The extent to which Kobe Bryant has been deeply, personally mourned by fans across the country, from cities that once only spoke his name as a bitter curse—full disclosure, mine included—has been remarkable.
It’s undeniably tragic that a 41-year old man would die in a helicopter crash, leaving his family behind; and the public grief is especially understandable in Los Angeles, where his 20-year career made him a fan favorite. NBA fans also know, however, that Bryant relished his role as something of a public villain, decried in turn for his occasionally selfish play, antagonistic style, and off-the-court controversy. Bryant was a competitor whose intensity got in the way of teamwork, and over the course of his career, he would drive not just his opponents, but league officials, executives and even teammates to frustration. Not that he cared—just count the five championships.
Still, Bryant eventually softened into a beloved elder statesman of the league, which is the persona that people largely chose to remember last week. It’s the most understandable thing in the world that most people would smooth over the spikier parts of his reputation in the wake of a genuine tragedy, but the national public mourning for Bryant stood apart even in that light. While it’s mostly explained by both the tragic nature of his death and his cultural ubiquity, it’s worth considering another way in which Bryant was unique: He may have been the last superstar of an era when sports fandom lacked its now-frequently intense political charge. He was a competitor whose talents you could memorialize, whatever your politics, without seeming to take a side.
Over the course of Kobe’s 20-year-long career, he remained consistently silent on political issues, in a way that by the time of his retirement seemed wildly anachronistic. Bryant’s apolitical attitude reflected the individual-focused, Jordan-era status quo in which he entered the league, but it eventually made him out of step with his younger counterparts, who have largely taken up the activist mantle of older icons like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Today’s NBA stars are eager not only to use their platform to amplify political and social causes, but to establish activism as a responsibility in its own right, as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and others did at the ESPY Awards in 2016. Even prominent head coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich—who are demographically more likely to be Trump supporters than liberal agitators—have earned reputations for speaking out against police shootings and the Trump administration in the bluntest terms.
That outspokenness has earned the NBA’s current reputation as the “woke” league among the four major American professional sports, recently given its first high-profile test by the intraleague debate over the morality of doing business with China. Bryant was a star in that country, surpassing even Michael Jordan’s peak fame in the U.S., with nascent Chinese business connections of his own. Chinese fans called him Xiao Fei Xia, or the “Little Flying Warrior.” He was, predictably, silent about the China-Hong Kong controversy, at least in public.
Bryant’s refusal to acknowledge the political and social dimensions of his career appropriately echoed his hero and predecessor in Jordan. At the height of his stardom, Jordan apocryphally justified his own recusal from politics by saying that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” But where Jordan saw his neutrality as an economic calculation, Kobe simply didn’t see the neutrality in the first place. Politics had nothing to do with his singular mission to destroy and demoralize his opponents, on or off the court. Therefore, they were unworthy of his public consideration.
Compare Bryant to his era-defining successor in LeBron James, who in addition to being one of the greatest players in the history of the game has repeatedly and vocally embraced his role as a political figure. In 2016, the year Bryant retired, James campaigned for Hillary Clinton in his home state of Ohio. After Trump’s election, he expressed skepticism that that future NBA champions would want to make the traditional White House visit. Bryant, on the other hand, stuck to a more nonpartisan “Rock the Vote”-style plea for participation in 2016, although he coyly noted that “you know what candidate I’m supporting.”
James’ debut as a major activist came in March 2012, when he tweeted out a now-famous photo showing him and his then-teammates on the Miami Heat wearing hoodies in solidarity with the recently murdered Trayvon Martin. The text that accompanied James’ photo was unambiguous about his intent: “#WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.”
Bryant was more circumspect. Regarding the Martin case, the Laker great said he “won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American,” as he told the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath in 2014. He positioned himself beyond classification as a spokesman for any group: “There is a bigger issue in terms of being an African-American athlete, and the box people try to put you in because of it.”
Bryant would later change his mind on the topic, speaking in support of Martin at a rally staged by the slain teenager’s parents. But his earlier statement was reflective of his status as the last of the NBA’s old guard—men who saw their superstar status as transcending their personal identity, at least in the public sphere.
Another conspicuous example of that dynamic, from far earlier in Bryant’s career, only recently came to light. Jerry West, a Laker legend who went on to serve as a top executive for the franchise, described during the aforementioned TNT panel a time in 2004 when Bryant confided in him his intent to leave the Lakers for their crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers. “I’ve never really mentioned this to anyone,” West said. “He was going to come and sign with the Clippers. … I said, ‘Kobe, you can’t go play with the Clippers. You can’t play for that owner. Period.’”
