This past Sunday, as we heard of the shocking death of Kobe Bryant, I was surprised to find myself crying in my living room.
As a native Los Angeleno, love for the LA Lakers is not something you choose. It just is. I grew up in the era of Magic and Kareem, rooting the Lakers to different national championships in the 80s. I vividly remember sitting in a different living room (that of my college apartment) in 1991 crying when Magic announced he was HIV positive. (Whoever thought Magic would outlive Kobe?)
I remember Kobe as the cocky seventeen year-old who arrived on the scene in 1996.
Angelenos walk around with a kind of swagger that LA is the only place worth living. Kobe’s arrival, followed by that of Shaquille O’Neal, further cemented those feelings. Certainly there would be many playoff berths and NBA Championships to come. And they did. Angelenos were on top of the world. When we moved back east in 2000, we stayed up late into the night, tolerating the three hour west coast time difference, rooting the Lakers to various playoff wins.
In 2003, Kobe was accused of sexual assault on a trip to Colorado.
I followed the story closely for a couple years and the ins and outs of the case are beyond this posting. You can google the details. In the end it resulted with an undisclosed amount paid to the victim in a civil suit that also came with a confidentiality clause. The criminal case was dropped, as the woman’s lawyer felt it was unlikely she would win a criminal conviction. After the case was dropped, Kobe stated that although be believed the encounter between he and the woman was consensual, “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.” It was at that same time, as part of seeking to rehabilitate his image, that Kobe created his now-famous alter-ego “Black Mamba.”
My feelings about Kobe Bryant changed because of this allegation. I mostly stopped watching the Lakers. I couldn’t continue watching the reverence of this man, whose fan base didn’t seem that affected and whose sponsorships quickly rebounded.
So I had a lot of complicated feelings yesterday.
When someone dies, it’s normal in our culture to gloss over character flaws and dark spots in their life.
However, on Sunday as I watched the reverence of Kobe Bryant go on, I couldn’t help but wonder what that felt like for the woman he allegedly assaulted back in early 2003. I have seen a few newspapers, like the NY Times and LA Times, reference the incident this week, but for the most part I felt like once again this woman was invisible, what happened to her didn’t matter. None of these sports guys and news reporters were even going to mention it, and they at some point made a purposeful and conscious choice to leave out what had been a defining incident in Kobe’s life. Notably, the Washington Post went as far as to threaten and then suspend a female reporter for reposting a link to her earlier reporting about the 2003 rape case on her Twitter account on Sunday.
Meanwhile, I’m still trying to make sense of why I was crying about someone I stopped caring about or paying attention to almost twenty years ago.
I can only imagine that it’s about seeing someone who was bigger than life, who was a part of the landscape in the town I grew up in, just cease to exist in an instant. My heart hurts for Kobe’s wife and remaining daughters. For his 13 year-old daughter, Gigi, whose life was taken way too soon, for the baby who will never know him or her sister. My heart also aches for Alexis Altobelli (who appears to still live at home) and JJ Altobelli who lost both parents and their sister in the crash. They are unknown and, up until yesterday, completely private citizens whose family was demolished in an instant.
In my more optimistic moments, I’d like to think that Kobe evolved and improved as a person in seventeen years since the assault. By all accounts, he was a family man and committed to his wife and daughters, but as a society, we have to find a way to do better. We have to find a way to hold both the good and the bad.
Kobe was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. As my friend Chris, a super-fan, has said, his work ethic and determination were unmatched. And he wasn’t Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, but he did allegedly assault a woman seventeen years ago.
We can grieve for his family AND believe sexual assault survivors; one does not preclude the other.
Should his legacy be defined by that?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know there’s a woman sitting out there silently, wondering if everyone forgot about her or even worse knowing that they didn’t forget, but they just don’t care.
We have to tell the whole story; we cannot erase what is difficult or painful or we are complicit. Even though Kobe’s alleged assault didn’t take place in the era of #MeToo, naming this darkness, even in death, is part of the on-going work of believing survivors, even if it means diminishing the shine of one of sports’ greatest athletes.
Photo Credit: Dale Cruse/Flickr Creative Commons (Attribution License)