When a celebrity dies, there’s typically two narratives that develop. The first is the outpouring of sorrow; the thoughts and prayers, the rose-colored memories. The explanations of the lives they touched, the endless tributes and positive words and energy being directed at their family and friends. And then there’s the flip side, with the people divorced from the emotional connection, who can only look at the bad deed’s that the person has done, and can not bring themselves to see anything but the bad deed.
The truth of who a person was in life, as it does with so many things, often exists somewhere in the middle of those narratives. That gray area is where Kobe Bryant lives; a revered, Hall of Fame basketball player who’s incredible talents inspired millions, a loving father, and (re)devoted husband, an Oscar winner, even a rapper…and a man who stood credibly accused of rape, only to walk free without facing any repercussions, who had devoted much of his time to erasing the accusation from his personal history.
My mom use to tell me, if you don’t have something nice to say about someone, then don’t say it at all. That held especially true when someone died. I can’t say for certain that I think this thought pervades a lot of African-American communities moreso than others, but it at least feels that way; the world beats us down enough in life. Even the worst amongst us deserve some dignity in death, because the system of white supremacy affords us so little of it in life. I think that’s how the story goes.
But I find it impossible to divorce Kobe Bryant the baseketball player from the man who stood accused of sexually assaulting a human being in Colorado. I find it hard because I’ve never been able to see Bryant just as a basketball player. And to ignore the things that trouble me about who he was, even if he became a better person, would make me too cold and callous and interested in SPORTS AS AN AMERICAN TRADITION THAT CAN’T BE SULLIED BY PERSONAL TRADGEDIES.
I think of Bryant’s alleged victim, and how she did everything that people say she was supposed to in the wake of being raped. She made sure she told someone. She went to the hospital. She got an examination done, evidence was documented. She followed the letter of the rules; there was a host of evidence against Bryant. The man choked her. There was internal and external genital bruising. They found blood in her underwear, and blood on Bryant’s clothes.
And Bryant’s legal team destroyed her. They made her out to be “just another gold digger.” They leaked her name to the press. They shamed her and embarrassed her and left her scared and bullied into not testifying. Then he settled the civil case and won a championship.
When Chris Benoit died, for a long time I stood in denial, thinking I could separate Chris Benoit the wrestler whom I loved, legitimately, with the man who murdered his wife and his son. I told myself that those people existed almost separately from each other. It took years to reconcile that Chris Benoit, the wrestler, and Chris Benoit, the murderer, are the same person. They are one man. In fact, Benoit’s wrestling career contributed rather directly to the mental state he was in when he killed Nancy Benoit and his son Daniel.
In the same way, Kobe Bryant was (allegedly) able to get away with a crime because of who he was, and what he represented. He had enough money to hire enough lawyers. He had a team to rehabilitate his image. He had a loving wife who stuck by him when she had every fucking reason not to. Bryant could not have been Bryant the alleged rapist if he was not Bryant the basketball player. They are — or rather were — the same person.
Bryant eventually apologized, in the way most men in positions of power do; by deflecting and refusing to actually take any blame. “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Bryant said in a statement after the criminal case ended. It still pins the blame back on the victim. “I understand how she feels she did not consent.”
She feels she did not consent. I totally thought she was consenting, lots of people are saying she consented, but she felt differently, and for the way she feels about not being sure she was consenting, I apologize.
Bryant’s death is a tragedy. The death of his daughter Gianna is horrific. This is not a condemnation of those mourning Bryant’s death; only that we remember him more for who he was as a whole-assed adult human being. One of the worst things we do is casting the stuff we don’t like about the dead into the shadows, so we can view a person not as what he is, but as a weird, Coachella-holograph version of the person we want them to be.
Reality is hardly ever as good as we want to be. Even Bryant’s death proves that. People are shook for good reason. Bryant’s death is abnormal.
But his life was abnormal. So in mourning him, let’s not gloss over that which made Kobe Bryant who he was. Not just a basketball player. Not just an accused criminal. But, like, as a human, who can do fucked up things and maybe come out the other side a better person.
There’s more lessons in that than in ignoring and embracing the stuff you don’t want to remember about someone.