Ok. I think I have it now.
I’ve refrained from commenting on Kobe Bryant’s death for a few days. Partly because nobody gives a crap about what I think, but partly because I needed a little bit of time to think about what I think and what I felt.
I put my daughter to bed on Sunday night and came downstairs to find my phone buzzing with about a bajillion messages telling me what had happened. Kobe Bryant – actual Kobe Bryant – was dead.
What. The. Fuck?
It was as unbelievable as it was true. Details emerged over Sunday night and Monday morning, and honestly, I felt sick to my stomach. Kobe was with his 13 year old daughter, Gianna, when they were killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California – a crash that killed all nine people on board.
The thing that really hit me was the idea of being with your child when something really bad is happening. I couldn’t work out whether it was better that they were together (because she had her Daddy with her), or worse (because he had his daughter with him). I’m hoping that it all happened so quickly that it wasn’t a situation they had any time to process. But it’s just undeniably tragic no matter how you look at it, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
I spent some of the next morning watching the tributes roll in – news channels, Twitter and Facebook, NBA.com – and just continued to feel truly sick about the whole thing. Kobe was the same age as me (to within a month) and I’d watched him play the sport that I adore, from his rookie season right up until his final game when he dropped 60 in a comeback win against Utah.
But I realised I wasn’t joining in with the outpouring of love for this ‘hero’, this ‘legend’, this ‘icon’, gone before his time. First of all, I’m not really one for joining in, so maybe that was it. Second, I didn’t know him. And while it’s absolutely valid, public grief for strangers isn’t really my bag – I remember when Princess Diana died and everyone lost their goddamned minds. That was all a bit much, wasn’t it?
Honestly though, I don’t think it was any of that. I think it was because I didn’t and don’t feel 100% comfortable writing about how incredible and wonderful and marvellous a human being Kobe was, when there are genuine question marks over some of his conduct in the earlier part of his career.
Let’s not pussyfoot around it; I’m talking about the 2003 rape allegations that resulted in a protracted court case that hung over Kobe’s head for almost two full seasons. Kobe admitted adultery but denied assault. The accuser refused to testify, the charges were dropped, and an out of court settlement was reached in a civil case. We don’t and won’t ever know exactly what happened, but honestly, the reports make for some grim reading.
From that point on though, Kobe was nothing but the ultimate professional and the perfect image of a family man. Watching him with his wife and daughters, especially since his retirement, was a wonderful thing to see. His promotion and endorsement of women’s sport in particular was truly admirable and his mentoring of younger athletes has left a significant mark, not only on them, but on sports in general.
Kobe’s death genuinely shocked and upset me, He was an incredible athlete, the ultimate competitor, an inspiration to millions, a once in a generation player who was far bigger than the sport he played. He spoke four languages, was an intelligent, articulate, kind man, and he could jump really high.
Following his death, stories continued to emerge detailing visits to sick kids in hospital, his reaching out to other players when they were struggling, all without fanfare or desire for recognition.
Forty-one year old Kobe was not the same person as 24 year old Kobe. We have to accept that people are capable of growth. But we also have to accept that growth doesn’t erase history.
Maybe we don’t need it to.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s what I wanted to say. People aren’t heroes or villains. People are complex. We have to be able to look at Kobe’s body of work as an athlete and say “that was incredible”, but also recognise that he was not perfect. And I think we can and should be okay with doing that.
“…we needn’t and shouldn’t re-write history to make our heroes whiter than white just so that we can appreciate their ‘greatness’”
Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for the Washington Post, posted a tweet only a few hours after Kobe’s death. The tweet shared a 2016 article entitled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession”.
I’m not sure her timing was great. Maybe we should give it a few minutes at least before we say, “but what about that other stuff?” Or maybe not, I don’t know. The abuse and death threats Sonmez received on Twitter were unquestionably not okay, that’s one thing I am sure of.
But what do we do when we want to celebrate someone, enjoy their achievements, their greatness, but are also aware of unsavoury historical marks on their legacy?
I honestly don’t know.
I don’t think we need to bin our copies of The Searchers, but we do need to understand that we can enjoy a film, while at the same time acknowledging that John Wayne was deeply problematic.
I don’t necessarily think we need to turn off the radio when a Michael Jackson song plays (although to be honest we should if it’s anything from after about 1993), but we do need to be absolutely clear that there are some very uncomfortable truths that must be acknowledged when we talk about him.
We can quote Churchill, appreciate his cigar smoking prowess and borderline alcoholism, and (if we want to) look to him as the epitome of British bulldog spirit. But we can and should accept that he was a massive racist, and played a more than significant role in the death of three million people during the Bengal famine in 1943.
I guess what I’m saying is that we needn’t and shouldn’t re-write history to make our heroes whiter than white (*side eyes camera 2*), just so that we can appreciate their ‘greatness’. Perhaps to do so dishonours those who might have been either directly or vicariously affected by their transgressions. And is that not something we should care about?
But that must mean that the reverse is also true. When contemplating Kobe’s legacy, it’s unfair to focus only on that night in 2003. It dishonours him and everything else he did with his tragically short life.
“People aren’t heroes or villains. People are complex”
But maybe we don’t have to do either of those things. Maybe we’re capable of holding more than one idea about someone in our heads at the same time.
We can marvel at someone’s achievements, enjoy what they have brought us, how they have made us feel, how they have inspired us, and how they have changed our lives – we can do all of that while at the same time accepting that they might well be (or have been) absolute shits in other areas of their lives.
There are obviously exceptions. You can’t look at Rose West, for example, and say “well, I mean yes, there was lots of murdering, but she did a fabulous Sunday roast, so you know, swings and roundabouts.” There are people for whom exploring ‘both sides’ of their characters just doesn’t’ work. I don’t know where the line is or even whether there is one. This isn’t an exact science, you’re gonna have to figure some of this out for yourselves.
But look, we’re not children. We don’t need heroes. Perhaps man is not truly one, but truly two after all, and perhaps we can at least try to understand that? I don’t know.
I can feel sad at the genuinely tragic death of one of basketball’s legitimate all-time greats. It’s okay for me to feel that and to express it. It’s okay for me look back at some of the things Kobe did on the court in absolute wonder, to look at his post-basketball career as inspirational, and to celebrate all of that.
At the same time, I don’t need to attack anyone who points out his history, because that history is an inextricable part of who he was. I can fully accept that he wasn’t a flawless human being – as indeed none of us is – and it’s okay if I don’t feel the need to hold him up as such.
It’s okay to hold both of those ideas in my head at the same time.
I think that’s all I wanted to say. I don’t know if it really means anything.
I don’t know if it matters.