It came like an avalanche; suddenly, all at once it seemed that the world had screeched to a stop. As I glanced down at my Facebook, I found myself staring at an article that most assuredly seemed like a joke. A hoax the kind that every celebrity from Judd Nelson to Will Smith has been subject to at one point or another.
But this was no hoax. At least, it didn't seem to be. There, in clean and legible type, on the front page of a legitimate publication was plastered the official news: Kobe Bryant was pronounced dead in a helicopter crash in California.
Now, I'm not a particularly large Kobe fan. Truly given the absolute morose state of the Milwaukee Bucks the last few decades, I haven't had much reason to get excited about basketball beyond the larger narrative arcs of the Golden State dynasty and LeBron's circuitous journey to a championship.
And yet, even so there was no way to not know Kobe Bryant. I mean this is Kobe we're talking about. One of the biggest figures who excelled on the biggest stage of one of North America's biggest sports. He didn't just have national appeal, but a place in the international consciousness. At only 41 years old there was every belief that he'd be here for years to come.
And yet, just like that he was gone. For a solid five minutes on Sunday I sat around a table with five fellow nerds, our passionate play of Dungeons and Dragons momentarily suspended as we stared dumbly at our phones and let the collective force of his untimely death flatten us into pancakes.
Hardly 24 hours before LeBron James had just passed Kobe for third on the all-time scoring list. And, just like that, he was gone.
He was gone, and in his wake he left a grieving family, a grieving community, and a frankly complicated legacy. Because despite all of the on-court heroics, the multiple championship triumphs and MVP awards, Kobe Bryant had quietly become a disconcerting figure in a time period focused on the empowerment of survivors of sexual assault.
Unbeknownst to me (and based on discussions with my friends, peers, and coworkers the following solemn Monday, I would wager that it was unbeknownst to them as well) Kobe Bryant had been arrested and charged with the rape of a young woman in Eagle, Colorado after a brief stay he made at a hotel there in 2003.
The case had been moving quickly to trial and seemed likely to jeopardize the superstar standing of one of the NBA's best young players. Even by that point in time, Kobe had already won three championships and four All-Star selections. If convicted Kobe was facing the possibility of life in prison.
None of it came to pass of course, as the historical record will tell you. Although Kobe admitted to having sex with the woman, he maintained that the affair was consensual. Additionally, Bryant's lawyers challenged the veracity of the physical evidence presented by the prosecution (some of the DNA seemed to have been mishandled) and the survivor refused to testify in open court. The judge summarily dismissed the case and Kobe Bryant returned to the precipice of his stardom.
What's most shocking about that 2003 case though is the kind of language Bryant later used in an out of court settlement of a civil suit eventually brought forth by the woman. While the details of the settlement were not released to the public, Bryant did issue a public apology: "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
An obviously complex apology that seems dangerously tantamount to a confession, it's difficult to imagine such a statement finding any sympathy in the #MeToo era. Indeed, it does seem that there has been renewed criticism of the handling of Kobe's 2003 case and his actions therein, even as recently as two years ago when his animated short film won an Oscar. It seems a pertinent question in the spirited but sometimes haphazard justice of the age. As Robin Abcarian pointed out in 2018, "Why are the sexual misdeeds of some men forgivable, while others are not?"
Even now, in this historical moment, the weight of whether or not to criticize Kobe, at a time when he is being celebrated by most, is posing serious consequences for professionals navigating the complexity of a great athlete who simultaneously bore with him the weight of near unerasable wrongdoing.
I myself have struggled for the past two and a half days about how exactly to remember Kobe Bryant. Especially as a college student, the issue of sexual assault weighs heavy and immediate within my imagination. As a loving citizen of this liberal democracy, despite all its flaws, so does the issue of due process.
Though it may be foolhardy to expect to find the answer to such complex questions a mere 54 hours after the man's passing, I believe a tweet by Evan Rachel Wood (itself the subject of much controversy) does at least half the job: "I am heartbroken for Kobe's family. He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of those truths can exist simultaneously."
While I'm here to neither relitigate the details of the 2003 case, nor definitively assign Kobe's place amongst the pantheon of NBA greats, the idea of a multiplicity of stories surrounding a person is something I can endorse wholeheartedly. It's in the very basis of this world and our own fallible human nature.
Consider for a moment the legacy of any number of "great men" of history. Our founding fathers enslaved their fellow human beings while simultaneously doggedly pursuing the utmost ideals of freedom and liberty. While John F. Kennedy was pursuing a new technological age of American excellence and Martin Luther King, Jr. was determinedly trying to cash the check that had been so long denied to so many black Americans, both were unfaithful to their wives in multitude.
It's in such facts that we can safely rest the messy complexities of our own lives. If one can pardon the brag, while I myself have often been considered a leader and an outstanding character in the communities which I've been a member of, I am far from a faultless, totally righteous, moral character. I've failed plenty of times, big and small. Plenty of times that have elicited criticism, and surely plenty of times that should've elicited criticism. While I consider myself a good person and endeavor to be a good person in the ways I move through the world, I am not a perfect person. I will not lay claim to that, on this day or any other.
It is in such thoughts that I can safely say, there are no great men, no great women of history, only complicated ones.
That may not be an answer that totally satisfies our appetite for justice and clean division. But it is a starting point upon which we can continue the conversation of life in all its facets.
So, even while prayers of healing and prayer are sent to Kobe's widow and their children, we may also send prayers of healing to that woman who disappeared from the history books 17 years ago. I believe our capacity for love is big enough for that.