WORDS by Michael Eric Dyson
“BREAKING: Kobe Bryant Has Died In A Helicopter Crash.”
I was on the phone texting with Will Smith, congratulating him on the rousing entertainment of the third installment of his buddy pic with Martin Lawrence, Bad Boys for Life.
He sent me that infamous TMZ link whose headline shook up the world and announced a seismic shift in our cultural landscape.
“This can’t be real!!!” I texted Smith.
“I think it is,” he replied. “I’m checking other sources.”
“Oh my God!!!!” I remarked on text with as much shock as those four exclamation points could possibly convey. As if punctuation might somehow stall the grief that had already begun to smother my soul.
I was frightened and inconsolable. I had to get proof that this couldn’t be true. In the Age of Trump, where the willful rejection of fact is religion, I prayed that this story about Kobe was the ultimate fake news. I begged the universe that for once our truth-challenged president was right when he said that some in the media just made things up.
So I called up Stephen A. Smith. If anyone knew the truth, surely it would be this renowned sports journalist.
“Good afternoon, Doc,” Smith gently greeted me.
“Hey man, is this news true?” I frantically quizzed him, knowing that if he’d heard anything that he’d know what I was referring to.
“What news, man?” he quizzed me.
For a second, I took solace in the fact that he didn’t know anything as proof that it may have been fabricated, the sick joke of a media hack.
“About Kobe,” I desperately blurted out. “They’re saying he died in a helicopter crash.”
“What the hell?” he exclaimed in disbelief.
“Please get on the phone and find out if this is true,” I begged him.
“I will, I will.”
As we both soon found out, it was all too true.
I reflected on Will Smith’s last text to me that day, a three-word maxim whose chilling relevance lifted his vernacular words from cliché to sober wisdom.
“Tomorrow Ain’t Promised.”
From there my grief swept in at full bore, and the nation, indeed the globe, seemed to mourn in unison. But why did his death touch us so profoundly?
To begin with, our mourning was sparked by sheer admiration for his enormous physical gifts, his athletic dominance, which, while he was alive, he maximized, perhaps more than most of the players to whom he could be compared. And while he hadn’t played professionally in more than three years, we could see him, in the flesh, appear at a game, flash that magnetic smile, give a brotherly pound to LeBron, offer counsel in the stands to his precious prodigy Gigi, the daughter who was destined to be great like he was great. Now he, and tragically she, along with seven others, were gone.
We mourned his loss, and in mourning Kobe, we mourned ourselves. All grieving is a bit selfish, well, maybe more than a bit, perhaps it is even a lot selfish. We mourned the passing of the man who, because of his gifts, gave us so many thrilling memories. Yes, we grieved because he had died too young, and that meant that we could never again have a touchable reminder of the glory he used to possess, the magic he used to make. We would no longer witness a body that not so long ago exhibited a dynamic drive for greatness, an unquenchable thirst to be the best ever, an unshakable self-confidence, a zealous, unapologetic, monomaniacal commitment to craft.
We mourned because we would no longer be able to remark upon how gracefully he might have aged, how he might have preserved the beauty of face and limb that marked his transcendent run for two decades. We would no longer be able to see what he continued to make of a body that he inconceivably willed to get up from the floor after tearing his Achilles and take two free throws before hobbling back to the locker room to begin the arduous and inconceivable journey back to playing again, and ending his career with an unimaginable flourish of 60 points in his final game. Even before that, Kobe had to learn how to shoot the ball differently when he fractured his right index finger and still competed for a championship. It added to his legend that he won his final chip in 2010 with a broken finger.
“I knew the finger was broken,” Kobe told me in 2016. “I knew it wasn’t going to get any worse. The pain that I was feeling was just pain. It wasn’t like the finger was deteriorating or anything like that. So once I understood that, then I could deal with the pain. I know it’s not going to get any worse anyway. So I moved the ball more to the center palm of my hand, and I started using the middle finger and the ring finger to kind of follow through on the release, more so than the index finger. One, that was the perspective I had in terms of how to navigate through the pain, and then two, tactically, that’s how I shot the ball.”
