When basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash with seven others last weekend, much of the country was rocked. Many cried. Fans and celebrities offered Instagram eulogies and Twitter hagiographies. Kobe Bryant’s passing even dominated much of the Grammys ceremony that night—a ceremony held in Los Angeles’ Staples Center, where the basketball player had entertained so many.
“Earlier today, Los Angeles, America, and the whole world lost a hero,” host Alicia Keys said.
Certainly, the world lost an athlete of superlative skill, a competitor of the highest order, a celebrity. But a hero? Maybe for some, but I think that Kobe Bryant’s legacy is more complicated than that.
When I heard about Bryant’s passing, I reacted in shock and deep sadness, too. He was only 41. The fact that his daughter was with him compounded the tragedy for me.
But just a moment later, I also recalled the scandal that tarnished the early part of Bryant’s career. In 2003, a 19-year-old woman working at a hotel in Eagle, Colorado, alleged that the basketball star—then just 24—sexually assaulted her.
The criminal case was dropped in 2004, when the alleged victim said she would not testify. A civil suit filed that August was settled out of court the following year. Bryant was never convicted of wrongdoing. But the stigma of the charges lingered for years. When he played here in Colorado, Bryant was booed for most of his career every time he got the ball. Early on, they’d chant something else: “Eagle County! Eagle County!”
Part of me wonders how the case would’ve played out had it happened now, in the teeth of the #MeToo movement, when so many high-profile stars and celebrities have had their careers derailed in the wake of sexual assault and harassment allegations. I wonder whether he would’ve played his entire career for the Los Angeles Lakers, whether he would’ve won five championship rings and played in 18 All-Star games. I wonder whether he’d still be hailed, by some, as a hero.
And honestly, I wonder if the culture seems to have given Bryant a pass. And if it has, why?
I think some of it has to do with the very subjectivity that entertainment pushes us into. Make no mistake, Bryant was an entertainer extraordinaire, on par with the stars we saw on the Grammy stage and the actors we’ll watch walk the Oscars red carpet in a couple of weeks. He played in the entertainment capital of the world, and his audience knew a sublime performer when it saw him. Sports, more even than movies or television or music, provide an escape: Movies can deal with serious issues. Songs can make you cry. Sports can, too, but for ultimately superficial reasons. I know when I’ve had a particularly trying day at work, there’s nothing that eases me into a better place, mentally, than watching a basketball or baseball game on TV.
But Bryant’s cultural rehabilitation, I’d like to believe, goes deeper than that. And it contains, I think, a whiff of spirituality.
Again, we don’t know exactly what happened that day in Eagle, Colorado. But we know how Bryant handled the aftermath.
In the wake of the scandal, he issued an apology—to the woman, to her friends and family, and to his own. He said he thought that the encounter was “consensual,” but admitted she clearly saw the matter differently. It’s an apology that sounds familiar in the #MeToo era, and perhaps far too familiar to some. But his career after the scandal suggests he meant it sincerely. Los Angeles Times columnist Jerry Brewer writes that the basketball star “tried to outwork even his shame.” He writes:
As a businessman, he hired and empowered women. He tried to become a better husband. He and his wife, Vanessa, had four daughters. Bryant became a huge advocate for women’s basketball, partly because he wanted role models for his hoops-obsessed girls. His genuine love for the women’s game and appreciation of its stars were going to mean much as the WNBA transformed its pay structure and made an increased push for greater fan support. It was so heartbreaking that Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among those who died in the helicopter crash while en route to her AAU basketball game Sunday morning. Their lives ended on a journey to a game that bonds the entire family.
As I think about Bryant’s legacy, I think about faith.
Bryant was apparently Catholic. One of the last things that he and his daughter did before climbing aboard that helicopter was participate in Mass and take communion. It touches me that this would’ve been one of his last acts—to remember the sacrifice of Christ in such a powerful, tactile way with his daughter. Jesus sacrificed Himself for people just like Bryant. And just like us.
Christianity is starkly realistic about our own failings. The Bible is full of failed people who, too, become heroes. The fallenness and fragility of people is written all over its pages. And if we don’t see it there, we see it in our own lives. We’ve all fallen short. We’ve all sinned, and some of us reading this blog have sinned greatly.
But the beauty of the Christian faith is in its second chances. We screw up. And yet, we’re given an opportunity to do better. We fall, and Jesus sticks out a hand to help us up. It’s not easy to overcome our own mistakes, our own failures. Often, we find that justice and consequences are part of the equation, too. God is a merciful God, but he’s also just, and we must never forget that.
But even then, He loves us.
For me, Kobe Bryant is not a hero. He’s human, and the story of his life reminds us that humans often err. But Bryant—the ultimate competitor—reminds us too that no failure need be the end of our story. We can still move on. And perhaps we can still, even, inspire.