I ’m writing this because I am overwhelmed with the negativity and racism surrounding the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter I have seen posts and comments such as:
- He’s a piece of garbage, who cares?!
- He’s famous for dribbling a ball and people act like he is a hero.
- Why mourn him and not our troops?!
- Kobe Bryant died 23 years too late.
- Just another dead nigger.
Okay, I never saw that last one, but this is how the other four comments I listed—including the ones I did not list—make me feel.
I am a 37-year-old black man. Kobe died at 41. When he first came on the scene as a 17-year-old basketball phenom, I was 13. I was in awe at how mature Kobe was physically and intellectually. Kobe, through his ups and notable downs, has been a fixture in my life even though I’m not really a basketball fan (although I do enjoy college hoops). He matured as I matured, he learned from his mistakes as I learned from mine, and he displayed a rare intensity which he applied to everything he did; hence the phrase “Mamba Mentality.” Kobe spoke fluent Italian and Spanish, was known to outwork anyone and everyone, and had a wide-reaching philanthropic drive. When a person becomes as talented and well-known as Kobe, they can feel invincible and bigger than life. But, outside of all those amazing accomplishments, Kobe had developed the reputation of being a phenomenal father to four daughters, which feels like divine intervention after he was accused of sexual assault in 2003.
We all know what happened back then. Kobe was accused of rape, settled out of court, and if you ever read the details of the case it will hurt your heart. A young woman’s life was changed forever, and while I am sure/pray that she is a wonderfully resilient survivor, I am also sure that the news of Kobe’s death brought an odd mix of emotions for her—and perhaps it does for other women who connected with that young woman from 2003 in a matter akin to how I connected with Kobe when I was 13. We have to acknowledge this reality. We must accept it. This is part of his story.
And, to my melanated brothas, I know it hurts when we consider the legacy of false rape accusations about black men from white women. This is also a historical reality the greater population needs to acknowledge. A reality that carries a long list of its own tragedies, and at times can make rape accusations harder to process in certain contexts. The history we learn in the US is heavily whitewashed, and through that whitewashing we lose many of our heroes. So, when a person as mythic as Kobe entangles with a historically loaded issue such as rape, it can be easy for us to dismiss the incident as a whole. But, if we are willing to reflect, we can see that despite the inequity we experience from our blackness, we are still men, and within our masculine identity we hold a certain level of privilege. What we do with that privilege is up to us. The ball is in our court.
Now, I did not know Kobe, so I can only speculate, but, I feel as though after being forced to confront the weight of his own actions, Kobe started the process of owning and understanding his privilege as a man—and as a straight cis-gendered man. With that newfound knowledge, he became a proud “girl dad” who advocated for women’s athletics and aided in the development of young women. In 2013, Kobe even advocated for his fellow NBA players to stop using anti-gay language. When he declared this, Kobe got into a Twitter exchange where someone called him a hypocrite because he had famously called a ref a “fag” in 2011. To that Kobe responded, “exactly! That wasn’t cool and was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others.”
Isn’t this one depiction of the type of masculinity we want to see? A man who some describe as an “alpha” that actually matured, became a champion for women, acknowledged his wrongs, and spoke against bigoted behavior?
I get it, this is complicated. This is the messy ball of good, bad, and indifferent in which we live. Complexity is not something we all willfully work through, and in situations like this, we need to own all of the messy details of a person’s life. We can mourn for our troops, admire an athlete on and off the court, process the inhumane things humans do to other humans, appreciate a story of growth, believe women, and feel hurt over a tragic death, all at the same time.
What I won’t do, though, is entertain one-dimensional bigots.