By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Kobe Bryant leaves behind a legacy as one of basketball's biggest pillars, one of very few players to transcend the sport and become an international icon. The late former Lakers superstar reached the summit of the league that Michael Jordan ran before him and passed the proverbial torch to LeBron James. Bryant inspired a whole generation that grew up calling his name, if only to flick a crumpled piece of paper into the trash. Many of them got to do that with actual basketballs at the highest levels.
So when will people be able to dip their toes in the water of the flaws and clashes that made Bryant such a compelling sports figure in the first place? Like the way he prioritized beating his opponents over playing nice with them? Or the occasional toss of a teammate under the bus, or his admitted trade demands, or his famous feud with Hall of Fame former teammate Shaquille O'Neal?
Bryant course-corrected some of those flaws and transitioned gracefully to his post-playing career, adding an Academy Award-winning documentary to a trophy case that included five NBA championships. He raised four daughters with seemingly genuine care and love, endearing himself to those who didn't know much about him beyond those famous jump shots, competitive fires, and icy scowls. He shared his vast wisdom with daughter Gianna, who tragically passed at age 13 while journeying to do the thing she loves and chasing her own hoop dreams.
So at what point is it appropriate to mention that Bryant also spent the final decade-plus of his life atoning for an unforgivable sin, an adulterous sexual encounter with a 19-year-old hotel employee in 2003 that she did not consider to be entirely consensual?
As he carried his career through a second decade and transformed into one of basketball's great ambassadors, Bryant ingrained a little of his "Mamba Mentality" into the players who grew up admiring him. He forever meme'd himself when he didn't flinch at Matt Barnes' hilariously futile attempt to rattle him. He burnished his legacy as something far greater than a championship sidecar when he beat the Magic and Celtics in consecutive NBA Finals as the unquestioned leader of the Lakers. He's in an ultra-exclusive company of pro athletes who combined transcendent talent with an unrelenting desire to win. Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali. The rarest of the rare.
So is it not acceptable for someone to believe that his accomplishments on the court don't make up for his transgressions in that hotel room in Colorado? Is his undeniable basketball greatness and positive influence on millions around him enough to erase the fact that he had sex with a woman who felt he had breached the boundaries of consent by that point? Is it OK to ever mention that she bent over a chair and the question was whether he forced her to do it or she did it herself? Does the fact that Bryant and the alleged victim settled out of court in a civil case mean nobody can ever mention these events?
These are some of the questions that the sports world, and especially on social media, wrestled with on Sunday and well into the ensuing days following Bryant's passing. Kobe was such a towering presence in the NBA and across the sports landscape that his sudden death, squarely in the age of digital conversations, prompted a reaction unlike the sports world has ever seen. The NBA is brimming with players who share their whole lives on social media, many of which wore their broken hearts on their sleeves, Jayson Tatum among them.
The deluge of thoughts and tributes crossed sports and industries, spanned the globe, brought out the best of many great memories for a very public-facing population of players and fans.
But it also brought out the other end of the spectrum, the coldest end of an increasingly polarized society.
An event this shocking and tragic has a way of reflecting that polarization and underlining our broken public discourse. Kobe has his detractors, and they do have legitimate reasons to have found him less than an admirable human being. But in spotlighting Bryant's darkest chapter mere hours, minutes after the news of his death, they abandoned tact in favor of truth during the early stages of unimaginable grief. Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez even got suspended for merely re-sharing a three-year-old story about Bryant's rape case, because she did it while dozens of rescue workers were still at the scene of the helicopter crash and the bodies of the nine victims had yet to be identified. Feelings didn't care about the facts.
When a revered but complicated figure meets such a sad end, how do you find the right balance and tell the whole story? How do you tell the truth while showing empathy for your fellow human? Because these things can all be true. Bryant was a legendary basketball player and a highly influential person and a supportive father and an unapologetic competitor and a flawed teammate and a perfectionist and a narcissist and an accused rapist.
Much like Bryant never apologized for his decidedly unfriendly level of competitiveness, his critics probably won't apologize for removing the word "accused" from "rapist". They'll strike that iron and that iron only. Repeatedly. Fans on social media will happily distill a fascinating and complex individual into singular buzz words that characterized an unforgettable but regrettable day of insults and indignation.
It spilled over to the airwaves here at 98.5 The Sports Hub, when hosts Joe Murray and Ted Johnson handled an uncommonly difficult Sunday afternoon shift as well as one can expect. But they received blowback after discussing whether the NBA should cancel the day's slate of games, as Johnson compared the hypothetical move to when the NFL canceled games the week of 9/11 during his time with the Patriots. Murray recalled the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, when the Bruins and Celtics postponed their games scheduled for later that day.
With us being the polarized, triggered, cynical, simplified bunch we've become, of course Murray and Johnson immediately faced a rash of listeners who heard "9/11", stripped the discussion of all nuance, and accused Murray and Johnson of comparing tragedies. That, obvious to anyone capable of listening critically and actively, is not what they said. Murray summed up his feelings with "Twitter is not a news source!" They both stood by their comments. But the overall reaction was a microcosm of what many of us have become when we interact with each other, particularly in ironically disconnected arenas like Twitter.
Bryant's death sparked so much anger and sadness that it rendered complex discussions impossible. Some supporters went over-the-top to the point of disingenuous sentimentality. Some critics went way too hard in the paint to the point of needlessly adding to a grieving family's pain. Sloppy newspeople fumbled over themselves running with every little detail that came out, true or false. Many emerged from Sunday agreeing that it was just a tough day for media in general. An unfortunate case study.
Perhaps an unspeakable tragedy like a helicopter crash that kills nine people - Kobe and Gianna, former Cape Cod league baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa, basketball coach Christina Mauser, teenage player Payton Chester and her mother Sarah, and pilot Ara Zobayan - won't be enough for us to realize that we all need to treat each other better. Imploring people to hug their loved ones is trite but acceptable advice in the face of tragedy, and maybe it's sadly necessary these days. It absolutely sucks that even the death of an icon can't lead to an honest and reasonable discussion about the complete picture of him as a person. Kobe is far from the first sports legend who was an imperfect person. But Sunday's events may have only pushed us further into our respective corners.
There's a big, long, complete story to tell about Kobe Bryant, and it's not all enjoyable. It's not a bottomless pit of evil, either. It's complicated. And the chaotic mess that unfolded in the public discourse surrounding his death only illuminated how complicated it's become with all of us.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].