The reverberations of Kobe Bryant
By Jon Allsop
Yesterday afternoon, amid a busy news Sunday on multiple fronts, the basketball legend Kobe Bryant died in California, and our media took a sharp collective breath. Bryant, who was 41, was killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, close to LA. Eight other people died, including Bryant’s daughter Gianna, who was 13; her basketball teammate Alyssa Altobelli; and Altobelli’s father, John, a baseball coach at Orange Coast College, and his wife, Keri. Celebrity deaths almost always cause an outpouring; this one—amplified by its randomness and human cost, as well as Bryant’s legend—felt especially raw. The New York Times called it “a moment of national mourning, coast to coast.” In LA, thousands of people flocked to the Staples Center, where Bryant played for the Lakers, his only NBA team; last night, the arena hosted the Grammys, which saw multiple Bryant tributes. Bill Plaschke, a sports columnist at the LA Times (which dropped its paywall from Bryant stories), wrote that he was “screaming right now, cursing into the sky, crying into my keyboard, and I don’t care who knows it.” He told his readers to “cry with me, weep and wail and shout into the streets, fill a suddenly empty Los Angeles with your pain.”
Much of the mourning happened on social media, which was fitting, since Bryant was and will remain an online phenomenon. Bill Simmons, of The Ringer, noted on his podcast that Bryant’s career “spanned basically the entire internet, and how it intersected with basketball in all these different ways”—from his NBA debut in 1996 (“right when most people have email”) through early sports blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. “He’s there every step of the way and becomes the defining guy of his generation,” Simmons said. After Bryant retired in 2016, he doubled down on multimedia performance: he founded a studio that made an ESPN+ show and a family podcast, oversaw the publication of fantasy books for children, and even won an Oscar, in 2018, for Dear Basketball, an animated short film based on a poem Bryant wrote ahead of his retirement. On Thursday, three days before Bryant’s death, USA Today ran a recent interview in which Bryant reflected on his post-career projects, as well as his pride in his Oscar and other movie awards. “They’re at the top for me,” he said.
In other words, and as many observers have noted since his death, Bryant was a transcendent figure in the culture. His death “kinda feels bigger than basketball. It feels more like Prince,” Chris Ryan, also of The Ringer, said on Simmons’s podcast. “I know that this is a completely useless metric, but there is something weird about when somebody passes into the one-name category: Prince, Bowie, Kobe.”
Not that the reaction to Bryant’s death was uniformly laudatory. Many observers, some of them journalists, tweeted about a historic rape allegation against Bryant which was made, in 2003, by a hotel worker in Colorado. Bryant was arrested, but his alleged victim—who faced pressure from the media and Bryant’s lawyers—declined to testify against him, and so the case collapsed; Bryant claimed the sex was consensual, but later settled with the hotel worker, and acknowledged that “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Many news reports and reflections on Bryant’s death mentioned the episode, but they often did so as a footnote, or in passing. Online, some critics said his alleged victim had been erased by the wave of public grief; critics of the critics, including in right-wing media, called that conclusion insensitive.
Hagiography is a tempting impulse whenever a beloved figure dies, but it often distorts the truth, which is usually far messier. It exerts a flattening effect, when moments of shared remembrance should be times for nuance and complexity. As Rob Mahoney asked yesterday, also for The Ringer: “How can we process the death around us without coming to terms with the mythologies we create? Bryant is everything that he has ever done, with all of the painful complexity that entails. What was admirable about him can still be admirable. What was troubling can still be troubling.”
As we’ve come to know all too well, the internet can have a profoundly distorting effect on any walk of life. But the internet is not one thing: it can pull us apart, but it can also bring us together around difficult events; it can make myths, but it can also offer important checks on them that may otherwise go unoffered. And it can channel and reflect the deep complexity of real life and real characters. “He engaged you on an emotional level the way very few athletes do,” Ryan told Simmons yesterday, of Bryant. “You can respect athletes, you can fear athletes, you can hate athletes. Kobe had the ability to trigger all of those emotions in me.”
Below, more on Kobe Bryant:
- TMZ: The celebrity-watching gossip website TMZ was first to report Bryant’s death; in the past, it was also first to the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince. Later, law enforcement officials in LA chided the site for breaking the news while officers were still investigating, and before they had fully notified family members of people on board the helicopter. CNN’s Oliver Darcy has more.
