The first time I saw Kobe Bryant in person was in the mid-2000s. I was in High School and I was obsessed with basketball, as was my perpetual state.
I babysat a girl once a week and developed a friendship with one of her mothers. Like so many of the bonds I’ve made in life, ours was through basketball. We talked hoops every time I showed up.
One day she told me she was getting us tickets to a Warriors game. Maybe it was for my birthday, maybe for Christmas, maybe just because. “Warriors vs. Lakers,” she told me. I countered that she could save a lot of money by opting for Warriors vs. Literally Anybody Else. She smirked, then replied, “No. We need to see Kobe while he’s still Kobe.”
I don’t remember who won the game, though I presume the Lakers. I don’t remember what year it was, or who was on that Warriors team. All I remember is one play: Kobe drove into the lane and began to leap, with seemingly all of his mass moving to the right. He met a wall of helpless defenders and, for a brief second, disappeared. I lost him behind the outstretched arms of futile interior defense. Somehow, defying what little I knew of physics, he emerged on his left side, where he gracefully kissed the ball off the glass with his off hand.
One of the beauties of Kobe was that he reminded us, at every turn, that anything was possible with enough dedication and sheer will. And one of the tragedies is that, in that moment, I internalized that this lesson was false. Try as I may, there was no chance in hell I could ever do what he just did.
The last time I saw Kobe Bryant in person was in July. This time I was on the clock, covering the WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas.
Kobe showed up with his daughter, Gianna, a basketball celebrity in her own right. They sat courtside, next to one of the only duos that could hold a candle to their athletic prowess: Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe.
As the festivities passed, from pre-game to in-game to post-game, seemingly every player in the WNBA came over to say hi to Kobe and Gianna. As they lined up to speak to Gianna - a girl they openly and honestly believed would later step foot on that same court as a pro - I couldn’t help but stare at Kobe’s face. The trademark glare that plastered his mug during his playing days had been replaced by the largest and most earnest of smiles as he watched his daughter.
Too often we label a person’s legacy as “complicated.” Kobe Bryant’s legacy was not complicated. It was full of good, laid out for all to see, and bad, laid out equally plain to see.
Like his playing style, Kobe’s highs were implausibly high, and his lows were frighteningly low. To summarily label his legacy as “complicated” is to reduce the importance of both ends of the spectrum.
The accolades, poetic grace, and inconceivable creativity of his basketball alchemy do not exist in a vacuum, and any story pretending they do is only half-written. Any complete story of his must highlight his transgressions - primarily the 2004 rape trial in which he admitted to having sex with a woman who did not view the situation as consensual.
He berated teammates and opponents, yet they worship him. He used the WNBA as his redemption without ever fully addressing the rape allegations, yet the league’s players are effusive in their adoration and gratefulness for support that was seemingly unmatched. He displayed tireless devotion to his four daughters, while being a problematic role model to our sons.
He showed us that the impossible was possible. Then he reminded us what people will overlook in the name of lionization.
Our reconciliation of him may be complicated, but his legacy is not. He was good and he was bad.
You see Kobe everywhere you see basketball. In every crumpled up piece of paper tossed in a trash bin. In every fadeaway jumper at every park and every gym. In every NBA player.
Whether you loved his play or hated his play, loved his person or hated his person, Kobe Bryant’s presence pulses through the bloodline of basketball.
It always will.