My generation of sports fans learned early that the athletes we idolized were neither immortal nor invincible. I was 11 when Magic Johnson, my childhood hero, announced that he was retiring from the NBA after testing positive for HIV, then a seeming death sentence. Within a few years, Bo Jackson had suffered a career-ending injury, Mike Tyson had been convicted of rape, and O. J. Simpson was on trial for double murder.
These were humans, not superheroes. My friends and I all knew that by 1996, when Kobe Bryant, the first NBA superstar who was about our age, joined the league out of high school. Skipping college was so anomalous back then that lots of skeptics characterized Kobe as arrogant. I never doubted Kobe’s decision any more than he doubted the shots that he took as an immature rookie. And today, as fans celebrate a Hall of Fame career while mourning the death of the 18-time all-star, his daughter, and seven others in a helicopter crash, it is easy to think of all his basketball successes as foreordained and his on-court failures too inconsequential to dwell on. But to ignore those failures is to miss part of why many Kobe fans are mourning him so intensely.
Those of us who watched his rookie season remember. That first year, then–Lakers coach Del Harris brought him off the bench. If the team needed a bucket late in the fourth quarter, the play would likely be drawn up for Shaquille O’Neal, or the point guard Nick Van Exel, or the sharpshooter Byron Scott, or “Big Shot” Robert Horry. In Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, however, Shaq had fouled out, Scott was injured, and Horry had been ejected. So Kobe was on the floor in the final minutes of an elimination playoff game. With 11 seconds left and a tie score, Kobe was in the backcourt with the ball in his hands and a chance to play hero.
A defender met him just above the arc. He drove right, gathered himself at the elbow of the free-throw line, and shot a pull-up, fadeaway jumper at the buzzer for the win. It was an air ball. Undaunted at the beginning of overtime, Kobe shot an open jumper––another air ball. He didn’t go completely dry, scoring on a key drive to the basket. But with 43 seconds left and the Lakers down by three, he was left wide open for a three-pointer and shot yet another air ball. Still down with seven seconds left, Kobe got another three-point look and air-balled that, too. Four air balls in clutch time! The L.A. Times ran a banner headline on the next morning’s sports page: “Lakers Get Aired Out.” On sports talk radio, Kobe skeptics felt vindicated. In countless discussions among friends who rooted for the Lakers, those who had championed Kobe as the team’s future were forced back on their heels. Perhaps he should have gone to study under Coach K at Duke after all?
In hindsight, the sequence was anomalous: Kobe seldom if ever choked, and his subsequent career was filled with so many clutch shots that opponents trembled to see the ball in his hands late in games. But at the time, it was a noteworthy failure, in part because few could imagine another player who would have taken those third and fourth shots. The episode could have been a psychological setback. But Kobe got off the return flight from Utah, went straight to the team’s practice facility, and shot jumpers until dawn. “That was a defining moment in his career,” former Lakers guard Jerry West later told the sportswriter Mark Medina. “He was fearless. I think that’s one of the things that spurred him to greatness. He wasn’t going to allow himself to fail.” Neither the air balls nor the ensuing mockery caused him to shy away from future big shots or to feel any less sure that he’d drain them.
That spectacular arrogance was the blessing and the curse of having Kobe on your team. Along with nature’s gifts and NBA veteran Joe Bryant’s nurturing, Kobe achieved basketball greatness through an unsurpassed work ethic and indefatigable self-confidence that could verge on egomaniacal. How many times did we watch him catch the ball in the corner; glance at Shaq in the paint, knowing that his teammate shot 57 percent from the field; and opt to heave up a twisting, scissors-kick fadeaway with a defender’s hand in his face and the backboard in the way? If the NBA awarded points for degree of difficulty, Kobe would be its undisputed GOAT.
“He understands the game. But—and don’t misinterpret this—he understands it a lot better than he plays it,” the former Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter once told Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard.
“O.K., Tex,” the sportswriter replied, “so as not to misinterpret: Are you saying that he knows the right thing to do but sometimes chooses not to do it?”
“Yup,” Winter answered, “that’s it.”
Sometimes, I wondered what it would be like to root for the Spurs and to count Tim Duncan as my favorite player. How calming it would have been to cheer for a superstar who played smart in every situation. To root for Kobe was to walk away from some games disgusted, to throw the remote control in frustration, to curse his shot selection as often as Shaq’s missed free throws––the sheer arrogance of it!––then to cheer some Kobe shots you’d just cursed. Because as ill-advised as they may have seemed or been, damn it if they didn’t somehow fall.