That’s why we miss him; that’s why we mourn him. That stubborn, won’t-lose, can’t be defeated iron will that adjusts and improvises in the face of challenge and opposition inspired millions of us to keep going in the face of our own difficulties.
Kobe left it all, always, on the floor. And now all we are left with, forever, are the memories of his feats. The very thing that marked his greatness—his endurance—was now gone, in a soul-shaking, spirit-rending, mind boggling flash of time where it was revealed to us that he was no longer here. In that moment our grief for him met our grief for ourselves. What a cruel paradox: that his endurance gave way to what must now endure for us: our recall of his sacred sojourn to self-expression—the persistence of thrill and will in a body that made it over the long haul for two decades.
“I think it’s the fact that I’ve lasted that long,” Kobe told me when I asked him about the most remarkable facet of his endurance. “It’s really hard for a guard to maintain that level for that many years. It’s really difficult. It’s a full-time commitment. It’s a lifestyle. I think that’s been the most remarkable thing. Truthfully, it’s the thing I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to have.”
Although he relinquished his athletic grasp on that endurance when he retired, he was just beginning to flesh out what it might look like as a cultural chronicler and narrative master who could discern the outlines of our society in the stories we tell each other, stories about sports, about fascination, about love.
“I have a very clear focus about what we’re doing here,” Kobe told me, “and the media space and our storytelling space. And how we believe we can inspire the next generation of athletes globally. And we’re extremely focused on that.”
We were also just beginning to see what that looked like for him as the father of four daughters, especially as he took his second oldest daughter Gianna under his wing and nurtured her hoops hopes and her gift for ball. We mourn the loss of a man who loved his home life even more than he once loved his hardwood exploits. We mourn the loss of a man who matured and evolved, a man who set a clear example of how to transition from love of the game to love of his girls, and by extension, love of other girls and women in a culture where such love had been sadly segregated by gender and often quarantined to the domestic sphere. We love women in gowns and heels and not as much in jerseys and sneakers. We mourn his loss because a genuine champion of women’s sports died undoubtedly clutching his daughter and the bright future her gift seemed to promise.
In the midst of our mourning, there were some who insisted that Kobe’s complicated legacy be acknowledged. That the sexual assault charge made against him in Colorado by a 19-year-old white teen in 2003, when Kobe was a 24-year-old superstar with three championship rings on his fingers, be fully and immediately acknowledged as part of his public obituary and cultural legacy. The case against Kobe existed in the sexual netherworld that predated the #MeToo movement, when charges of rape hardly had the weight or legitimacy of our current climate.
Kobe formally apologized to the young woman in his sexual assault case, who he conceded had a far different understanding of the events that night than did he, who thought the encounter was consensual. And when he was removed from an animation film festival jury, he confessed that the decision “further motivates me and my commitment to building a studio that focuses on diversity and inclusion in storytelling for the animation industry.” Whatever one concludes about Kobe’s character, or the events of that tragic night in 2003 in Colorado, what cannot be denied is that his behavior afterward composed a life that trended decidedly toward self-reflection and self-correction, toward maturing and becoming a better human being, the very moral arc for which any notion of restorative justice should aim.
Thus, when we mourn Kobe, we mourn the loss of a life hungry to become even more noble, even more dedicated to doing the right thing, even more conscious of the obstacles and barriers that girls and women confront in getting acknowledged as world class athletes on par with men who routinely reap such recognition.
I knew Kobe Bryant. I loved Kobe Bryant. I admired his athletic genius, his magnificent obsession with being the best. I also admired his desire to become a better man, a better husband, a better father, a better champion for girls and women in sport and society. I mourn the loss of an iconic and even heroic figure who faced down his demons in a way that many of us have avoided or haven’t had the occasion or motivation to do. I mourn the loss of a beautiful human being who lived his 41 years with as much integrity and physical courage as he could muster in his relatively short life.
When I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he was clear.
“Hopefully, I’ll be remembered as a person that left no stone untouched. And did everything possible to try to reach his full potential. And years from now, hopefully, what I’ve done is inspire others to be able to approach their craft and their lives much the same way.”
And that is why we mourn him still.
FROM SLAM KOBE ISSUE