You died today. A year ago anyway. And it took me a full year to acknowledge and accept it. Let me start off by saying this letter is stupid in many ways.
I am just a fan. Which means I stand on the outside looking in. It was so easy to fan your flames and cheer your fame Mr. Bryant, you burned brightly in your public life with us, for better and worse.
I have never even shaken your hand. How can I say whether you were a good man?
We are not family or friends; and I am sure that all of those that depended on you daily have a road much harder than someone like me. But losing your physical presence on Earth was shocking.
If I think about this journey we are on as a hike through a forest of life then your tree was a big loping, intense fixture. It was strong, tough, gnarly, knotted, unique, and beautiful.
We also are going to discuss –
So, come kick it with me for a minute in memory of Kobe Bean Bryant.
The Birth of a Legend
Born into this world on August 23, 1978 in the home of the “free” and the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, USA, life took you around the world before most of us had permission to pass the stop sign on our streets.
I imagine watching your dad play basketball all over Italy and Europe was like watching a demigod perform in the eyes of his child.
Of course, I didn’t really meet you until the late 90s when you burst on the scene as the second youngest player to be drafted into the NBA. It was 1996 to be exact and the Olympics came to my city, Atlanta, the same year.
I had my own demigod father to look up to, and with your addition to the pantheon, I was sure there was nothing a Black kid in America could not do. (Boy, was I naive. But my naivty was reflected in the innocence of your eyes as you took it all in…) You were THE man!
And, you were so different than any Black athlete from Philly I had ever seen. Some of my earliest YouTube searches involved phrases like “Kobe dunks on ___“, “Kobe interviews in fluent Italian/German/Spanish“, or “Kobe works out in China“.
I was fascinated with you for so many reasons that I did not understand then, but that are easy to reflect on now. This past year I read “Showboat” by Roland Lazenby and it gave me a renewed appreciation for you. It helped me round out why I love you so much.
8 Reasons I Fell in Love with Kobe Bryant
Ruby Garcideuenas noticed how much pressure the rookie put on all the other, older Lakers with his intensity, his running and dunking in practice, his constant studying of videotape, his demeanor. The public didn’t see it, nor did the media, but Bryant was a lone wolf and posed a threat to his older teammates. They eyed him, trying to figure him out. Bryant, meanwhile, kept to himself and gave them little to go on other than his game itself, which was overwhelming with his energy and need to dominate.Lazenby, page 241
1. Kobe busted popular stereotypes about Black men wide open.
Lazy where? Kobe stood in stark denial of every trope designed to highlight laziness in African American men. He stood as Black as I am, better at his craft them most around him, and he never stopped working. Towards the end of his long and physically brutal career it became more and more obvious that whether you were stronger, faster, leaner did not matter as much his WILL to compete. And compete he did, for 20 seasons, while logging well over 48,000 minutes of game time. For a young Black budding adult that message was well received.
2. He was the most articulate and worldly young Black athlete to gain the type of public attention he garnered on a basketball court.
He was the most articulate and worldly young Black athlete I had been exposed to until that time. As a result he could come off as cold and off-putting, even when he was a teenager fresh in the league and full of wide-eyed excitement. I will never forget that he wore well-tailored Italian suits to press conferences. I was fascninated. But within that there was struggle.
Kobe had a lot to learn about interacting with other people, he really hadn’t been a student of human nature as much as he had been a student of basketball. So, you know, he didn’t always do the right thing as far as his teammates. He had that young and stubborn swagger about him. He was going to do what he thought was best, what he thought he should do, regardless of anyone else.Ruby Garciduenas, Lakers equipment manager, Lazenby, page 245
3. Kobe Bryant represented for suburban Black kids of the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Kobe Bryant represented for a growing number of Black suburban kids, like me. Through a cominaiton of luck, wit, and good timing, our parents had found some success in the economic booms of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Although my parents were no where near the level Joe Bryant and his wife Pam had acheived as a result of Joe’s professional play in the NBA and overseas.
When Kobe’s parents returned from Europe they moved to a Philadelphia suburb. Within the home his mother monitored television consumption and steered her children away from violence and sex. All of this is in stark contrast to the urban Black image that was selling rap albums, clothing, and lifestyles to millions of people around the world.
Kobe came in with a very squeaky-clean image, and he especially stood in contrast to his draft classmate Iverson, who came in as this brash hip-hop figure… [And] everybody was so caught up in the idea of street cred back then, and Kobe somehow didn’t have it because he was the wealthy suburban kid who grew up in Italy and then played in Lower Merion. He was mostly comfortable with who he was, but it bothered him that people would create these narratives of ‘Well Iverson is the genuine guy because of the way he looks, and Kobe’s not genuine because of the way he looks and the way he speaks and where he was raised as a kid.Howard Beck, NBA journalist, Lazenby, page 307
A Brief Note on Commercializing Blackness:
In the late 1980s and through out the 1990s, Black people started penetrating middle class for the first time in the history of their families in most cases. This newer group of marginal economic security quickly moved their kids out of urban areas into suburbs that were both lightly integrated in some places and heavily segregated in others.