There were other thrills, too. Kobe was acrobatic. He’d get a defender in the air, position his body so the defender would hit him on the way down, take the blow while jumping, and contort his body into still making the shot.
Lots of fond remembrances of Kobe have remarked on the young basketball players he inspired. That may be a mixed legacy. Insofar as they mimicked his riveting style of play rather than his work ethic, he may be indirectly responsible for more ill-advised shots in youth leagues than anyone besides Allen Iverson. He surely influenced many an arrogant young ball hog at the expense of long-suffering teammates. And what coach, teammate, or fan would want a player to blow up a dynasty, as Kobe did in order to prove that he could win without Shaq? Still, that streak of selfish arrogance, inseparable from Kobe’s greatest triumphs and worst flaws alike, was mostly salutary, I think, in the effect it had on Lakers fans as we followed along.
Anyone who watched Kobe with an unfulfilled ambition in their sights can supply their own particulars. I’d go home each year of college in the summer and do temp jobs, like call-center work or filing. I knew I wanted to be a writer without knowing how to become one, and I knew pursuing that career carried greater risks of failure than law or business consulting––I could see that in the faces of adults when I told them the field I was considering. At that time in my life, as for so many, underconfidence was a far greater obstacle to fulfilling a dream than overconfidence was. Trying your hardest can be scary, because then failure means you’re not capable.
In Kobe, a guy my age, I saw the value in giving my all. Shaq was born into Superman’s body. He was dominant, but at 7 foot 1, 324 pounds. Half a foot shorter, Kobe showed that you could rival a giant with self-assertion, hard work, and determination. He stood for the dogged pursuit of excellence and glory no matter how loud the haters and doubters. In New York City (especially given the state of the Knicks), young people might psych themselves up with Jay-Z in their headphones rapping, “World can’t hold me / too much ambition / always knew it’d be like this / when I was in the kitchen.” In L.A., we watched and cheered Kobe for the same reason: a desire to believe that success could be willed. If he could do it, mightn’t we too?
If Kobe sometimes took that ethos too far, if his selfish ego was at times too big for his own good, or the good of his team, well, again, underconfidence is a bigger threat to most people’s dreams than overconfidence. For a normal fan, channeling Kobe carried little risk of copying his excesses.
Dying so young, survived by a family whose pain is unimaginable to everyone blessed to have never lost a spouse or child, Kobe is the subject of many remembrances focused only on his best qualities. But I understand Kobe as a basketball player whose flaws and failures, whose traits one wouldn’t want in a teammate, were both real and inextricable from his inspiring achievements.
That makes his on-court legacy more complicated to commemorate than most players’, though it need not and does not make fans love him any less. We watched him grow up. We saw him exceed what seemed physically possible. He gave us wins to celebrate, never bored us once, and brought our region together. We knew his public persona, watched him impose his will on other superstar athletes, and can’t help but feel our own mortality at the confirmation that neither once-in-a-generation talent nor work ethic nor money nor fame nor indomitable will can spare us from death. If he couldn’t protect himself or his kid from life’s tragic fragility and unpredictability, how can we?
Mourning Kobe is further complicated for many by the sexual-assault charges filed against him in 2003. For some people, any mention of them now is offensive. They note that he was never convicted; say one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead; or insist that a person’s worst moment should not define them, and cite behavior over two succeeding decades that they see as exemplary and redemptive. For others, talk of Kobe’s legacy that doesn’t mention the sexual-assault allegation is offensive. Attuned to all the times that celebrity enabled the abuse of some anonymous person, or that society treated acts devastating to women as if they were of no significance, they raise the subject to insist that women do matter, that their traumas are more important than sports or celebrity or whatever emotional bond that fans feel for a deceased athlete. Both approaches are human and grounded in defensible, competing, uncontradictory impulses to achieve different goods. Forbearance for both is the way forward. There is no one right way to mark a death.
My own mourning of many public people includes agnosticism about their private deeds. I try to meet complicated lives by giving thanks that even people who have done bad things can contribute profound good, too. There is cause to celebrate whatever good there was in anyone’s life at its conclusion, and there should be space to do so without thereby implying that any accompanying bad didn’t matter.
We know that, through basketball, Kobe did a lot of good. Millions took pleasure and inspiration from his play, a contribution that should neither be conflated with uncomplicated moral virtue nor dismissed as unimportant. Others have different relationships to Kobe, or apply different principles while mourning. To them I offer respect and condolences. Kobe Bryant, rest in peace.