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Kobe Always Showed His Work. So We Have to in Remembering Him, Too.

Amid the shock and grief brought on by Bryant’s sudden death, we are trying to make sense of the many layers of his legacy

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There was that sickening hour when you knew it was true but you still thought it must be a mistake. No, Kobe Bryant wasn’t dead. Kobe Bryant couldn’t be dead. Fans were already turning up at L.A. Live with bouquets and tearful faces, and tributes were starting to roll in from players and coaches who knew him, but the story wasn’t right, it didn’t add up; there had to be some other explanation. One after another, news outlets confirmed TMZ’s original report, and the details, vague at first, turned hideously specific. The fact that it was Kobe’s private helicopter. The brush fire, on a hillside in Calabasas, that kept rescue personnel from getting to the wreckage. The five, no, nine people on board, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Some of this information might be wrong, but all of it? The oddsmaker in your brain looked up from its calculator and said: no chance. Still, still, you waited for the increasingly unlikely but necessary twist, the new revelation that would put the world back to normal.

I heard the news sometime before 3 p.m. ET Sunday. “Wait, Kobe Bryant died?” my wife said. She’d gotten a text from her college roommate and was still looking down at her phone. We’d just come in from the dog park. I was hanging up collars and leashes. “No,” I said. “That can’t be right.” Kobe was 41 years old, healthy, seemingly in not just a good but an excellent place. He was the rare athlete who appeared genuinely energized by life after retirement. He relished family life, loved raising his four daughters. He was at the start of what every indication said would be a long and impressive second act. Why would he die right after winning an Oscar? He wouldn’t. You can know theoretically that death is arbitrary and irrational. In the actual presence of death, you still think you’re entitled to an explanation.

Death, please state your reasons for claiming this human being. I’m sorry, but that’s one of the dumbest arguments I’ve ever heard. I’m rejecting your application. Return this man to his life.

I looked at the home page of ESPN.com and The New York Times. Neither one said anything about Kobe. “See?” I said. “If he’d died, it would be all over the news.” Then I looked at Twitter. “Oh, shit.” And for the next hour and a half, maybe two hours, I watched the tragedy grow more and more certain while still expecting Kobe to appear and clear up the mistake. We’re fine, folks! Death had an unpersuasive argument. And even at the end of all doubt, when it was clear what was coming—NBA stars taking the court in tears, grizzled coaches breaking down in interviews, Grammy presenters in open shock, throngs of fans gathering to share the awful burden of the moment—my brain was still picturing a different future. Kobe on late-night shows assuring everyone that he and Gianna and all the other passengers were fine. Jokes and memes about how we’d all gotten it so wrong. An anecdote to tell our kids someday. A trivia question.

That day, or maybe the next day, I thought of something I wrote about him years ago, before he retired. I never published it. What I wrote was that he played basketball like he was determined to be the word but in the great sentence of the game. There’s no word more competitive than but. There’s also no word more transformative. It opposes everything. It refuses to compromise. It’s dramatic, heroic, annoying. It goes it alone, and it changes everything that follows—but changes it equivocally, imperfectly, without erasing the contrary idea.

No one can consistently hit 20-foot jump shots against a double-team—and then here’s Kobe, pulling up with the ball on his forehead—but …

Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the greatest basketball players of the past 25 years—and then here’s Kobe, hoisting his fifth championship trophy—but …

But creates two realities and then stands between them, forcing you to pick a side. That’s how it always was with Kobe. Whatever happened, there was the fan’s version and the hater’s version, or there was the pragmatist’s version (you can’t come back from an Achilles rupture in your mid-30s) and the version that existed in his head (I can come back from an Achilles rupture faster than anyone dreams is possible).

It was the same with his death. You believed it, but you didn’t believe it. Or you believed it, but you didn’t want to believe it. Or you didn’t believe it, but deep down you knew you should.

I remember when he first entered the league, right out of high school. I was in my freshman year of college. I didn’t believe it then because he was my age, and I still saw professional athletes as grown-ups, people appreciably (and therefore, at that age, infinitely) older than me. Tiger Woods hadn’t yet won his first Masters. People our age didn’t suddenly become sports stars, much less arrive in the NBA dripping with undisguised ambition to surpass Michael Jordan. (Who was at the peak of his career with the Bulls, don’t forget. He was the Finals MVP that year.) Yet here was Kobe. One of my college friends had actually gone to high school with him at Lower Merion, which only heightened the strangeness. From now on, there would be an NBA superstar I could plausibly imagine having grown up with.

“Did you know him?” I asked Andy.

He arched an eyebrow. “We were aware of each other,” he said.

I always remembered that sentence—the dry, slightly pompous reserve of the phrasing—because I could so easily imagine Kobe himself using it under different circumstances.

Kobe, were you friends with the hero Achilles, the greatest warrior who ever lived, before he was slain by an archer’s arrow during the Trojan War?

Kobe, not smiling: “We were aware of each other.”

