It would be all so much simpler if Kobe Bryant had died unexpectedly at the age of 81. Or even 61. Then, there would be no question about explaining the complicated parts of the basketball legend’s legacy. That’s what you do when someone dies. You tell the full story.
It is less comfortable to do that when Bryant dies at 41. When his passing is an unmistakable tragedy, a guy who was congratulating LeBron James for passing him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list on Saturday night and then perishing alongside one of his children in a helicopter crash mere hours later, leaving behind a wife, Vanessa, and three other kids, there is an instinct to stick only to the happy stuff.
Kobe Bryant, the kid from Philadelphia who was drafted as an 18-year-old, and who retired two decades later as one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game. Five NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, an absurd 18 All-Star appearances. The 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors. The 60-point game at home in his finale, which included a 17-point burst in the closing minutes as he laboured and wheezed on tired legs and dragged the Los Angeles Lakers to a meaningless late-season victory that suddenly meant everything. Those are the moments that defined Kobe, the exceedingly rare athlete who was so good that he didn’t require the use of his family name. The man managed to have two different jersey numbers retired by the Lakers. He was that good.
The Disney version of his biopic would end with him embracing his teammates at the end of that 60-point barrage against Utah in 2016, Bryant thumping his heart as everyone from Jack Nicholson to Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z looked dumbfounded by what they had just witnessed from their courtside seats.
But the Kobe Bryant story is not that simple. He was an undeniably brilliant player, an elite defender and a high-volume scorer with more than enough championship experience on his resume to make him a no-doubt Hall of Famer.
He was also undeniably polarizing. Bryant was the last of the chuckers, a relentless shooter who always felt like he was going to make the next one, even if he had clanked the last dozen. As the NBA evolved in the waning years of his career into a league that prized offensive efficiency more than it prized just plain offence, the legacy of Kobe’s scoring exploits started to look a bit different. He led the league in field-goal attempts six times, and kept firing away even as his skills started to fade. Bryant never took more three-point shots in a season than he did in his final one, when he hit them at a dreadful 28 per cent clip. He also infamously clashed with teammates, none more notably than Shaquille O’Neal, who was the single most unstoppable force in basketball when he joined the Lakers and with whom Bryant won two titles. They would have won who knows how many more had they been able to co-exist.
If the question was how many shots Bryant had taken on a given night, the answer was always: Not as many as Kobe thinks he should have. But did this make him a bad leader, because he was a selfish player, or a good leader because he knew he was the guy who should have the ball in his hands in the final seconds of a close game? There’s a case to be made, either way.
Even in retirement, Bryant’s influence over the Lakers was plain to see. His former agent, Rob Pelinka, ascended to the general manager’s job, and ultimately won a power struggle with Magic Johnson, who resigned abruptly as president last year. Bryant was presiding over a range of non-basketball business interests, but it was lost on no one that he still had a pipeline to Lakers ownership.
When it became clear in recent weeks that it was only a matter of time until LeBron passed Kobe on the career scoring list, despite having taken almost 2,000 fewer shots, the question was what the Lakers would do if it happened in a home game. Would the Staples Center faithful really want to cheer the new Laker-by-convenience when he surpassed the franchise icon? Or would a fan base that has spent years defending Kobe ride with him one last time? (LeBron broke the record on the road, so the debate was rendered moot.)
And while the Bryant-related arguments are mostly restricted to the ultimately light basketball stuff about usage and shot selection and leadership, one last part of his story should not be waved away. He was charged in 2003 for sexual assault of a teenage hotel employee in Colorado, and though the case did not go to trial because the alleged victim refused to testify, a civil suit was eventually settled and Bryant agreed to a statement that the young woman did not view what had taken place between them as consensual. That’s part of his legacy, too. Perhaps you think it should have been mentioned sooner, perhaps you think it shouldn’t be mentioned at all. But it happened a long time ago, and Bryant went on to have a long and storied career. Still, it’s there.
That’s the thing about Kobe Bryant. He’s on a list of the most accomplished athletes of all time, in any sport. But his legacy isn’t a simple one, either on the court, or off. It’s just a shame that we have to consider it all, so early.
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