Bryant was complicated, but his legacy could be good
Let’s get this out of the way: I have never been a fan of Kobe Bryant.
When he first came into the NBA in 1996, I felt like he was contrived — a young man with far too much ego for so few accomplishments, and who almost oddly copied the mannerisms, speech patterns and style of play of Michael Jordan. He grew up in Italy, as his father, former NBA player Joe Bryant, extended his playing days in Europe, and Bryant gave the impression that he was aloof and, maybe, just a little bit better than everyone else.
His talent, however, was undeniable. He was blessed with athleticism that rivaled anybody who had ever played the game before, and he had a jump-shot that was smooth and feathery and just about every other tired sports metaphor you wanted to describe it with, as it was form-perfect.
He had an explosive element to his game that enabled him to rip through a crowded lane and throw down a ferocious dunk on some unfortunate soul who would later find himself on a Bryant poster, and he played with an electricity that begged the cameras to follow his every move.
He was also often undisciplined and “me-centric,” choosing often to take the “hero” shot while being guarded by three opponents, instead of tossing the ball to an open teammate. Watching Bryant play would annoy, amaze, infuriate and impress me, all in a matter of minutes.
If there was an element to his game that I did absolutely adore, however, it was Bryant’s drive — you could tell by watching him every single second how badly he wanted to excel, and it was evident with his changing body each season that he poured a ton of work into his offseason workouts.
I was living in California when Bryant first came to the Lakers, and he was instantly “the most interesting man” in the state. The Lakers also signed Shaquille O’Neal that first season, and while the two superstars often quarreled back and forth in public, they did win three NBA championships during their time together. Shaq and Kobe basically ran Los Angeles at that time.
In 2003, Bryant was arrested in Colorado for a sexual assault complaint filed by a 19-year-old employee at a hotel Bryant was staying in to recover from a knee surgery he was having. The facts are murky. According to reports, the young lady claimed Bryant raped her. Bryant claimed everything that happened was consensual.
According to court documents, the woman had injuries that were consistent with rape, and Bryant had blood on his clothing. The entire situation got nasty, as the woman’s name was leaked by the courts several times, reporters camped outside her parents’ home and stories came up questioning her sexual history.
The criminal case was dropped when the woman chose not to further cooperate, and Bryant issued a public apology to her, acknowledging that the two saw the incident in very different terms.
“I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” said Bryant at the time, per the New York Times.
Bryant later settled a civil case with the woman, and he continued on in his NBA career and took on a new public persona, the Black Mamba. He later signed a seven-year contract for $136 million, was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2008 and won two more championships.
I don’t know what happened in that hotel room. I wasn’t there. I never spoke to any of the principals involved. I just don’t know for sure what happened. But it always left a bad taste in my mouth, and prevented me from ever really embracing Bryant as a sports fan or a person.
Over recent years, and particularly since his retirement in 2016, I noticed a change in Bryant. He seemed to take on a mentoring role to some of today’s players, and you rarely, if ever, saw him out in public without his family — particularly his basketball-star-in-the-making 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. WNBA players openly discussed how much Bryant supported them, and women’s basketball in general — probably in part due to his taking on some coaching duties with Gianna’s team.
And he was a proud “girl dad” of four daughters, telling ESPN reporter Elle Duncan, “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.”
Of course, Bryant passed away on Sunday, along with Gianna, in a helicopter accident. He was but 41 years old.
Social media was flooded this week with fathers sharing pictures of their beautiful daughters with the hashtag #girldad attached. As a proud “girl dad” myself, I loved it. It was great seeing fathers take pride in their children, and maybe Bryant’s recent passing reminded them just how lucky they are to have that job.
Kobe Bryant was a complicated, passionate, talented, flawed man — like so many others. But Bryant had a platform, and perhaps he will leave a legacy that leads to more young women getting opportunities, and more young men treating young women with respect.
By Darin J. McCann