Of the extrinsic value of human life, American sports and civil rights hero Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Of course, Jackie’s impact on American culture is cannot be overstated; Robinson became the first non-white athlete to compete in a major professional American sports league, when he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, eight years before Rosa Parks was arrested on a Montgomery bus.
Robinson died in 1972, at the age of 53, 16 years after his last game with the Dodgers. Two Sundays ago, Kobe Bryant died at the age of 41, four years after his last game as a Laker. This article’s intent is not to compare Bryant to Robinson as transformative figures in American sports or American culture. I’m not writing because I’m a lifelong diehard Laker fan, and the recent news about Kobe, his 13 year old daughter Gianna, and the seven other victims of the helicopter crash, struck a particular chord with me as a fan. I’m writing because the premature death of American cultural heroes is not a commonality.
It is not every day that tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people are saddened by the loss of an individual life. Bryant’s impact on the heart and mind of anyone who has ever been inspired by his relentless passion is indisputable, and his untimely loss will be mourned for generations.
Bryant was raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion, and was drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA) at the tender age of 17. From 1996 to 2016, Kobe donned the purple and gold for the Los Angeles Lakers, dropping over 33,000 points (good for fourth all-time), earning 18 all-star nods, 15 All-NBA selections, 12 nominations to the All-Defensive team, and the NBA Most Valuable Player Award in 2008, and collecting five championships along the way.
Of course, Bryant’s greatest achievement is not listed in the previous paragraph, nor in any box score, nor any stat sheet. It is the way in which he inspired millions through his pure passion, tenacity, and trademark “mamba mentality,” a metaphor for the competitive spirit that fueled his success. As Kobe began to embody what it meant to be the ultimate competitor in professional sports, the “mamba mentality” gradually became adopted by athletes everywhere, who wanted to reach the heights that their idol had.
Twenty-six year old Brooklyn Net Spencer Dinwiddie, who was 3 years old when Kobe made his first appearance in purple and gold, attributes his success to being inspired by #24: “The lessons of hard work and, as cliche as it may sound, the Mamba Mentality, right, that’s part of the reason I am who I am today. The mentality of consistent work and pushing through boundaries and playing through injury and never giving up, never falling, just continuing to push through… all types of things that he did, the game-winners, all that stuff, he was everything to a lot of kids. And I was one of them.”
It is long documented that basketball meant the world to Kobe. All one has to do is watch Kobe’s self-produced Dear Basketball, a six-minute, Oscar-winning animated short-film, based on a poem he wrote to the game he loved. As has been evident by the response to Bryant’s death, Kobe meant the world to basketball. Look no further than the response from the most prominent individuals in the sport. Close friend and Olympic teammate Lebron James got a tattoo to honor the late Laker, and delivered an emotional pre-game speech in the Lakers’ first game since Bryant’s death. Two-time All-NBA point guard and Kobe mentee Kyrie Irving said in a post-game interview that “The seeds that he [Kobe] planted in all of us are going to continue to grow, and he’s going to live on in us forever.” League Commissioner Adam Silver is quoted as saying the following on Bryant’s legacy: “He [Kobe] will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players.”
The scope of Kobe’s influence on American culture is one that has been matched by few American public figures. Kobe’s death drew tributes from former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Drake, Jimmy Fallon, Ellen Degeneres, Taylor Swift and Whoopi Goldberg, and even drew a condolence tweet from the account of President Trump, who Bryant had criticized publicly on multiple occasions.
In order to most appropriately understand Kobe’s character, it’s important to consider his entire history. In 2003, a sexual assault case was brought against Bryant by a hotel employee. The case was dropped after Bryant’s accuser refused to testify in court. A civil suit was settled in 2005 for an undisclosed amount.
Amidst the “Me Too” movement, it is in this writer’s view that it is more important than ever to focus upon the way in which Bryant took direct and public responsibility for the matter. Kobe issued a statement apologizing for his behavior, stating that although he truly believed the event to be consensual, he acknowledged, respected and validated the victim’s differing view of the encounter.
So frequently today, we see victims who share their stories years after incidents occur. So often celebrity cases of this matter are swept under the rug, or even worse, victims are coerced to remain silent. To assume direct and public responsibility, while legitimizing the victim, is the only appropriate response. It is, of course, important that we, as jurors in the case of public opinion, continue to recognize Bryant’s 2003 actions as unequivocally wrong.
UCLA Women’s Basketball coach Cori Close discussed the balance between respecting Bryant’s response, but maintaining intolerance for sexual violence, in an issue of the LA Times: “A lot of us have rough spaces in our life and maybe we make choices that are not choices we want to make according to our character but we really mess up…and how you handle and respond to that mess-up and who you choose to become as a result of those mistakes and how you respond to those, I think are defining moments. It doesn’t diminish the mistakes and the consequences that come from those mistakes, but I sure think it’s a part of his legacy of how he responded in the public light.”
Following his retirement, Kobe was revered for his transition from player to father. Much of the discourse surrounding Bryant in the direct aftermath of his death has revolved around what Kobe meant to women’s sports. The late Gianna Bryant, who was one fine young hooper herself, brought Bryant back into basketball after his retirement in 2016. Inspired by GiGi’s love for the game, Bryant opened up an enormous youth sports academy, with a huge physical and mental training programs designed specifically for female athletes. He became a huge supporter of WNBA and Women’s College Basketball, appearing in commercials, mentoring female players, and endorsing equal opportunity in athletics. Close recognized the value Kobe’s support brought to women’s athletics: “Women don’t need men to validate their talent. That is already there. But growing the game requires allies,” she added, and Bryant was one of the best they could have asked for.”
As a child of the millenium who grew up watching, idolizing, and adoring Kobe, I know that I speak for all basketballers when I express my sadness. For those who are less familiar with the “black mamba” and the game of basketball, allow me to shed some light on the significance of all that Kobe stood for. Right now, more than ever, it is critical as ever that we, as students, as friends, as humans, remain dedicated to ourselves, to others, and to the world.
The problems that confront today’s society are nothing short of monumental: pandemics, utter dysfunction in national and international government, disturbingly low mental health levels, and a climate in crisis. Our generation will be tasked with finding the solutions to all of the daunting problems above, and any new ones that will arise. Without a doubt, it is more important than ever that we find collective hope, believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish, and push ourselves to be the absolute best that we can be, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for each other. As the man himself said, “Everything negative—pressure, challenges—it’s all an opportunity for us to rise.”