The hope was to escape poorly funded schools, neighborhoods that were inexplicably full of liquor stores and devoid of groceries, and abandon the drug-riddled inner city parks and recreation of the 80s in America. The result was that in some places their kids were cast as the criminal element in all-white schools, or they found themselves trying to create a criminal culture in a Black school full of suburban kids.
Why? Because, what else is Blackness if not cool and criminal?
America needed to commodify the Black experience so the question became, who is ‘really’ Black? Who is representing an authentic Black experience in America? The suburban kid with strict parents and a bedtime or the urban kid that spends more time hanging out in ‘the streets’? The answer to this is simple.
They both represent viable, unique Black experiences. Kobe and Allen were incredible world-class competitors and it’s a shame that our need to define them in terms of their Blackness tainted our experience of who they were as individuals and men. I love them both, as a devoted fan, despite their many flaws and public fuck-ups. Quote me.
4. He put on a show during the game and with his treatment of the media. His intensity never waivered.
One of my most favorite things about Kobe is that he loved to PRACTICE. As a person that does not possess an overwhelming amount of natural ability in any one area, I have learned that practice is a major key. It is the key really.
Beyond that, Kobe represented fearlessness with his treatment of the media. After his death, I learned a lot more about his relationship with the popular ESPN reporter, Shelly Smith. It really made me reevaluate the way I viewed the situation as it unfolded in front of me.
As it happened, I had never in my life seen a Black man openly defy and speak to a White woman in that manner at his job.
And Kobe’s coldness was imbued with the arrogance. He treated the world like he belonged in it, or like he owned it. As a spectator, it was entertaining.
We would watch the interviews and die laughing at his audacity. This man felt untouchable in the best way at that time. It was the emergence of his Black Mamba persona, and I know that I am a true fan because I never wavered in loving him, even though I questioned him after that fateful incident in Vail, Colorado.
5. Kobe Bryant operated with a sense of preseverance that you must have to be young, Black, and successful under the microscope of media attention.
He became the living personification of perseverance.
On July 4, 2003, a warrant for Bryant’s arrest on charges of sexual assault was issued by the sheriff’s department of Eagle County, Colorado… At the end of June, Bryant had flown on a private jet to Colorado where he was scheduled to undergo a surgical procedure on his troubled knee, something he hadn’t informed the Lakers he was doing. That night shortly after he checked into the exclusive Lodge and Spa at Cordillera resort, in the town of Edwards, in Eagle County, accompanied by three bodyguards and his personal trainer, the Lakers guard met a nineteen-year-old clerk at the front desk, who escorted hum to his quarters…
She said Bryant raped her; he later told police the sex was consensual. Bryant admitted that he preferred rough sex and had grabbed her by the neck, apparently confirmed the next day by a red mark on her neck discovered in a medical exam related to the case…
The accuser refused to settle, and Bryant was faced with charges that, under Colorado law, could land him in prison for decades. On July 18, Hurlbert, the district attorney, filed a formal charge of felony sexual assault against Bryant.Lazenby, page 413-417
Kobe Has His Day in Court
The trial would drag on for nearly two years. Bryant lost endorsement after endorsement. He quickly became the most polarizing figure in the media. His wife, Vanessa Bryant, filed for divorce. And to be honest, I probably had some really inappropriate and crude thoughts about his accuser at the time. I rescind them at this age because I understand, and I think she did the right thing, the courageous thing even.
Kobe Bryant kept playing basketball. I have no clue about what that must have been like. The media hunted him while his actions haunted him. And there was no easy escape. Bryant got up everyday and lived with his actions. Then he kept playing basketball.
Eventually, he and Vanessa would reconcile and give the world more beautiful Bryant girls. Although that would not stop the rumors coming out about Bryant’s extramartial affairs, he was never suspected of or brought up on another rape, sexual harassment, or sexual assault allegation. As a fan (and a woman) that was critical for me as I watched him falter, be cut back, and keep growing.
6. Kobe was subtly yet unapologetically Black.
In an era that doesn’t appreciate subtlety, that may not be a good thing. But that doesn’t take away from Bryant’s life. Kobe Bryant is unapologetically Black as fuck without even having to do anything extra to achieve it. He is #BlackBoyJoy; he is #BlackManMagic.
When I look at his life and career, the failures and the triumphs, I am astounded all over again at his growth and the way he handled the pressures of being himself. And like so many Black man athletes in America, he gave us EMOTION. He cared and you could tell.