I think it was like that for a lot of people my age. Kobe was the athlete who separated our childhood love of sports from our adult love. In that way, too, he was a word in the middle of a sentence, though when you’re 19 or 20 or 21, it’s a sentence whose second half you can’t quite read. You’re young, but. As time passed, we could measure our lives as sports fans by whatever was happening in his career. He got older and his relationship to the league and its players gradually changed. We got older, and ours changed too.

He was singular from the beginning. For all his preoccupation with Being Like Mike, right down to copying Jordan’s physical mannerisms on the court, Kobe never resembled anyone else. Even the obsessive drive with which he Belmondoed MJ’s Bogart showed that he represented a break. It was hard to believe in a player with so much talent but (but!) so fierce a reverence for technique. Jordan valued hard work, but hard work for him was something that happened off-screen, something notional. He wanted the commentators to tell you he got up at 3 a.m. to lift weights, but with one second on the clock and the ball in his hands, he wanted you to believe in magic. At his core, Kobe had no patience for anything so childish. He was the chooser, not the chosen one. His version of the game was something too hard and too pure to be swayed by anything as arbitrary as fate.

For Kobe, it was the 1,000 repetitions that won basketball games, the 10,000 footwork drills you kept running long after your opponents had collapsed. He had too much respect for excellence—both his own and in the abstract—to want to hide his work. (Kobe Doin’ Work was the title of Spike Lee’s 2009 documentary about him.) Years before he was drafted, at a moment when youth basketball in the United States was veering toward AAU flairball, Kobe learned the game in Italy, under last-gen coaches, running sets drawn up by Red Auerbach. He was a cutting-edge player, but he never lost that old-school sense that you did the job properly or not at all. Hollywood, but make it discipline. Late in his career, with his shooting percentage falling, he was still complaining about the league’s tightened hand-checking rules. They made it too easy for lesser players to score. Kobe never wanted the game to be easy. That was why you could just about put up with his phenomenal, at times bordering on absurdist, arrogance, if you were one of the people who could. It wasn’t based on what he was born with. It was based on what he was willing to do. Leave it to Jordan to sell the glamour of destiny. Kobe sold the glamour of craft.

It was easy to see why a player like that would be divisive, why he’d turn half the world into die-hards and drive the other half to despair. It was harder, at least early on, to imagine he’d even be functional. You expected him to psych himself into oblivion from the word go, or take a Björn Borg–like swerve into prima donna nihilism. A 20-year career at the highest level, for someone that relentless? Could he really be everything he seemed?

Outer boundaries of the basketball imagination, not smiling: “We were aware of each other.”

You believed it, but you didn’t believe it. Or you believed it, but you didn’t want to believe it. Or you didn’t believe it, but deep down, you knew you should.

What does basketball know about death? I’m tempted to say nothing, because the whole point of basketball, the beautiful trick of it, is to convince you that the human body has no limits. Basketball at its best makes you feel a sympathetic echo of what it’s like to run that fast, jump that high, fly. Those are not feelings that encourage the strict contemplation of mortality. (Even as I type that, though, I’m thinking that Kobe’s game was a pointed rebuke to that assumption—that he also taught you how it felt to hurt, to get hit, to fall down.) I’m also tempted to say basketball knows nothing about death because basketball is a game almost all of whose icons are still alive. Wilt Chamberlain is dead, of course, but then you have to go a long way down the greatest-ever list, back to the era of black-and-white photos and spider-limbed white centers in short shorts, to find even an approximate comparison for Kobe. Bill Russell, George Gervin, Jerry West, Elvin Hayes, Elgin Baylor—all still alive. Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, which was taken at the time as a death sentence, but Magic is still a thriving chaos-imp almost 30 years later. The winner of the first-ever NBA MVP award, Bob Pettit, is 87 and living in Louisiana.

There are young players who have died without warning, but they (Len Bias, Reggie Lewis, Drazen Petrovic) hadn’t played a whole career, as Kobe had. They hadn’t lived an intense relationship with fans going back almost a quarter-century. Pete Maravich was retired and around Kobe’s age in 1988, when he collapsed and died during a pick-up game in Pasadena. Pete Maravich was a delightful player. But neither his cultural significance nor his on-court legacy was equal to Kobe Bryant’s.

For basketball fans, nothing quite like this has happened before. When a beloved actor or musician dies suddenly, part of the pain comes from the “oh God, not again” sensation, the history-repeats-itself aspect. It’s the ache of pattern recognition: We’ve lost great actors and musicians prematurely too many times before. In this case, though, there’s no pattern, and if many of us feel a little lost this week, it’s because we’re actually lost. We’re grieving without a template. (When Prince died, you could go in your room and blast “Purple Rain.” What are you supposed to do now, stream NBA highlights?) We’re coming to terms not just with the knowledge that this has happened, but that it could happen—that killing Kobe Bryant was something the world was allowed to do.

