Reflecting on Kobe Bryant’s craftsmanship a week after his death


A week after the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other lives it still makes sense to grieve in public and in private.

The crash occurred almost a week ago. On Friday night, the Los Angeles Lakers played their first home game since the tragedy that claimed nine lives, including Kobe Bryant and his second-oldest daughter, Gianna. The start of the game was, as is to be expected in such situations, atypical. The game was clearly something other than sport, but the game also was neither the funeral it could have been nor the “celebration” LeBron James wanted it to be.

Leading up to the opening tip everything was more ceremonial. The entire crowd wore number 24 or number eight jerseys. Usher and Boyz II Men performed. A cello underscored a Kobe Bryant video tribute in which his voice descended from the arena’s speakers onto a crowd that missed him — or at least the physical embodiment of his myth. Then, as has happened in all NBA games this past week, the game began with still more tributes. The Lakers stalled in what became a ceremonial 24-second clock violation, and their opponents, the Portland Trail Blazers, stalled in what became an eight-second backcourt violation. Grief, in many ways, is a stalling process. Letting go is difficult, especially when what is taken from this earth feels like a violation of what is right and just. These tributes made sense. They surely helped some people feel a sense of community, which is what individuals need in such times. After all, grief can be isolating.

Kobe Bryant built his myth in isolated moments of endless preparation. He scored often in isolation. His talents and exploits were celebrated, however, by packed arenas. Therefore, through human performance, the individual transformed into something else, and both the individual and that something else — that gravity that binds community interests — are what’s been mourned for almost a week now.

I look at those two paragraphs. I reflect on them, and I still don’t think I have it right. I have sat down now for the fifth or sixth time now since Sunday and started an essay on Kobe Bryant. The word essay means attempt. I am attempting to work through a feeling that a helicopter crash of nine strangers has prompted. I don’t think I’m getting it right. In fact, I know I’m not getting it right.

I doubt I am unique in this. I am certain there is some vanity in the effort. Almost all writing is vain to an extent because so much of it involves naming unknown thoughts and feelings and attempts to promote individual opinions as group values. The idea of anyone having some final say on Kobe Bryant, or the most surefire account of how to remember a complicated individual, is a vanity of which I am guilty.

I have read several other attempts by several other sportswriters and fans and cultural thinkers over the last week, and I am aware that I am drafting off them, like a runner in single file. Oftentimes, the words we use to express grief are not our own. We reach for clichés and wisdom from somewhere else. We listen. We gesture to what we know in the ways that we know how.

When I read that TMZ was reporting Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, I didn’t believe it. I thought I must be growing older and the Twitter humor must be slipping beyond my grasp. But then the tweets and updates kept arriving and the joke did not evolve. There was no punchline. There was shock, and then there was sadness. While this sadness was for the individuals lost in the crash and their families, this sadness was also altered by Kobe Bryant’s fame. His iconic status undeniably changes how this tragedy unfolds in our minds. His good deeds and his faults become subjects of human debate; how we remember him becomes a statement of who and what we are. Mostly, though, this sadness ages us and delivers an existential blow to the psyche that isn’t so much an epiphany of something unknown but a brutal attack by something often denied. Not only am I getting older, but all of us are aging. And our cultural landmarks are fragile and temporary and not here forever. