The armor he thought a man must wear created a dam against a river of emotions he’d denied himself all his life.
I can’t cry. No matter how much I may want to, no matter how compelling the moment. I’m tired of holding back and bottling things up. But how do I undress myself of the armor I’ve spent a life time building up and putting on?
I had to watch, even if it was only on television and half a world away. I had to see the final few minutes of Kobe Bryant’s time as a basketball player. Future Hall of Famer. LA Laker great. And now it was coming to an end. I’ve always been drawn to the epicness of his character, the ferocity of his appetite to compete.
I imagined myself in the Staples arena, one of near nineteen thousand Lakers fans packed in to bear witness. I imagined myself as a Kobe fan come to pay my respects, to celebrate and to mourn in equal measures, with every other chest thumping member of the Laker Nation in the house. I imagined myself a teammate of Kobe’s, riding the bench, twirling a towel above my head and cheering on every one of his fifty field-goal attempts. I imagined myself a close and personal friend. One of only a few who really understood the enormity of what all this meant to him as a line was about to be crossed, all of us together reaching a point of no return.
Then, with the clock stopped at 14.8 seconds, and Kobe marching to the free-throw line, fifty-eight points to the good and two shots to come, there was a small combustive explosion inside my rib cage. My chest heaved and my stomach tightened. My throat constricted as I sniffed back this bodily attempt at expressing an emotion.
Kobe drained the two free-throws. Sixty points. Hoo-ah. I pinched the bridge of my nose taking in a sharp breath.
Utah inbounded fast. Gordon Hayward, wild, slashed end to end, all the way to the basket, his lay-up rolling over back rim. Julius Randle claimed the rebound and quickly hit Kobe in the corner with the outlet. Mamba launched a pass Tom Brady would be proud of three-quarters the length of the court to an open Jordan Clarkson who rose, cocked the hammer and slammed home to put an exclamation point on proceedings. Unleashed, an unbridled outpouring of emotion, joy and celebrations on the court and in the stands. Hugs, high-fives, meaningful eye contact between teammates, friends, fellow comrades-in-arms.
The camera cut to Kobe. Walking up the court, his open palm slapping his chest over the famous purple Lakers logo, his face serene, his eyes elsewhere. Maybe part of him had already moved into that place beyond the game, beyond the court and the arena. Beyond basketball and to the next stage of his life that only he can see.
And I choked up again, though managed to stifle back this second sob. It was an instinctive reflex, this pulling the shutters down, let no light in, let no light out. My body knows just how to protect me from the fullness of my emotions. In this way I’ve never had to truly feel anything in my life.
For a long time I was grateful for this powerful protective armor I’d developed. It helped me get through high school where I was unable to decide whether I was with the rap kids or the heavy metal kids or the smart kids or the cool kids. I would be whatever I needed to be in the school yard to survive. I told myself that in the safety of my bedroom fortress at home I could be myself.
But it was never so simple. Even in my own company I began to deny myself. The awkwardness. The insecurity. The voice of doubt. Better to fixate on acting out a part that was safe, has few as possible obvious vulnerabilities. I learnt to move quick between friends and groups, where I could avoid prolonged exposure so that the things I said to get by wouldn’t come back to bite me in the ass.
There was always this push and pull. I was never able to relax and let my guard down. I was always on alert. In the cinema with some friends watching Armageddon—Bruce Willis shoves Ben Affleck back into the airlock, an act of supreme love, selflessness, and heroism. I lock down tight.
When Robin Williams tells Matt Damon over and over again in Good Will Hunting, “It’s not your fault” my inner self is in turmoil trying to suppress the welling up of emotions that demand release.
That sharp sniff when something truly touching happens. The odd, tight sound from the base of my throat escaping when Joel Edgerton hugs the broken body of his bloodied brother, Tom Hardy, at the end of Warrior. There is no bell or referee’s count to end each round in the battle I fight.
It comes to me, watching the career of one of the most polarizing athletes of the past two decades come to an end. The realization that it’s time for me to be done with this suit of armor I’ve been wearing, every day, trying to just survive, trying to live life with the handbrake always on.
This armor I believed a man should have and wear. This part I thought I was expected to play (all me—all in my own head). The grind and building exhaustion from a lifetime of keeping this front up, this daily effort, this overwhelming suffocation of living a life with two fingers squeezing my nostrils so tight I can’t breathe. Now, it’s like I’m a damn wall straining against the force of a load I was never meant to bear and in each crack are the dribbles of a river of grief and emotions I’ve been denying myself.
A tear broke as Kobe addressed the gathered crowd and the millions watching around the world. “This has been absolutely beautiful, you guys. I can’t believe it’s come to an end…what can I say? Mamba, out!”
Endings are important. Stripping myself bare so that I can breathe, can feel, can live more fully. Let some more light in. Let some more light out. The Black Mamba may be out but I’m only just getting started.
Photo: Getty Images