One Year Later…
The “time to talk” was 18 years ago. Let’s start doing it now.
TW: Seeing as I am talking about Kobe’s legacy… I want to stress that while I do not go into graphic detail, I speak about his past allegations. If this is, at all, uneasy for you to read about… you might want to skip this one.
A year ago today, I was sitting at a diner with my parents and grandmothers talking about only-God-knows-what when I checked my phone and saw the Kobe news. I was stunned. I froze. I couldn’t speak. Anyone who has known me for any time likely knows my views on Kobe, his legacy, and the place he holds in history when it comes with how to grapple with somebody’s ugly past. Despite all this, he was such an integral part of my life as a basketball fan since I started watching the NBA religiously in 1999.
Now, he was gone. It took a while to sink in. My first thought was toward his daughters. It didn’t even cross my mind that any of them may have been on the chopper with him until somebody else had brought it up. Those hours where it was reported that his daughters were aboard, Gigi was aboard, Gigi wasn’t aboard, and so on — showed the dangers of the modern mediascape that values scoops above the facts. Finding out later that people close to Kobe found out via TMZ showed precisely why, despite their frustrating reliability, the website always represents the form of heartless journalism that’s permeated nearly every walk of life.
I was a strange mix of emotional, scared, guilty, confused, and overwhelmed. At one point, my hatred for Kobe was entirely based on basketball. For three straight years, the early days of my NBA fandom, I watched him destroy my team. Furthermore, as I became a bigger LeBron James fan, he represented the antithesis to everything I liked on the basketball court. He brings back memories of the best, most painful two weeks of my basketball fandom in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Still, making fun of the rare times that he showed his cracks on the court paved the way toward my penchant for good and evil, to fixate on the teams and players I hate and turn a petty bit to downplay them into something, I admit, often veers too far. I had a hard time separating my emotional hatred of him as a basketball player with my rational brain. It wasn’t enough to dislike him. I had to rebuke him, his fans, and anyone who said something remotely good about him. (I’d be remiss to pretend that this bleeds over to players today, although I am trying like heck to put the fun back into my brand of petty trash talk.)This penchant for theatrics bled over into other aspects of the Kobe story, too, and when I got the news of his passing, it made me look at myself in the mirror.
Try as we may to sweep these under the rug and dictate when the proper time to speak on these is, part of Kobe’s legacy is his off-the-court incidents. Many of these, his penchant for throwing teammates under the bus or use of homophobic language toward refs, are things that, while wrong on their own, can be explained away as heated passion, or in the case of the homophobic slur he threw toward a referee in 2011, something he seemed to have, at least, a little regret about during a time when that sort of language was just leaving the acceptable cultural lexicon. To Kobe’s credit, he seemed to grapple with the weight his words bore there and he was far from alone in using that sort of language, even just a decade back.But then, there’s Eagle, Colorado.
In 2003, I was a 14-year-old boy during a time and in an environment that was, in many ways, behind where we are today while still reflective of how far we need to go. When I heard the news of Kobe’s allegations, I did not process it as anything more than fodder for my trash talk with my friend. For years it was little more than a disgusting punchline that a teenage me, fueled by Daniel Tosh and similar “comedians” who made some jokes seem normal to me, would throw out on the regular. As I grew throughout the next decade, however, I learned about how dangerous this was.
To me, Kobe’s dark side represents something bigger than his legacy and the NBA at large. Until his death, my passionate rants about how it was time to take it seriously were often ignored. In hindsight, I was not helping egg things along and was using silence as an excuse to double down and speak about it until somebody listened. While I maintain that sentiment up until this day, I also represented the problem with how we discuss these things at large, and even if I keep being on the right side of this issue, my actions did not reflect this.
There’s so much at play here when dissecting the darker side of anyone’s past. On the one hand, we live in a world where victims of abuse are supposed to be believed… as long as the accused isn’t someone we hold in high regard. Kobe isn’t alone here. It’s become a staple of the political climate to have at least one allegation that turns into a partisan game of gotcha. The Me Too movement did a lot to change how I viewed issues such as this. Still, we’ve also gotten to the point where many of those people who were allegedly “canceled” by it are making their triumphant comebacks into the good graces of the world at large for apologizing on Netflix specials and treating these as though they were a minor hiccup on a flawless resume.
It’s come to fruition hundreds of times. Many writers, actors, athletes, and otherwise notable people that I once held in high regard have their flaws that I’ve grappled with in a variety of different ways. However, where I stand firm — even with all my inhibitions about how I went about it — is that we haven’t learned the proper way to grapple with these less-than-pleasant sides of the people that we once adored. Whether fueled by hatred or fandom, we struggle to grapple with the issues at large because, quite frankly, we do not want to.
