The life and death of an All-Star: Remembering Kobe Bryant

Bryant was one of the world’s most revered athletes and an inspiring role model for many – but he was also a complex and flawed individual. 

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The announcement of the death of the US basketball player Kobe Bryant on 26 January felt unreal. Aged just 41, he had been killed in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

The youngest-ever NBA All-Star starter, Bryant was one of the world’s most revered athletes. Born in Philadelphia in 1978 and earning his debut as shooting guard for the LA Lakers in 1996, the 6ft 6in Bryant enjoyed a meteoric rise to sporting superstardom.

Once the youngest player to reach 30,000-points, the second-highest all-time point scorer in a single game (81 for the LA Lakers against the Toronto Raptors in 2006), the winner of five NBA titles and a two-time Olympic gold medallist – Bryant was undeniably one of basketball’s most decorated competitors.

He also had an impeccable sense of drama and timing, which added to the legend. In 2013, having ruptured his left Achilles earlier in a game, Bryant went on to shoot two free throws, which allowed the LA Lakers to beat Golden State Warriors 118-116 – a moment that has become basketball lore.

By the end of his career, Bryant’s prominence was such that his retirement in 2016 was announced with an Oscar-winning short called Dear Basketball. In the film Bryant rhymes, in his deep silly tones: “And we both know, no matter what I do next, I’ll always be that kid, with the rolled up socks, garbage can in the corner, five seconds on the clock,” as a sepia drawing of himself walks off the court and white confetti falls around his animated cartoon feet. Viewed after his death, the film serves as a moving eulogy.

But there is a difference between the man and the myth; Bryant’s complex personality and some of the more troubling aspects of his life should be remembered as much as the trophies, medals and awards. The most controversial episode came in 2003, when Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman. The case was settled out of court, with Bryant recognising that “she feels she did not consent to this encounter”.

The incident had a profound impact on Bryant’s career and how he portrayed himself both on and off the court. Most memorably, he switched his jersey number from eight to 24, marking a shift in his aims, from trying to prove himself to personal “growth”. He also adopted the nickname “Black Mamba” to separate “Bryant the sporting hero” from “Bryant the disgraced alleged sexual assaulter”. In a 2014 New Yorker interview, he told Ben McGrath: “The name [Kobe Bryant] just evokes such a negative emotion. I said, ‘If I create this alter ego, so now when I play this is what’s coming out of your mouth, it separates the personal stuff, right?’ You’re not watching David Banner – you’re watching the Hulk.”

But the new sobriquet quickly became a sporting philosophy: Mamba Mentality, an ethically questionable but commercially fruitful extension of Bryant’s self-reinvention, with brands such as Nike cashing in on the player’s alter ego to create a range of basketball merchandise. It also helped to establish the Mamba Basketball League, which provides kids in Los Angeles and New York with life and basketball skills.

Bryant’s dedication to his sport and his business ventures brought him fortune and redemption. His inspirational quotes often appear on slightly faded billboards, layered over images of him playing ball or sitting in contemplation. His musings are plastered on LinkedIn alongside captions about increasing productivity.

His switch from sports star to businessman and thought leader looked effortless – Bryant’s post-sports empire accumulated $2bn worth of assets in industries from technology to media.

In the early 2000s, much of the black content consumed by young people in Britain – cartoons, dramas, music – was produced in the US. My friends and I bopped along with Coolio rapping the theme tune for Kenan and Kel on Nickelodeon, we shared laughs with Tia and Tamera on Sister, Sister and watched repeats of the animated series The Proud Family. Even in the early days of black British hip hop, rappers would emulate US accents and don oversized basketball jerseys and baggy jeans.

In the wake of Bryant’s death, then, it is no surprise that there is such a visceral display of emotion and outpouring of grief from a cross-generation of black Brits. Bryant was an icon for us.

“I was so young when Princess Diana died, but I imagine it must have felt like this for our parents,” said Caine Tayo Lewin-Turner, a student athlete from University of Bristol, when I spoke to him. “Bryant made us fall in love with the game,” added the culture writer Jesse Bernard. “I remember breaking into school gyms just to play basketball all the time, that’s the effect that Bryant had, I wanted to be like him and get to his level. Coming into the league with his afro at 18 years old, fresh out of high school, he just looked like any kid that wanted to play basketball, he didn’t look like an NBA player.”

Kobe Bryant was a complex and flawed individual. But his position as both an inspiring role model and a sporting icon cannot be denied, and neither can the transatlantic connections that bind young black Britons so firmly to this loss. 

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out

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