There is a display outside Kobe Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School filled with the five-time NBA champion’s memorabilia that is known as a shrine.
He is viewed like a deity at the school, where he starred before jumping straight to the NBA in 1996 and becoming part of the national consciousness.
I, as a manager of the freshmen basketball team who regretted taking on that job and was convinced he should have been a playing member of the squad instead, lack of height and lateral quickness be damned, had a chance to ask him a question once.
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It’s all a little fuzzy now, 10 or so years later, but it had something to do with mentality at the foul line, or having a routine, or bouncing back from adversity. We’d all submitted questions on index cards ahead of his visit back to home turf, and I was lucky enough to be chosen, to stand up, be briefly introduced, and have one of the greatest basketball players ever give me an answer.
I wish I had a better memory of his response — I recall the gist having to do with sticking to his habits, trusting his work, absorbing failure and being motivated by the moments when he’d come up short. It was what you expected from Kobe, and delivered with apparent sincerity, like it wasn’t a question he’d already heard dozens of times. He made me feel like I’d asked a smart question, which I probably hadn’t.
He died Sunday at 41 years old in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Gianna, one of his four daughters, is also gone. She was 13, loved basketball and should have had many decades in front of her. It’s hard to wrap your head around it all.
As I got further and further away from being a teenager thrilled to be able to say he “went to Kobe’s high school,” I recognized he wasn’t a saint. He was a flawed person who grated many teammates and, during his career, sometimes cared more about winning basketball games than being nice or being a friend. It’s what we tend to expect and demand from athletes, and he embodied a pure ruthlessness that was easy to admire from a distance but, it seems, difficult to live with at times. He made a lot of people happy — teammates, coaches, fans around the world — because he was such an uncompromising jerk.
Glossing over the sexual assault case that stemmed from a 2003 incident in Eagle, Colorado, would feel like willful ignorance. I probably wasn’t the only kid who heard bits and pieces about consent and infidelity and pulled endorsements deals, not understanding much of it, but keen enough to know that something had fundamentally changed. It was and is disturbing, and it can't be erased.
The redemption narrative is hackneyed and overplayed and on occasion nauseating in sports, and yet it was natural to apply with Bryant. One of the many reasons the news of his death was so stunning was the trajectory toward chipping away or making good — or really any comforting cliche you want to use — ended. We’re left wondering what he would have done in the 40 more years he should have lived, telling ourselves that he would have lifted his daughters and been a mentor and reconciled past mistakes, but forever unsure.
We talk a lot about “second chances,” especially in sports. Bryant’s death helps clarify the concept, at least for me. In the wake of his and Gianna’s passing, it seems I’m inclined to want everyone besides perhaps the most vile among us to have every chance the world will allow.
The unpalatable side of that idea is the eagerness with which we welcome back those with checkered pasts if they’re talented athletes or hold substantial power in some form. The other side is the instinctive human understanding that more years, more opportunities and more time to figure out what’s wrong with us and fix it is a good thing.
To put it simply, we love having hope, regardless of how rational it is, and we hate when there’s none.
Bryant, a notorious superhuman once characterized by wee-hour workouts and profane jabbering and unconditional ego, seemed to have progressed. He sat courtside with Gianna at arenas around the country, molded her game, coached her teams. If you were passively observing it all with optimism, maybe he was filtering out a few of his mistakes and imparting a mature wisdom now that the competitive fire had cooled a little bit.
Maybe she would have remembered a “Mamba Mentality” motto here and there, but you figure she would have mostly just called upon random tidbits and hazy memories as she forged her own path and worked at becoming a WNBA player.
She would have had a chance to further become her own person, create her own defining moments and make her parents proud.
Bryant’s legacy is complicated, without a doubt. I worry I’d be excessively glorifying a self-proclaimed a--hole when I consider highlighting his illustrious basketball career, and think I might be fixating on a piece of his life best left untouched for now when I mention his sexual assault case.
The central truth beyond debate is that Gianna and her father not being here any longer is devastating for the Bryant family, for those who know them personally, and for the millions who followed them from a distance and wanted time to be kind.