less than a month ago, my wife and I had to say good bye to our dog, Kobe. It reignited some of the pain from that day—and, frankly, it was just so surreal. Like our dog, Kobe the basketball player was a vital part of my basketball-obsessed family’s life.

We’ll never see someone like Kobe again. He played through countless injuries, once making two free throws immediately after tearing his achilles tendon, then limping off the court unassisted. One of the reasons fans adored him is because he gave them his heart. In today’s NBA, where players rest for “load management,” Kobe’s willingness to play through injury almost feels anachronistic. But, he gave fans everything he had. That’s why we love him so much.

In his last game in 2016, Kobe went out with a bang, scoring 60 points (!) on 50 shots (!!). As Bill Simmons recently said, no was ever more on brand than Kobe. For all his achievements, Kobe is the NBA career leader in only one stat: missed shots. What could be more fitting? As a player and post-retirement, Kobe was never afraid, he was always willing to try. “He took big swings. He would accept failure, even humiliation. He would not blend in,” wrote ESPN’s Zach Lowe. Ultimately, Kobe aspired to inspire: “The most important thing is to try and inspire people so they can be great in whatever they want to do.” Watching the Lakers first game since Kobe’s death, I was struck by the sadness that permeated Los Angeles. It’s understandable, but is it what Kobe would have wanted? He would probably tell all of us to get back to work.

Thanks for all the memories, Kobe.