- Covering Kobe: Yesterday, several sports journalists—including Plaschke, of the LA Times, and Jackie MacMullan, of ESPN—shared their reflections on past interactions with Bryant. Writing in The Atlantic, Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN, recalled talking at length with Bryant after she called him out on air for “dismissive comments” he’d made about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager who was killed in Florida in 2012. “That was Kobe,” Hill writes. “He was never afraid to speak up, and certainly not afraid to defend his opinions, however unpopular.”
- Kobe the storyteller: For the New Yorker, Louisa Thomas writes that Bryant was basketball’s “great storyteller… At times, this quality could make him seem a little slick, aware of his own personal mythology,” Thomas says. “But as his career progressed—and as he fought back from injury after injury—he became more expansive about the narrative power of sports, its ability to transform an inner struggle into an outer one.” (In 2014, Ben McGrath profiled Bryant for the same magazine.)
- A bad mistake: During a newscast in the UK last night, the BBC mistakenly cut a package of Bryant with footage of LeBron James, who just passed Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The broadcaster apologized.
Other notable stories:
- Last night, a huge scoop for the Times: according to Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt, a forthcoming book by John Bolton, the former national security adviser, will allege that Trump explicitly tied military aid to his demands that Ukraine investigate his rivals. (A draft of the book—which is slated to appear March 17, under the title, The Room Where It Happened—was submitted to the White House for prepublication review; last night, Bolton’s lawyer blamed officials there for leaking details to the Times.) Bolton’s account piles further pressure on Republican senators to subpoena Bolton as a witness in Trump’s impeachment trial. Today, Trump’s defense will start in earnest; his lawyers opened on Saturday, but offered only a “trailer” of their arguments after Trump called the Saturday morning slot “Death Valley in TV.” They’re expected to train fire on the Bidens.
- Also over the weekend, a lawyer for Lev Parnas—an indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani who is at the center of the Ukraine imbroglio—made public a recording of a private meeting, in 2018, at which Parnas and Igor Fruman, another indicted Giuliani associate, talked with Trump about Marie Yovanovitch, the since-ousted US ambassador to Ukraine. On the tape, which was recorded by Fruman, Parnas is heard telling Trump that Yovanovitch was trash-talking him, and Trump is heard saying “Get rid of her.” The recording further undercuts Trump’s claims that he does not know Parnas and Fruman.
- On Friday, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly asked Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State, if he owed Yovanovitch an apology over her treatment. Pompeo walked out of the interview, then summoned Kelly to his private quarters, where he yelled at her for mentioning Ukraine and asked her to point at the country on a map. Afterward, Pompeo—who has previous with the press—accused Kelly of lying about the terms of the interview, of failing to keep their subsequent exchange off the record, and of pointing at Bangladesh, not Ukraine. Kelly says she never agreed to go off the record and that she pointed at Ukraine; emails obtained by the Post, meanwhile, show she never promised not to bring the country up. (ICYMI last week, Judith Matloff interviewed Kelly for CJR about her recent trip to Iran.)
- With the Iowa caucuses a week from today, new polls show Bernie Sanders in the lead in the state. On Saturday, the Des Moines Register endorsed Elizabeth Warren. (Unlike the Times, the Register restricted itself to one pick; some observers noticed a dig at the Times in the Register’s editorial.) Elsewhere in Iowa, the Sioux City Journal endorsed Joe Biden. And over in New Hampshire, the Union Leader endorsed Amy Klobuchar.
- China is taking emergency measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, with millions of residents on lockdown. State media has praised its response, but on social platforms, citizens are expressing “panic and frustration” and sharing alarming images, Daniel Victor writes for the Times. (Five coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the US.)
- Also for the Times, Farnaz Fassihi reconstructs how Iran shot down a Ukrainian airliner, then covered up its culpability. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards buttoned up about their involvement, which was even kept from President Hassan Rouhani; in the meantime, state media amplified official denials. Eventually, Iran came clean, to public opprobrium.
- On Friday, Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda, gave a press conference at Davos alongside Greta Thunberg and other white activists; afterward, the AP issued a photo with Nakate cropped out. Nakate told BuzzFeed that her omission was racist, and erased Africa. The AP, which issued other photos featuring Nakate, denied “ill intent.”
- And Fergal Keane is stepping down as the BBC’s Africa editor because decades of working in conflict zones has given him post-traumatic stress disorder. Keane’s bosses praised him for his openness, and pledged to find him a new role at the broadcaster.