The Clippers were then owned by Donald Sterling, a notorious racist and slumlord who was banned from the NBA for life in 2014 when a tape of one of his offensive tirades surfaced. But Sterling’s reputation long preceded that bombshell. As part of a 2019 podcast from ESPN, former Clippers forward Olden Polynice described how, in the early 1990s, Sterling would ogle him and other black players in the locker room, and likened Sterling to a slave owner for his exhortation to no one in particular to “look at this buck.” It’s impossible to imagine that Bryant, who at that point had played his entire career in the same city at the Clippers, hadn’t heard such stories, if not worse.
And yet, he seemed to have his heart set on departing for the Clippers before West’s intervention. The simplest explanation for his indifference is that Bryant assumed his on-the-court greatness would make the surrounding circumstances irrelevant. His dissatisfaction with his circumstances on the Lakers, especially his personal clashes with O’Neal, was what led him to nearly leave the team in the first place. (Bryant ultimately spent his entire career as a Laker, almost unthinkable in today’s NBA).
Another superstar contemporary of Bryant’s is worth considering in this light: Allen Iverson, drafted first overall in the same 1996 draft class from which Bryant would be picked 13th. Iverson did not have the luxury of eschewing the politics that came with being a brash, successful black man in a league still dominated by white interests; politics repeatedly found him.
As a 17-year-old, Iverson was involved in a fight at a bowling alley that pit a group of black teens against a group of white teens. Prosecutors charged him with a felony, alleging that he hit a woman in the head with a chair—a charge Iverson denied, and which video evidence threw into doubt. Tried as an adult, Iverson was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Although he was granted clemency after just four months, the racial tensions at the heart of the case were unmistakable. They dogged Iverson for his entire career.
The two players also shared a deep connection to Philadelphia, where Iverson played nearly a decade’s worth of MVP-caliber basketball for the 76ers, and where Bryant became a phenom at Lower Merion High School after spending much of his childhood in Italy. Bryant’s upper-class, globetrotting upbringing as the son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant made him in many ways an outsider to his peers and teammates, and it might also explain how he could justify his consistent remove from America’s raging culture wars.
In the NBA, those wars reached a fever pitch in 2005, with the institution of the league’s now-infamous player dress code. Among other things, Iverson’s signature do-rag was banned from news conferences by the late commissioner David Stern, as part of an effort to rid the league of the hip-hop culture that Iverson proudly embodied. Which isn’t to say at all that Bryant existed outside that culture—far from it. But while players like Iverson and former Golden State Warriors star Jason Richardson openly protested, decrying the dress code as racist, Bryant quietly adapted, later describing the change as nothing but a mild annoyance on his way to continued glory.
At the time the dress code was implemented, Bryant was dealing with a major impediment to such glory. The 2003 sexual assault allegations against Bryant are impossible to ignore not only as part of his legacy, but as part of the heelish persona he meticulously constructed over the course of his career. Bryant spent much of the early-to-mid-2000s isolated as he shuttled back and forth between California and Colorado, where he faced first a criminal trial (eventually dismissed, after his accuser told prosecutors she would not testify), then a civil case brought by his accuser.
Bryant paid a price for his alleged actions, losing several major endorsements and being scorned by some fans and the media—though both the endorsements and goodwill were, for the most part, quickly recovered. During this period, Bryant invented the antagonistic “Black Mamba” persona that accompanied his second championship run through the late 2000s and early 2010s, best encapsulated by a late-career promotional video that demanded the viewer, like Kobe, “channel the villain [and] unleash the hero.” Lakers fans rallied around him, building a loyalty perhaps the strongest in any sport.
As Bryant aged, the lifelong exercise in self-branding that grew out of his authentic will to win mellowed into an enthusiastic love of mentorship and parenthood. When his helicopter crashed, Bryant was with his daughter on the way to the Mamba Sports Academy, which he launched in 2018 “to update the way men, women and youth approach human performance.” It was where he attentively encouraged the budding career of Gianna Bryant, who had hoped to play for the women’s basketball powerhouse University of Connecticut, and, eventually, the WNBA.
In retirement, Bryant grew somewhat bolder with his political speech, voicing his support for Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests and taking potshots at President Donald Trump on Twitter. He built his legacy during an era where all that NBA fans expected of their superstars was a ruthless, self-justifying dominance on the court, but he ended his career in a time when his successors felt a responsibility to use their power and platform for social good. He seemed in recent years to be working his way toward finding his own typically idiosyncratic place in that firmament.
And just as Bryant spent his career chasing Jordan’s legacy, in the aftermath of his death it became clear that today’s young NBA players idolized Bryant and his hypercompetitive nature in the same way. Although something singular was lost forever with Bryant’s death, if those stars apply his single-minded ethos to the activist framework in which they now operate, we may still see in the future some evolutionary form of the Mamba Mentality.
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Derek Robertson