Bryant is a product of the harsh racial realities in this country. Wealth can shield you and your family but nothing can ever fully protect you from the nightmare that unfolds in your periphery. Yet, he is also magical in so many ways. Captivating, intelligent, petty, powerful, and persistent are just a few of the words I have for what I witnessed from Bryant during his short life with us on this planet.
Basketball had long been a fable for his family. He had learned from watching his father that the court was this magical place where if you played well enough, you would be transported to other fantastical locations, such as Italy and the Swiss Alps and Vegas like Dorothy clicking her heels together… Bryant was a writer too, a poet, so he viewed the world through the lens of fabulous narrative… young Bryant lived his life as if on a mythical quest. The only way to keep the whole dream going was to work harder and harder and harder, to spin his fantasies around and around until they wrapped him tight in a new reality.Lazenby, page 270-1
In his own way, Kobe opened up new ways of being Black in America. And he showed everyone in the Black community that the suburbs raises its own version of mental toughness too, street cred or not.
7. Kobe Bryant is a poet and writer.
I can empathize with and understand the dangers of living life through the lens of a narrative. Narratives can be sexy and powerfully attractive. As a writer, sometimes the stories in your head threaten to take control of the reality around you.
But that just means that the final, and my most favorite thing about Kobe Bean Bryant is that he is a writer and poet. One of my all-time favorite Kobe Bryant moments is when he announced that he was a member of the House of Slytherin.
He planned to retire, coach basketball, spend time with his daughters, and write. The idealist in me loved him even more when he made those choices so publicly. It was like, I see you Black nerds that grew up blessed with the comfort to embrace the world’s offerings. And I value you, fuck what everyone else says is cool. Thanks Kobe.
8. He is the living embodiment of not worrying about whether someone likes you. Focus on yourself with your actions and people will respect you.
Socially-speaking Kobe did not make many friends. I can never recall anyone close to him gushing about how sweet, kind, or considerate he was. He was a loner and found himself isolated a lot. Perhaps that is the price of greatness but I haven’t figured out whether that statement is conclusive or not. (To be honest, I think greatness may be overrated in the grand scheme of learning to just be.)
But, Kobe came to me when I was young enough to covet greatness. And in return for his work ethic and antics, he won my undying love.
Have you ever grief googled someone? For me, that is the height of respects I can pay someone that I do not know that passed away in this digital Rona-ridden world.
I have googled every variation on your name. And I cannot explain why because until the last month or so, I couldn’t really read or watch anything with you in it.
That’s how deeply your life being cut short haunted me. The narratives we have are so strong.
We will miss you.
Your Biggest Fan
My greatest solace is that he is up there with some of my all-time favorite people, spinning, crossing, and dunking on them with no remorse. He is really free now. And that’s the truth of the matter.
My main resource for this post was “Showboat, the Life of Kobe Bryant” by Roland Lazenby. Lazenby is a basketball historian that has written more than fifty books about the game and its players. Race is disturbingly absent from the book. Lazenby spends as much time talking around race as he can. And he is very critical Kobe and his family. However, he is well-connected and the book is beautifully researched. It will be getting a separate review.
I wanted to read an outside opinion first, before I tackle the the Mamba Mentality by Kobe this year.
I think it’s really important to be critical of Kobe. His devotion to being ‘the man’ is problematic. What does it mean to be ‘the man’? Was being ‘the man’ what led to his decision making that fateful night in his hotel room in Colorado? Why does being ‘the man’ seem to fundamentally involve hurting the women closest to you?
Furthermore, what does competition do to our humanity? There appears to be times that Kobe is completely out of touch with the struggles of the people around him. He was corrodingly hard on his teammates and coaching staff. And that leads me to believe he was incredibly hard on himself.
But my biggest criticism is for the system that brought Kobe fame. Kobe Bryant became a wealthy man. In America, that equated to him being very well paid attraction that did not always have the right to express himself. How many men in the world ate a good dinner with their families during the ’90s because of money dervied from marketing, selling, or profiting from Kobe’s talent on the court?
As Black people, we have to ask ourselves, is entertaining the world and making money worth being reduced to property? So many fans of sports around the world view athletes as something other than human. Did all of the things I loved about Kobe save him from this fate? Not at all.
Rape in America is fascinating. As an action it is absolutely inexcusable but the law and public opinoin is applied haphazardly. Unfortunately, most White wealthy men probably would not have had the same legal troubles that Bryant did. (Look at Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburh Steeler quaterback’s, very similar situation… Twice.)
But that does not make Kobe right. It just makes me more inclined to move on. Black women are the most raped women in this country; so much so that America essentially founded a multiracial class around their sexual torment and the children that resulted. Things must change culturally in this country and I think it starts with questioning the way things are.
Written & Edited By W.D. Herstun
I am going to end with this with a quote from “Clap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo:
Today, Black brings me peace. Rest easy, King.
Image Credits: Kobe Portrait by C. Lecaroz, this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License. Kobe at Wizards by K. Allison is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.