In my mind’s eye, I can see him squaring up on an isolated defender, out near the free-throw line. He leads with a jab step, feinting a drive that was, even in his final years, still quick enough to streak by people. Bryant’s man would bite and backpedal a step, enough to give him room for a shot. But Bryant always wanted more. More touches. More shots. More championships. He’d spin away from the basket for more space and gather the ball, all in one fluid sequence, his one-man ballet fooling the defender into thinking it would end with Bryant reclining into one of his patented fadeaways. But this, too, was a fake. By the time the defender recognized the ruse, he was already midair, having lunged forward to block a fadeaway that would never come. Meanwhile, Bryant was pivoting toward the basket for an easy 12-footer. That was the thing about Bryant: He always seemed to have one more pivot.
In recent years, an aura of legend has surrounded Bryant, one that will only grow now, given the tragic circumstances of his death. But he wasn’t always as widely beloved as yesterday’s outpouring would suggest. When Bryant entered the league, he was seen as self-consumed. In those naive years before social media, his obsession with his own narrative of destined greatness felt both novel and off-putting. But he was still growing up, still in his teens, still in possession of his own fandoms, expressed most poignantly by his mimicry of Michael Jordan’s physical tics, down to the loping movements of the elder man’s gait (and least poignantly by his Jordan-esque cruelty to teammates).
When Bryant’s feud with Shaquille O’Neal broke into public in 2000, during their first championship run, it was easy to side with the big man, who seemed more at ease with himself, especially for a fan base who’d grown up on Magic’s smile. By comparison, Bryant came off as calculated. He seemed like basketball’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg. Some suspected that his carefully controlled demeanor concealed something more sinister, a suspicion that seemed prophetic in 2003, when Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault in Colorado.
The facts on record from that night in Colorado aren’t great for Bryant, and they must be looked at, squarely: After a brief encounter in Bryant’s hotel room, a 19-year-old front-desk clerk left with a bruise on her jaw and blood—hers—on her clothing and Bryant’s. The next day, a rape exam would reveal vaginal injuries. In the run-up to trial, Bryant’s legal team would make much of her sexual history. The case was dropped just days before opening arguments when the woman, who later received a settlement in a separate civil case, refused to testify.
It’s hard to know how “the Colorado incident,” as Bryant coolly described it in a 2014 New Yorker profile, would have played out in today’s media environment. After the charges were filed, he lost many of his sponsors, but Nike stuck around, and in time others came back. By the decade’s end, journalists had mostly stopped asking him about the alleged assault, except as a means to frame his comeback. Even as late as 2018, when Bryant won an Oscar at an Academy Award ceremony that was haunted by that year’s #MeToo scandals, he managed to avoid a sustained public relitigation of the case.