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Kobe Bryant’s Brilliant, Flawed, Maddeningly Driven Genius

To celebrate the life of Kobe Bryant means celebrating both a beloved, unique athlete and a fallible human being—the entire story.

Robert SilvermanJan. 26, 2020 6:45 PM ET

I’m staring at a computer screen, watching the tweets about Kobe Bryant in a state of abject shock and horror. Even as the reports are confirmed, I keep clinging to some vague hope that the life of one of the greatest players in NBA history didn’t end early Sunday morning. But it’s there, confronting me and basketball fans all over the world like some kind of horrible sucking nullity. 

Bryant’s Sikorsky S-76 helicopter reportedly crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, California, at 9:47 a.m. PT. None of the nine people on board survived, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. As I’m writing this, TMZ confirmed that one of the passengers was Bryant’s daughter Gianna Maria Onor, age 13. The father and daughter were headed to basketball practice, along with another player and parent.

This is the part of the story where I mention his colossal accomplishments on-court, and in all honesty, it would be easier to remain there and there alone: How the 41-year-old future NBA Hall of Famer and fourth all-time leading scorer spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five titles; was the league’s Most Valuable Player for the 2007-2008 season; and was a fixture at the NBA All-Star, All-Defensive, and All-NBA rosters. 

I can still see images of a teenage 17-year old Bryant, draped in a baggy maroon Lower Merion High School jersey, already a slashing, preternaturally talented guard, who went straight to the NBA. He was, at times, a shy kid who’d struggled to acclimate to life in the United States after spending his childhood abroad in Italy, where his father, Joe Bryant, played professionally. 

Stardom came quickly. His early years in the NBA were defined by an occasionally fraught, if wildly successful partnership with Shaquille O’Neal. Under the tutelage of Head Coach Phil Jackson, Bryant and O’Neal dominated the league, winning three consecutive titles from 2000 through 2002. After O’Neal was dealt to the Miami Heat, Bryant unleashed his full offensive firepower. During the 2005-06 season, he led the NBA in scoring, racking up a whopping 35.40 points per game average, a mark bested by only two players since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger: Michael Jordan and James Harden.

Because they’re the Lakers, the fallow years didn’t last long. Bryant, flanked by versatile forwards Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, made three straight trips to the Finals, winning two. He was named the series MVP in both 2009 and 2010. Over the final six years of his career, Bryant dealt with multiple injuries and slowly eroding skills. But he still managed to rise up for one last flurry of greatness, scoring 60 points in his final game, including 23 in the fourth quarter.

Kobe Bryant was a wondrous athlete to behold—an overwhelming force of nature and peerless solo act in the clutch, worshipped by a generation of fans and fellow players. And so, of course, those who knew him can’t keep it together. 

This, though, is not the whole story. Before he retired, Bryant penned a Players Tribune article—a prose poem addressed to basketball, or more specifically, a basketball, expressing his love for the inanimate object and thanking it for everything it had given him. It was off-putting, oddly stilted, overly self-serious, and yet deeply sincere, much like Bryant himself. The overarching sentiment of the poem is that as long as he had a ball in his hands, he could control and define his life. Succeed beyond his wildest childhood dreams, even. But what Bryant did outside basketball cannot be ignored or omitted, even today. 

In July 2003, Bryant was credibly accused of raping a 19-year-old woman at a Colorado lodge hotel. Through his attorneys, the woman was routinely smeared in the press, and refused to testify. It is impossible to read through the legal documents and not come away repulsed. His own head coach wrote that when first informed of the charges, “Was I surprised? Not entirely.” 

In response, Bryant bequeathed upon himself the reptilian nickname “Black Mamba.” As he explained in the documentary film Muse, the Black Mamba was a separate identity he created for himself, a way of dealing with the accusations such that he could continue to “destroy” people standing in his way. 

An honest evaluation, to be sure, but also a bit terrifying. With Bryant, you could never escape the notion that he’d based his entire persona on a half-drawn sketch of Michael Jordan’s near-sociopathic work ethic and will to win. Not without reason. As Bryant told Howard Beck, in addition to cribbing “Damn near 100 percent of [Jordan’s] technique,” he said, Bryant wanted to surpass Jordan when it came to ruthlessness and maintaining a zero-sum ideology. That meant not just mimicking Jordan’s subtle fist pump and isolation fall-back jumpers, but creating the impression he was a bully and a tyrant, manipulative and cold-blooded. Like a deadly snake. When given full editorial control, he produced films and other bits of profoundly odd content like this series about his “Musecage” (a phrase that could only come from the mind of Kobe Bryant and his at-times downright weird worldview). 

It’s difficult to find a profile of the star that provides anything resembling insight into who he was as a person. If anything, they reinforce the impression of the projected image—like this sterile, hard mask was all there was to Bryant. Said profiles often devolved into fluff promotional pieces where Bryant droned endlessly about storytelling without saying much of anything at all or worked desperately hard to avoid the rape allegations altogether. They weren’t alone, because there was money to be earned: Nike, Hollywood studios, and all manner of for-profit entities managed to look past the darker parts of Bryant’s life

None of this should diminish the joys provided by Bryant or take away from the portrait of a loving, committed father and husband

A video of Bryant talking basketball courtside with his daughter Gianna, an aspiring athlete who was “hellbent” on playing basketball for UConn, went viral before he died. On Sunday afternoon, it and other clips of the father and daughter playing or watching basketball were widely shared again. Maybe this, then, is as good a way as any to remember a complicated man and mourn this senseless tragedy. The loss and anguish felt by millions, myself included, is all too real. But if we are to celebrate the life of Kobe Bryant, it means celebrating both a brilliant, beloved, unique performer and a flawed human being—the entire story.