There’s no fitting way to begin or end thinking about the shock of Sunday, Jan. 26. The unreality of receiving texts from friends with screenshots taken from shoddy news outlets. The disgust that followed TMZ publishing his death before his family was notified (New York Times, “In Haste to Confirm Kobe Bryant News, News Media Stumbles,” 01.27.2020). The tumult that consumed news desks across the country as they scrambled to verify the reports. Refreshing more trustworthy outlets with bated breath, until finally CNN, The New York Times and ESPN all confirmed—Kobe Bryant, one of his daughters, Gigi, and seven others, including two of Gigi’s 13-year-old teammates, died in a helicopter crash. The victims’ families are left to imagine the people they loved suffering through confusing and terrifying final moments. Arguments about Kobe’s legacy on and off the court cannot ignore that real people are experiencing grief and loss.
Routines like commuting to your daughter’s basketball game can turn to tragedy. Kobe Bryant couldn’t prevent that. A man whose greatest moments were aided by a bit of luck—a slowly rotating defender, a fortuitous bounce on the rim.
But that’s sports—its legends convince us that they’re immortal. That was Kobe. It’s why we tuned in to watch his 20 years with the Lakers. It’s why young kids who never watched a live Kobe game marveled at his highlights on YouTube. It’s why Kendrick Lamar and Jack Nicholson and anyone who was anyone in Los Angeles came to Staples Center that evening in April 2016 and bore witness to 60 jaw-dropping points—the most in a career finale. In that moment, watching him score 15 points in the last four minutes, we were all suspended in disbelief. Fans across the country watched something happening that couldn’t be happening. What was playing out on screen couldn’t be possible given what we’d been taught about basketball, what we’d been taught about age. It was the same feeling that shrouded the story as it unraveled across the country last Sunday.
Kobe’s career is a series of iconic snapshots. His snarl. His fist pump. His turnaround jumper. His jerseys. His tormenting of the entire Western Conference in playoff series throughout the 2000s. He began the decade crossing Scottie Pippen and lobbing to Shaq to ice the Western Conference Playoffs and ended it by knocking off the Celtics in seven games for his fifth and final ring. Along the way, he broke the hearts of Chris Webber, Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming and Steve Nash—more than once.
The Kobe we grew up with had already exhausted his considerable reserve of poster dunks and mind-bending reverse layups in traffic. When he took the court in the latter half of his career, he taught master classes in footwork and the art of the midrange. His first lesson, though, was always how to compete.
We want to talk about what we talk about when we talk about Kobe’s competitiveness. It would be impossible to capture his full humanity, the scope of his brilliance and flaws, without saying plainly that as a competitor, Kobe was not a nice person. In fact, he was understood to be an asshole. He held his teammates to the same incredibly high standards that he aspired to, standards that most players couldn’t meet. He was unconcerned with building team chemistry; if other Lakers didn’t share his belief that winning was more important than mutual respect, they became the subjects of abuse. A video from the 2014-15 season provides a good example. In it, Kobe taunts Jeremy Lin into a bad shot, barking, “This motherfucker ain’t got shit right now goddamn…Fucker didn’t want to shoot that shit.” (USA Today, “Kobe Bryant Relentlessly Talked Trash to His Lakers Teammates in Uncovered Practice Video,” 12.18.2017) Even Kobe’s playing style itself was defined by his legendary, selfish aversion to passing.
Untold thousands of people on and off the internet have said that Kobe inspired them to play basketball or in their own interests. They don’t reference mean-spiritedness, but competitiveness. Make no mistake: Kobe was the most visible and most successful selfish asshole in sporting history, and when people talk about trying to replicate his edge, they are talking about the fact that Kobe taught an entire generation of people how to be, at the very least, selfish in their pursuit of excellence.
Lauding Kobe’s selfish and uncompromising nature seems daring and clever when we restrict the conversation to his basketball playing. It would be irresponsible and ignorant to ignore that a 19-year-old woman accused him of raping her in a Colorado hotel room in 2003. Two years later, after his accuser dropped criminal charges and settled her civil claims out of court, Kobe apologized for his behavior in what he claimed was a consensual sexual experience, adding, “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter” (The Nation, “Wrestling With Kobe Bryant’s Forgotten Apology, 4.19.2016).
Kobe leaves behind a complicated legacy to process. We should believe victims. We should be horrified that a teenager received death threats and endured public shaming at the hands of the media and Kobe’s defense team because she came forward. We also have a lot to learn from Kobe’s support of women’s basketball and his ubiquitous presence at women’s games, at the high school, college and professional levels. Lastly, we cannot ignore that millions of people modeled their working habits, their radical self-preservation, their selfishness, after Kobe.
Kobe Bryant was a champion in many respects and a villain in many others. His faults, his virtues, his errors, his successes, his teachings, are lessons. As we mourn, we learn.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the helicopter crash occurred on Dec. 26. In fact, the event took place on Jan. 26.]