What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done—or been implicated in? What’s the worst mistake you ever made? Were you entirely innocent, or at least, in some minor way, culpable? If innocent, did you let the anger at the injustice define you, or allow your goodness to speak for itself? If not, do you consider yourself a better person with better perspective now? If you could do it all over again, would you make the same choices that led to your implication in the situation? Given that you can’t—none of us can—have you done everything in your power to counter that misstep?
The fact is, none of us lives a regret-free life, and while that doesn’t always involve crime, doing bodily harm, catalyzing a cultural shift or even jeopardizing our “legacy,” each of us is responsible for how we process and atone for any of our inevitable wrongdoings. And in the end, each of us is left with the question:
How would we like to be remembered?
In the two brief weeks since Kobe Bryant’s tragic death—a death that occurred in tandem with eight others, including a daughter who was following in his hallowed footsteps on the court—much (arguably, too much) has been said about the man, the myth, and the mistakes he made in his too-brief life. And whether you are prone to dismiss “Colorado” as a crime allegedly committed by Kobe or label him a rapist outright, at the very least, you must concede that it was an avoidable incident. That’s not a fact that destroys the wonder inherent in his legacy; it’s simply a fact that humanizes it.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t a god. He wasn’t a superhero; though his athletic prowess was often otherworldly. Kobe was a man—a ridiculously talented basketball player, yes; but also a son, a husband, a father, a teammate, a friend, a philanthropist, and a person as flawed as any of us. By all accounts, he didn’t live in denial of that fact, so why should we? Whether or not he ever conceded to committing a crime in Colorado, he spent the rest of his days trying to reconcile with the mistake of even being there, as he told the Washington Post’s Kent Babb in a late-2018 interview:
I don’t know what would’ve happened had I not figured it out. Because the whole process for me was trying to figure out how to cope with this. I wasn’t going to be passive and let this thing just swallow me up. You’ve got a responsibility: Family, baby, organization, whole city, yourself—how do you figure out how to overcome this? Or just deal with it and not drown from this thing? And so it was this constant quest: To figure out how do you do that, how do you do that, how do you do that? So I was bound to figure something out because I was so obsessively concerned about it.
“Obsessive concern” seems to be equally prevalent among the grieving friends and legions of fans Bryant left in his wake; many of whom would prefer to memorialize a hero than to honor his humanity in full.
But ask yourself: What service does that truly do Bryant’s legacy? Believe it or not, much of “Black Mamba”’s greatness—including the moniker itself—was catalyzed by what was presumably the greatest mistake of his life, and what he did with that painfully reverberating lesson is the best that any of us can hope to do with our biggest failings. While redemption and forgiveness may not be ours to give or earn, neither is cherry-picking the parts of our personal histories that are the most flattering.
Whether you believed Kobe worthy of forgiveness or not (again: not yours or mine to give), save a time machine, he was undeniably doing the best he could to counter that mistake. It was evident in his words, his efforts, and the initiatives he championed (even as he still took a contrarian stance on some major social justice issues). To deny that mistakes were made—even devastating and life-altering ones—is to deny the work Kobe was seemingly doing to evolve. To cherry-pick means you inevitably throw out any good that sprang from the bad.
What we’ve seen this past week—the shaming of survivors, journalists and anyone who dares to mention anything but Kobe’s stellar career and rebranding as a “girl dad”—is in many ways a denial of the totality of his greatness, and the life he was building off the court. If our worst moments shouldn’t define us, neither should our best. We are, all of us, humans; simply the sum of our parts.
In his post-court life, Kobe was already becoming defined as a “great” beyond basketball. It’s devastating that he will never fully fulfill that promise. Recognizing his mistakes—and their repercussions—doesn’t diminish that.
As I’ve watched—and to a minor extent, experienced—the rage directed at anyone who attempts to examine Kobe’s 41 years in their totality (and speaking from the age of 44, trust: it hurts to consider. There’s so much left to learn, experience and do) the hashtag #IStandWithGayle is a bittersweet one. While it’s reaffirming to see people rise in defense of Gayle King after vicious, overreactive and largely unwarranted attacks, the so-called defenders of Kobe’s legacy are unwittingly redefining it as a gender war. Their reluctance to accept the good along with the bad is a juvenile yet particularly poisonous response to the responsibilities of adulthood that Kobe himself readily accepted.
Because for all his faults—and God rest his soul—Kobe grew up. When will we?