My first real interaction with Kobe Bryant started over a disagreement. The legendary Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard had made some dismissive comments in 2014 about the case of Trayvon Martin, the African American teenager who had been shot to death in Florida by the neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman two years before.
Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal on second-degree murder charges incensed many black athletes—but not Bryant, who told The New Yorker, “If we’ve progressed as a society, then you don’t jump to somebody's defense just because they're African-American.” I was working at ESPN at the time, and criticized Bryant on camera as tone-deaf, among other things.
About 10 minutes or so later, while I was still on air, I received a direct message from Bryant on Twitter. He told me to call him as soon as the show was over because he thought my comments were off base. That was Kobe. He was never afraid to speak up, and certainly not afraid to defend his opinions, however unpopular.
So I called him on my way home, assuming it would be a quick discussion. Instead, we battled back and forth for an hour. He explained to me that he was speaking from the experience of someone who had been on trial for sexual assault and, in his mind, had been wrongfully accused. (The criminal case against him had been dismissed; Bryant reportedly reached a civil settlement with his accuser.) I told him that he couldn’t speak only from his own experience. He had to understand how horrible the situation was for Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. Their son had gone to the store for snacks, and never came home.