Despite all the words spilled since news broke that basketball legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people killed in a California helicopter crash early on January 26, "redemption" has seldom been used. But in my view, it may be the most appropriate.
I offer as evidence two vastly different reactions to Bryant at Denver Nuggets games.
The last time I saw the man who'd dubbed himself Black Mamba in person, a few years back, the Nuggets were beating him and his Los Angeles Lakers crew in a playoff face-off that stands as one of the most thrilling live sporting events I've ever experienced. Afterward, the jubilant throng, engaging in typical fans-versus-opponents trash talk, began chanting "Eagle County! Eagle County!" — a reference to accusations that he'd forced a woman to have sex at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Edwards circa July 2003. Charges against Bryant were eventually dropped, and he settled a civil suit over the matter in 2005.
Cut to yesterday afternoon, when the Nuggets, during a home game at the Pepsi Center against the Houston Rockets, offered a moment of silence in tribute to Bryant and the other victims of the crash — and the only sounds came from bereft players and spectators trying to hold back their honest, heartfelt and exceedingly raw emotions.
The contrast between these responses speaks to one of the most remarkable and unexpected personal journeys taken by a public figure in recent decades.
By a bizarre coincidence, I'm currently reading Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant by Roland Lazenby, a biography released in the wake of the subject's 2016 retirement that I can't recommend highly enough, especially now. I have not yet reached the section of the book dealing with Colorado; chronologically, I'm at the point immediately following the Lakers' 1999 hiring of coach Phil Jackson and assistant Tex Winter, the Yoda of the triangle offense, which presaged three consecutive championship runs for Bryant and dominant center Shaquille O'Neal. But the preceding narrative offers a portrait of Bryant as a fascinating and complex figure — a young man extraordinarily driven to excel on the court but utterly alien to his teammates owing to a childhood spent largely in Italy, where his father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, played professional basketball after his NBA career sputtered. Yet even as Bryant had difficulty communicating with O'Neal and teammates, he was an absolute natural with the press, who saw him as warm, passionate and highly intelligent.
Bryant would need every ounce of his media skill after the Eagle County incident, which we named one of the top ten events of the early 2000s covered by Westword . I traveled to Eagle County for Bryant's first in-person court appearance, an event chronicled in my August 14, 2003, piece "Welcome to Kobeville," and the scene was surreal: enough satellite trucks from national news organizations to cover a Super Bowl, a horde of high-profile media stars, and at least a hundred spectators, some of whom carried purple-and-gold balloons (Laker colors) or waved signs saying things like, "If the condom doesn't fit, you must acquit." The hearing itself lasted about as long as the average commercial break on network television — the only words Bryant spoke during it were "No, sir" — but the spectacle lasted for hours.
The resulting embarrassment and shame would have permanently dimmed most luminaries, but not Bryant, who managed to surmount the legal obstacles while continuing to play at a high level. And after prosecutors decided not to move the case forward, he delivered an apology to the young woman in question, in which he acknowledged that she didn't share his view that their encounter had been consensual.
Now it can be told: I knew the name of Bryant's accuser long before it was leaked by Internet trolls because, in a prime example of how small a state Colorado actually is, my mom was a friend of her grandmother. As a result, I heard things that I couldn't report then and won't report now, beyond noting that there's absolutely no evidence, in my view, that the woman was looking for a quick payday.
Bryant, for his part, seemed to genuinely learn from his errors, and over the years, he became arguably the most prominent booster of women's basketball — a mission likely inspired by his four daughters, including Gianna, seen with her dad in the following video, from 2017.
These efforts weren't simply publicity stunts. Bryant put in the time to build mentor relationships with the likes of Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, whose reaction to his death was utterly poignant. And the same was true for countless celebrities, foremost among them LeBron James, who sang Bryant's praises the night before the latter's death, after passing him on the all-time scoring list. Bryant responded with a tweet of congratulations that couldn't have been classier.
Although cynics may dismiss this gesture as a canny PR move, I see it as a genuine expression of Bryant's maturity. True, he was so beloved that the public simply chose not to believe the worst about him, much as they supported Peyton Manning, whom a female trainer at the University of Tennessee once charged with shoving his naked ass in her face. But since Eagle County, Bryant really seemed to have made an effort to become a better person — and in his post-basketball career, marked by a 2018 Academy Award for the short film Dear Basketball, this process accelerated.
We can't know what Bryant would have done with the decades that should have been left to him. But in death, he offers hope that people who've made mistakes can make up for them. In the #MeToo age, debate continues about whether the likes of Denver's T.J. Miller should ever again be allowed a public platform. But at last night's Grammy Awards, held in the Staples Center, where Bryant's jerseys hang in the rafters, host Alicia Keys, a fervent advocate in the fight against sexual violence, called Kobe a hero.
That's a long way from Eagle County.
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