LOS ANGELES ― When John-Lancaster Finley learned of Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday, he was left to mourn a man who was a major part of his childhood. As a Black kid growing up in Southern California, Finley looked up to Bryant. When he and his friends played ball, they pretended to be the NBA star. The legendary Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard made them feel like they could do anything.
But Finley’s grief had an undercurrent of anger. The fact that Bryant had been accused of rape in 2003 weighed on him, especially since Finley now works as an anti-sexual assault advocate.
On Monday, the 25-year-old left work early to sit near a basketball court and reckon with his contradictory feelings. He wished Bryant had always been that strong version of himself captured in so many bedroom-wall posters. Why couldn’t he have been perfect?
“Having to accept that deep humanity of Kobe is a very, very hard and arduous thing to do,” he said. “These icons and idols are also just humans.”
Over the past few days, the same struggle Finley grappled with has played out, on- and offline and on a grand scale, with much less nuanced results. In Los Angeles, the mood was somber following the crash. Buses flashed “RIP KOBE” in addition to their route numbers; landmarks, including the LAX pylons and City Hall, were lit in the Lakers’ colors of purple and gold. Many sported their Lakers jerseys, proudly repping Bryant’s numbers, 8 and 24. It seemed everyone was talking about the tragedy, or at least thinking about it.
As people mourned publicly, two divergent narratives about the athlete’s legacy emerged. Kobe Bryant was a hero, said one. Kobe Bryant was a rapist undeserving of praise, said the other.
The mudslinging became so toxic that a Washington Post journalist received death threats and was forced to seek safety in a hotel room after tweeting out a 2016 investigation into Bryant’s sexual assault allegation on Sunday. The flow of online tributes from high-profile figures like former President Barack Obama was disrupted by others who wanted Bryant’s rape allegations to define his legacy.
Bryant’s death has brought up complicated and uncomfortable questions, ones that have become more common in the Me Too era: How do we reckon with beloved people who do horrible things? How do we make space for the pain survivors feel, and for how much Bryant meant to sports fans and the Black community and other people of color?
“For me, as a 31-year-old Black woman, Kobe is such a huge part of my culture,” said Danielle Cadet, managing editor of Refinery29’s Unbothered and On Her Turf and a former HuffPost editor. As a kid, she had Bryant posters on her bedroom wall, and she grew up wanting to wear his jerseys. Cadet didn’t just see him as an elite athlete; she saw him as “an incredible human.” But she worried that posting about her grief might suggest she was being insensitive to survivors of sexual violence.
Miles Brinkley has also been trying to balance his personal pain with the pain that Bryant’s accuser, and victims everywhere, must be feeling in the wake of his death.
“Kobe Byrant was my childhood,” said the 24-year-old, who lives in San Francisco. Brinkley was 6 years old when he first watched the NBA All-Star play in person, and said Bryant’s performance “took my breath away... It was like this is a magic show.” The player’s death has left a huge hole in his life, but he’s determined “not to erase the bad” aspects of Bryant’s legacy.
“He did change a woman’s life forever in a very awful way, and that doesn’t go away,” Brinkley said. “He’s a legend but he’s not above being human.”
Evette Dionne described grieving Bryant’s death as “one of the most difficult things I’ve struggled with in a very long time.” Dionne, the editor-in-chief of Bitch Media, said Bryant was always part of her life, and that her older brother who played high school basketball worshipped the former Laker.
She feels protective of what he means to the Black community, but as a feminist, she takes his sexual assault allegations very seriously. “I’m struggling and, in many respects, failing to articulate and hold space for both those things,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest homage to Bryant continues to grow outside the Los Angeles Staples Center ― known as “the house that Kobe built” ― where people lined up on Friday for the Lakers’ first game since news of Bryant’s death. And some of Bryant’s most die-hard fans weren’t eager to dwell on the basketball legend’s less celebrated history.
Wendy Walker, a 40-year-old Los Angeles native, said Bryant made her feel “proud of being from L.A.”
When asked about the accusations against Bryant, Walker said: “Yes, that was something in his life that happened, but that’s not what this is about.”
“It’s about celebrating” a player “who changed the whole dynamic of basketball,” she said. “He gave us a hell of a ride. His name speaks for itself. That was a glitch in his life, but we all make mistakes and he paid his dues. It’s about the person he was after that. What did he do after that? So much.”
Brandon Ocampl, from Lakewood, California, came to Staples with his wife and daughter to memorialize a man who he said meant “everything to him.”
“I idolized him no matter where I was. Watching his games always felt like home to me,” he said, tearing up.
When asked about the allegations against Bryant, Ocampl paused briefly.
“Any time Kobe’s name comes up, you have to look at everything in totality, and obviously that’s always going to be there,” he said.
