Two weeks ago, a few hours after Kobe Bryant’s death, I wrote a column about how Mamba helped bring me closer to my grandfather when I lived in Los Angeles. The Lakers gave me a reason to go to his house every week during the season, and we’d bond over Bryant’s otherworldliness as he and Shaquille O’Neal racked up championships. It was a piece straight from the heart that needed no embellishment. It was the truth and nothing but the truth.
But it wasn’t the whole truth.
What I left out of the column was that, for a time, my Lakers fandom fizzled because of Kobe. I saw a ball-hog. I saw a whiner who ripped teammates and demanded a trade. And, yes, I saw a man who was charged with rape.
These aren’t characteristics I thought about immediately after Kobe’s death. Like many people, I mourned the loss of a global icon who inspired millions with his play on the court, charmed millions more with grace off it, championed women’s sports like no other male superstar and fully embraced fatherhood.
But his legacy is more than that.
I bring this up because, a few days ago, CBS aired an interview in which journalist Gayle King asked former WNBA star Lisa Leslie about Bryant’s sexual-assault charge. The questions comprised 90 seconds of a five-and-half minute discussion that was largely positive, but the backlash was palpable.
The most visible critic was Snoop Dogg, who lambasted King before telling her to “respect the family and back off before we come get you.” Snoop later clarified that he wasn’t threatening physical violence, but his message was clear: Don’t dare tarnish a hero’s reputation.
That isn’t how real life works, though.
Bryant’s sexual-assault case from 2003-04 is an uncomfortable but necessary part of his obituary. It’s not like O.J. Simpson, where the consensus is that a guilty man got away with a heinous crime. But it’s not like Duke lacrosse, either, where video evidence exonerated the wrongly accused.
People who questioned Kobe’s innocence certainly had reason for doubt. There were bruises on the woman’s neck and an apology from Bryant, who said, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
That said, the criminal charges were dismissed due to the woman’s refusal to testify, and the civil suit was settled out of court. Nobody but Bryant and his accuser knew what happened in that Colorado hotel room 17 years ago, and nobody else ever will.
But bringing that case up now isn’t doing a disservice to Bryant’s legacy. Not bringing it up would be doing a disservice to reality.
I didn’t agree with Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez’s decision to tweet a link to a story about the rape allegation immediately after Bryant’s death. That charge isn’t the headline to the Kobe Bryant Story.
But if sexual assault is to be treated with the weight it deserves, then those denouncing people such as Gayle King should be denounced themselves.
Despite the break I took from Kobe in the mid-2000s, I began to admire him again in the twilight of this career. He was candid, thoughtful and warm — all attributes he carried with him into retirement.
Many who are mourning him aren’t simply choosing to forget the darkest chapter of his life. They are thinking about all the joy he brought and would have kept on bringing.
Kobe Bryant was a generational star who touched hundreds of millions of lives with his ability, competitiveness and inimitable charisma. He also was charged with one of the worst crimes a human can commit, and never completely cleared his name.
You can celebrate the former and still acknowledge the latter. People are never just one thing.
I have no idea exactly how Kobe wanted to be remembered. He usually was vague when it came to questions of that nature. But one thing that stood out about him, maybe more than any other superstar: He was never phony. Always real.