I remember watching games during Kobe’s trial in Colorado in which his lockerroom march and ensuing performances were widely labeled as triumphs in the face of adversity. I used to naively think that this was a window to a bygone era, but after seeing Derrick Rose, Ben Roethlisberger, and several dozen other high-profile athletes get similar treatment, I realize that this era hasn’t gone away. It’s evolved. I recently saw an interview with Roethlisberger where he lightheartedly defended the fan who runs his social media page for blocking anyone who brings up both of his past allegations. I forget what show, but the hosts laughed and swooned as they spoke on the matter, ignoring that a large part of this reputation was attached to his darkest moment. Roethlisberger is still loathed by many, but any time he turns back the clock and puts on a great performance this becomes a forgotten memory, or as media likes to paint it, an incident.
Even with superstars like Roethlisberger and Rose, however, I don’t remember a high-profile case like Kobe’s in sports. I was too young for OJ, although I still remember how big a deal it was despite being a child when it happened. The magnitude of Kobe’s allegations never came across on television as a 14-year-old, and in many ways, it shaped the less-than-stellar way I handled similar events in the future. Prior to January 26, 2020, I didn’t know what I wanted for him, but how it ended wasn’t it.
Even after multiple paragraphs grappling with Kobe’s past, I don’t feel comfortable writing on it. Aside from the implications when it comes to how we handle allegations toward our most beloved and reviled athletes, there are other things at play. There are several facts. Kobe had an encounter with the 19-year-old girl inside that room. He admitted that, at the very least, he took things too far and understood “how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Whether you take this as an obligatory PR statement after reaching a settlement in the case or a coded admission, it likely depends on where you stand on guilty versus innocent. There’s also the fact that, whether you were on his side or not, his legal team seemed to purposely leak her name despite requests not to do so and bring up unrelated information about her own sex life as a way to prove that she was a consenting party. It was a strategy that was not pioneered by Kobe’s team, but it did pave the way for others in his shoes to take a similar, equally heinous approach while doing so.
What I wanted was for sports media and fandom to grapple with this past in a way that makes sure that something like this doesn’t happen again. At the very least, there are meaningful conversations to be had about how Kobe handled himself in the years after. The legendary Mamba Mentality was primarily built off of what happened in that hotel room. Not long before his death, Kobe referred to that entire chapter as “gritty shit,” as though it were a slight issue with his attitude off the court.
Despite my inhibitions, I like to think that being a girl dad changed Kobe. In many ways, I think it did. I often decried his presence at women’s sporting events, given his past as image rehab, and maybe it was. However, as I heard the stories about how he helped women’s sports, I would be foolish to say that it didn’t help give them exposure in a world that still uses them as joke fodder. Whether this was his passive way to show the world he changed without admitting it or an extension of his rebrand as a girl dad, we may never know.
There are a thousand different layers here beyond the allegations, but one of the major ones is race. While I do have my opinions on the matter,I’d be foolish and obtuse to dismiss these underlyers that, whether I know it or not, could also expose some blind spots in my own views on the matter. That said, I am going to let more qualified voices speak upon this issues while acknowledging the slippery slope that I, a white man, slide down if I fully dismiss the impact that this had upon the case, as well.
Despite all of this, Kobe’s death hit me as much as it hit his biggest fans. If you had told me beforehand, given all the issues I had during his career, I don’t know if I would have believed you. The added tragedy of Gigi and the others who were on the plane also made it bigger than Kobe alone, so dancing on his grave seemed crass then and continues to feel crass now. When Gayle King asked Lisa Leslie about Kobe’s past, the discourse shifted toward when the right time wasto speak about these issues. We had almost 17 years to do so, and those who did were often met with similar ways to avoid the task at hand. With Kobe’s death, we seemed to have lost the time to talk about it. While the ensuing months have humanized this in ways, I cannot put to words. It also showed how important it is to speak about these things before the person we are talking about is gone from us forever. Kobe’s legacy is bigger than one thing. After all, he’s not the first nor last athlete to have these types of blemishes on their past.
However, if there’s one thing we can learn on top of all the lessons of this past year, it’s that there has to be a time to talk about things. Kobe’s dark side is as much a part of his legacy as five rings and the Mamba Mentality. Talking about it doesn’t mean you throw nuance out the window regardless of where you stand. We’ve lost the chance to talk to him about it, but the ongoing legacy still remains. I only wish we’d done so when he was still here to be part of the discussion.