Kobe Bryant was undeniable

Whether you loved Kobe Bryant or hated him, you felt him. His legacy is secure but in the aftermath of his untimely death, those emotions are sure to remain as complicated as ever.

On the last night of the 2015-16 season, two historically significant games were happening concurrently. The Warriors were trying to wrap up the greatest regular season in NBA history while Kobe Bryant was playing his final game for a Lakers squad that had fallen out of the playoff picture pretty much as soon as the season began. I started watching the Warriors game, thinking that I’d seen Kobe play at least 500 times over the course of his 20-year career, but had never seen a team go 73-9. It seemed like an easy choice. But as the Warriors quickly pulled away from the Grizzlies I decided to join the rest of the basketball world and watch the second half of Kobe’s farewell.

Kobe always played as though he may never again have the opportunity to shoot a basketball, and on this night, that was actually the case. Even by his standards, it was an appropriately excessive performance — he took 50 shots, ending up with 60 points and a game-clinching shot in the final minute. It was an insignificant victory, but I remember giggling with delight, in spite of myself, knowing it was unlikely we would ever see a player quite like him again. Players of his ilk — high-volume shooting guards whose tenacity often outshone their efficiency, were falling out of vogue already — and even if every team had a player fitting that profile, none would have been like him anyway. As much as Bryant followed in the footsteps of Michael Jordan, he was still inimitable.

I’ll admit that I never had a ton of fondness for Kobe Bryant, the player or the person. I enjoyed watching him play and found several of the anecdotes about him amusing, but the adoration felt by so many was foreign to me. As gifted as he was, I often found his dominance unsatisfying to watch as the single-mindedness of his style tended to make his teammates irrelevant or secondary to his own whims and desires. And I found the way he talked about the game anachronistic or just silly — his bromides about competitiveness sounding like Silicon Valley catchphrases recycled and repurposed for an athletic context. All his talk about winning, desire, and hard work felt a bit performative to me. I never doubted his sincerity, but it always felt more like a branding exercise meant to burnish his reputation as the NBA’s last and truest warrior than an actual revelation of his deepest desires.

But even if these things annoyed you, it was impossible to have even a casual relationship with the NBA over the last two decades without developing strong feelings about Kobe, no matter how ambivalent they may have been. Most fans either loved or (sports) hated him, and he did everything he could to engender that passion. Part of this is the fact that he made himself the center of the NBA universe for so long — apart from a few years in the immediate aftermath of the Shaquille O’Neal trade and his final desultory seasons following his 2013 Achilles injury, Bryant was always on a contender and the NBA title often was determined either by him and his teammates or by whichever team was strong enough to bring them down.

It was more than that though. If Kobe had merely been a great player, he would not have inspired the same fervent devotion and derision that he did — I mean, you don’t see a ton of people on social media arguing that Tim Duncan is actually the greatest player in league history. But Kobe, through a combination of savvy marketing and on-court success, managed to transcend the NBA. He may not have been the greatest player of his generation — he may never even have been the best player in the league at any given time — but he was the most iconic, the most legendary. In a way that only a few athletes can, Kobe Bryant managed to become bigger than the game he played.

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

While Kobe did try to become a more affable figure in his retirement, a man dispensing wisdom to younger players as an ambassador of the game, that was not what made him so beloved. When Kobe played, he came off as almost sociopathic, as if he believed some essential part of his humanity had to be cast aside in order for him to find the success he so desired. In retirement, it was as if, no longer feeling like he had to prove his worth and build his legacy every night, a burden lifted and a more genial Kobe emerged. I’m not sure whether or not it was a truer reflection of himself, but in the process, he became an outspoken advocate of women’s hoops and prodded younger NBA players to reach for goals as outsized as they could imagine. It was easy to see him being a mentor and source of inspiration for future generations of basketball players, and while he may still be the latter, it will tragically not be in the way anyone would have hoped.

Of course, much of the ambivalence many feel about Bryant has nothing to do with basketball at all. There are some who will say that now, in the immediate aftermath of his untimely death, is not the right time to mention it, but I do not believe one should write about Kobe without mentioning the sexual assault allegations of 2003 when he was credibly accused of rape. While they may not define him in the eyes of many, it would be irresponsible to not at least acknowledge this part of his story. To avoid doing so is to tacitly tell any survivors of rape or other forms of sexual assault that their pain does not matter as long as the man who victimized them was famous and talented. Referring to these accusations, and their subsequent out-of-court settling, as mere ‘legal troubles’ is a functional erasure of sexual violence that must not be accepted.

I know that Kobe is responsible for many of the moments that remind me why I love the NBA so much. There’s the absurd game-tying and game-winning 3’s that he made against Portland in 2004; the game-winner against Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs; the 2009 off-the-glass-buzzer-beater over the outstretched hand of Dwyane Wade; the lob to Shaq that capped one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history; the dunks over Dwight Howard and Yao Ming; and, of course, the 81-point game that seemed like a typo when I first read about it on ESPN’s bottom line. The shadow side of that, though, is that these rape allegations, and their subsequent tacit erasure by those within the NBA, and by analysts who cover the league, are a major part of why loving professional sports can seem like such a moral compromise for so many.

I think you’re bound to develop a bit of a complicated relationship with anyone you spend an outsized amount of time with, and for basketball fans who came of age over the last two decades, we certainly spent a lot of time with Kobe. Even though most of those mourning never had the chance to meet or speak with him, he was such a ubiquitous presence that it felt like we knew him anyway.

The world of basketball feels much emptier now. Kobe was such a uniquely fascinating and talented figure that the vacuum left by his death is not likely to be filled by anyone else. In terms of fame, personality, and skill, few NBA players are his equal. He inspired love and devotion among his most ardent fans and an equally fierce hatred from those who found his style of play infuriating. And yet, even though I have spent almost the entirety of my conscious life watching Kobe Bryant play, my feelings about his career and legacy feel impossible to capture. Part of that, I’m sure, is the shock that I, and the rest of the NBA community, is feeling right now. But a bigger part is that, no matter how much time passes, Kobe will always be an outsized figure — a man who did things worth lionizing and things deserving of condemnation, a player whose impact on both the NBA and its wider culture is incalculable.

Even though I’m from Akron, growing up, we still yelled Kobe’s name when we threw wadded up pieces of paper in the trashcan, after all.

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