The first time I met Kobe Bryant was really the only time I met him: I was 8, maybe 9, at a summer camp trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain. We heard a rumor that the new Laker, the young one, was somewhere in the theme park, so a group of us decided to find him. It wasn’t difficult: Both he and his guards were instantly visible to elementary school kids, who didn’t know how to differentiate between tallness and greatness. He gave us low-fives as we chased after him like ducklings; I got mine last, and I remember making eye contact with him in a way he would probably never remember but I would never forget. It was surreal, like staring into the sun.
Growing up in Los Angeles meant Kobe was part of your life more often than not, a celebrity so omnipresent that it felt like you knew him personally. He was everywhere: TV, newspapers, bumper stickers, shoes. Try to count the people in his jersey on any given day, even now, and you’d lose track. People recited his accomplishments on the radio like gospel; partly because it was their job but also because they believed in him. His likeness, 20 feet tall or more, would often gaze out at you on the freeway, where the 10 meets the 110, from billboards or plastered across the sides of buildings. Los Angeles was never the best city for urban planning, but even if downtown wasn’t your idea of the city center, you knew all roads led to the Staples Center, which was where Kobe was. And Kobe was special because he was always ours.
He was good, too. Googling Kobe brings up his 81-point game; I was in the stands for a 61-pointer at Madison Square Garden in 2009. A lot has been said about the number of points he accrued in his expansive career, or his footwork, or his sheer force of will to become and remain one of the greats. Many have mythologized his skill on the court, but that was exactly the thing of it: He made everything look so effortless and so natural that even casual fans could understand what they were witnessing.
Kobe, to me, was the Lakers, not least of all given how he led the team to a total of five NBA championship wins. (That I grew up in the 2000-2002 era of the three-peat probably informs this readiness to gloat.) Coach Phil Jackson was Tío Phil in my house; his ability to bring us rings was both a promise and a foretold conclusion. Los Angeles has the Clippers, too, but the Lakers were legion and legacy. The whole county — all 4,750 square miles — would turn purple and gold the day after a win. Everyone was in a good mood when the Lakers were on a streak, as if we were somehow personally responsible and affected by how these gods played their game. Sports bind and disappoint and rally like nothing else.
Kobe was human, which was typically only recognized to underscore the contradiction that no, he was something beyond that. When he snapped his Achilles tendon in 2013, he sank two free throws before leaving the court; mere mortals don’t attempt to make 30,699 baskets over the course of their lifetimes, let alone their careers. Everything Kobe did seemed larger-than-life, and you got the sense he liked it that way.
But Kobe faltered, too. In 2003, a 19-year-old girl who worked at a Colorado hotel the star had stayed at came forward with a credible and harrowing rape allegation. Kobe said they’d had sex but denied the claims levied against him. The criminal charges were eventually dropped, given that the accuser refused to testify in court as a result of the victim-blaming, doxxing, and slut-shaming she endured after coming forward. A civil suit was later settled out of court, and Kobe apologized to her, in a statement that acknowledged both the pain that she had endured, and most crucially, that she did not consent. As the years passed, those events were never obfuscated by anyone looking at the full context of Kobe Bryant, the person, but they also transpired long before the public reckoning of powerful men and their abuses reached a boiling point. That he acknowledged a survivor’s truth rather than issue a blanket denial feels radical, even now.
As a 13-year-old trying to make sense of the headlines splashed across my hometown paper, that was one of the first times I learned that even heroes need to answer to their wrongs, and that how you answer matters. Three years later I was assaulted at a party, and my survivorhood instantly caused me to see the world more differently still. Things I once loved began reminding me of this new status in waves, and that included my love for the Lakers. The all-consuming nationalism they inspired in me was complicated by an admittedly separate trauma I suddenly had to navigate firsthand. I still thrilled watching their 2009 and 2010 championships, but I felt guilty about it, like in doing so I was betraying my solidarity with other survivors. A therapist once suggested I might be trying to punish myself for not being a so-called “perfect victim” by denying myself something that once brought me so much joy.
I was never quite able to reconcile those things — the fanaticism I was born into, the violence I never asked for, and questions that both left me with. There will likely never be a clean answer. I was also heartened by how Kobe seemed willing to put in the work to change. He would go on, after reigning on the court, to championing the WNBA and supporting Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality, to coaching his daughter in her own basketball games. He won an Oscar. And his death is all the more tragic knowing it cut short the second half of a life most people can only dream about. As Jamil Smith noted at Rolling Stone, he showed growth in other areas; it will now only ever be a hopeful what-if that eradicating sexual violence might have been among those causes.
In the 48 hours since the helicopter crash that claimed Kobe’s life, as well as that of his daughter, Gianna; her basketball teammates; and their parents; people have wrestled openly with what it means to remember a man who could not conveniently be put into one box or another. Trying to separate the art from the artist is a messy exercise, though I also worry about a move toward shutting down any potential for rehabilitation. Canceling doesn’t work, and we know that: White men have staged plenty of comebacks without issuing apologies.
More than one truth can exist at once. That Kobe was a mythic force, a husband and devoted father, and a paragon to so many people does not erase a transgression made 16 years ago. Nor does that moment invalidate his achievements, or the way he made fans feel when they watched him. Though I was made into a survivor at 16, that did not undo the fact that I had been raised to root for both Kobe and the Lakers, and loved doing so. That so many of us feel tasked with reconciling collective anguish against personal pain raises so many more questions, too, of who deserves forgiveness, and how do they earn it, and what your personal threshold for allowing or denying that redemption says about you, as much as anything else. Perhaps there isn’t one uniform solution. Healing is different for everyone.
Kobe was Los Angeles, as embedded into the framework of the city as any other memory I have of my childhood. I don’t live there anymore, but I regularly scan ticket websites if the Lakers are in town to play the Knicks. I bought the commemorative copy of the Los Angeles Times when Kobe retired in 2016, and I sobbed on the subway on Sunday when I learned that he was gone. It was a gut-punch of a reminder, and perhaps what he’d been trying to tell us all along through his ongoing work for his daughters and beyond: Superstars are only ever human. And they are not the only ones affected when it turns out their time is finite.