But he said this week is a time to mourn.
“It’s surreal that this is happening,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s been therapeutic to see everyone come together and see [the] impact and reach he’s had, especially here in L.A.”
No One Should Be Defined By The Worst Thing They’ve Done
Many critics of Bryant, like many of his defenders, have shown a certain desire to oversimplify his history. It’s easier to think that everyone accused of rape is a one-dimensional monster, and not, say, a celebrated athlete who also championed women’s sports and loved being a “Girl Dad.”
In reality, it’s complicated. Sexual predators are often people we trust, like family members, friends and pillars of the community, said Tod Augusta-Scott, a counselor who works with male offenders of sexual and domestic violence at the Bridges Institute. But perpetuating these stereotypes also means we miss an opportunity to talk about what sexual assault really looks like, and to engage perpetrators in a conversation about how to prevent it.
Augusta-Scott says no person should be defined entirely by the worst thing they’ve done.
Of course it’s triggering for survivors to watch Bryant being lauded with no mention of the rape allegation. The erasure discourages survivors from reporting their own abuse, and is a painful reminder that a powerful man’s legacy is treated as more important than a woman’s basic human right to safety.
But Dionne said there’s a way to highlight the accusation without erasing what Bryant meant to communities of color. Immediately following his death, she noticed that mostly white women were posting about the sex assault allegation without asking themselves: “How can I broach this in a way that holds this victim’s trauma, without saying that if you are mourning someone’s death you are wrong and that you are a villain and that you are anti-feminist?”
Brinkley said it’s important for every fan to acknowledge Kobe’s sexual assault allegation, and also acknowledge that he seemed to have grown as a person later in his career. “Do we want to highlight the bad, but also admit to ourselves that this is an example of someone that’s been able to do good?” he said. “Or are we just going to stay fixated on the awful thing he did? It’s a choice.”
Brinkley, Cadet and Dionne are going through a psychologically challenging process. Bryant is worshipped as an icon, so it can be hard for fans to reconcile with the idea that he could have done anything wrong, much less criminal.
Bryant’s legacy includes a 2003 charge of raping a 19-year-old woman at a hotel in Colorado. He told police they had consensual sex, but also allegedly admitted to choking her. She backed out of the trial after her identity, and sealed transcripts detailing her sexual history, were leaked to the press, and Bryant’s lawyers publicly attacked her credibility. At her request, Bryant issued an apology that acknowledged his accuser’s version of the events.
When a loved one or an idol is accused of something horrible, people usually have one of two extreme reactions: to denounce them or ignore the information entirely, according to Ziv Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. People who deny or repress someone’s bad behavior want to preserve their original image of that person, said Lori Haskell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual violence. The more someone identifies with or relies on a person, the more likely they are to defend them.
“People don’t want to taint their image of him with this discordant behaviour of the sexual assault,” Haskell told HuffPost in an email. “It is better to split it off so they can hold onto and treasure their worship and delight.”
No Simple Way To Grieve
There are no simple answers when it comes to grieving complicated people, especially when the mourning is so public.
Journalist and editor Stacy-Marie Ishmael pointed out to HuffPost that “grief is rarely nuanced,” and that expecting “widespread reasoned dialogue and considered responses” in the wake of a tragedy is perhaps unrealistic.
“That requires an emotional remove that is hard to deliver when children have just died,” Ishmael said. She encouraged everyone to have conversations “about accountability, about justice, about forgiveness, about redemption, about personal growth and responsibility” all the time.
Every individual has the right to make their own assessment about what Bryant’s death means, just as every person has to decide whether they still feel comfortable watching Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” or reruns of “The Cosby Show,” or listening to comedy by Louis C.K. or Aziz Ansari.
The danger lies in denying the totality of Bryant’s story, whether by erasing his accomplishments and what he symbolizes to his fans, or by denying that he could be capable of committing rape when there was a credible accusation against him.
Ishmael stressed that what everyone needs — and needs to give others — is grace and space.
“We need to model how we hold space for all these different feelings,” said Jeff Perera, a public speaker who focuses on healthy masculinity. “And it’s OK to mourn the person you thought [Bryant] was and also complete that picture, have a holistic look at who the man was. [We] should be able to say ‘I love Kobe Bryant the man, the player, and also say he did some harmful things.’”
The rush to have a Big Definitive Take within hours of someone’s death wallpapers over this necessary work.
Finley, the anti-sexual assault advocate from California, plans to linger in his messy feelings rather than coming up with a tidy sound bite about how Bryant should be remembered.
“How, in 24 hours, would I know exactly how I feel about Kobe Bryant?” he told HuffPost on Monday. “I think there is a wisdom in waiting and feeling through everything before jumping in and telling other people how to feel.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.