You want to turn away from the meaninglessness of it, the stupid sloppy accidental randomness. They seem unworthy of him. But then there’s Kobe, demanding that you do the hard work, demanding rigor to the bone. There’s Kobe, saying: Don’t turn away from hard truths.

So: hard truths. There was the day in 2003 when the news broke that he’d been arrested. A 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado told police he had raped her. One after another, news sources filled in their reports, and the details became hideously specific. The bruise on the woman’s neck, revealed in a hospital exam. The vaginal lacerations. The blood on Kobe’s shirt. At first he told the police he hadn’t had sex with the woman, then he changed his story and said the sex was consensual. He was charged with felony sexual assault. We followed along as his lawyer revealed the woman’s full name in court, exposing her to threats and hatred. We watched as they questioned her character, turning her sexual history into a national headline: “Could it be that [her] injuries were caused by having sex with three men in three days?” (One study later found that more than 42 percent of news articles included statements questioning the woman’s honesty, while only 7 percent included statements questioning Kobe’s.) The woman backed out of testifying; the prosecutors, left without their witness, dropped the charges. Kobe settled a civil case with the woman, at the end of which he issued an apology: “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter,” he wrote. The settlement included an NDA, preventing her from speaking publicly about what had happened.

Kobe didn’t exactly receive a free pass in the years that followed—he lost some sponsors—but the rape charge didn’t have the effect on his life or reputation that similar cases against other men have had post-#MeToo. He won titles. An MVP in 2008. We know the statistics on how few women lie about sexual assault. But it was easier, with Kobe, to sort of half-forget the hovering question mark. This week, even mentioning the allegations has been a supercharged decision. The Washington Post suspended a reporter after she tweeted a link to a four-year-old story about them. (She was later reinstated.) Many people have felt that it’s “disrespectful” or “too soon” to talk about anything negative in the aftermath of Kobe’s death.

I’m going to sound like a drive-time radio host for a second. Disrespectful? Are you kidding me? We’re talking about Kobe Bryant. You don’t respect someone by ducking the hard work of understanding their lives. You face it. You reckon with human character properly or you don’t reckon with it at all.

In any case, not everyone was so circumspect. In his book The Last Season, Kobe’s longtime coach Phil Jackson talked about learning of the arrest. “Was I surprised?” he wrote. “Yes, but not entirely. Kobe can be consumed with surprising anger, which he’s displayed toward me and toward his teammates.”

There we are again. Two realities.

Yes, but.

You believed it, but you didn’t believe it. Or you believed it, but you didn’t want to believe it. Or you didn’t believe it, but deep down you knew you should.

Watching basketball highlights might not be a sensible response to tragedy, but I’ve been watching his for days. I love watching him play basketball—I think we can still use the present tense; when you’re as good as Kobe was, your jump shot outlives you—because he was a beautiful player but not a pretty one. Steph Curry, at his best, is a pretty player; he’s putting on a show for you, recruiting you into a little conspiracy of happiness. I love that, too. But Kobe is something else. He’s not playing for you at all. His game was spectacularly inefficient by today’s standards, and he notoriously loathed the statistical revolution that transformed basketball in the mid-2010s, but he still conveys the sense that he’s solving the game, playing against a mathematical ideal. It’s abstract, fiercely unsentimental. He dribbles into a crowd of defenders, and the court separates into planes and angles. He pulls up for a shot and the arc of gravity reveals itself.

Somewhere in the middle of all this highlight viewing, I found a supercut, obviously made by someone with more time and a larger hard drive than I have, of every play on which he suffered an injury. He played for two decades; the video lasts more than 10 minutes. I don’t know why, because it showcases very little of his brilliance, but (but!) I found it intensely comforting. It’s honest, I guess. Kobe was, God knows, an unbelievably high-bullshit human being in many ways—this was the player who once filed a lawsuit to prevent his own mother from selling some memorabilia of his—but there was something about the nakedness of his ambition and the excruciating psychological stakes it imposed that seemed to cut through a great deal of feel-good sports bullshit. Even at what turned out to be the end of his life, when he’d mellowed a little, when he was having so much fun going to games and sitting courtside with his daughters, he seems like he’d have hated false comfort. And whatever watching him twist his ankle and then hobble to the foul line for 10 straight minutes is, it’s not that. (Kobe is also, of course, the player who ruptured his Achilles and then sank two free throws.)

So he’ll be playing who even knows—the Clippers or the Spurs or the Rockets, doesn’t matter; in most of the clips you can only tell what year it is through context clues. (Shaq or no Shaq, Pau or no Pau, hair or no hair.) He’ll have the ball usually, because he usually had the ball. He’ll attack the basket, the thing he was put on Earth to do, and right away everything starts to snap into place; he’s got one man beat, only one more to go; you can see what he sees, you can see what’s about to happen. But then, before it does, there’s a lurch. Something cracks in the middle of the thought. Draymond sticks a thumb in his eye, or his knee buckles, and he goes down holding the injured part. You see the play turning into what it was supposed to be, and then he falls. I mean the future is right there. He just falls.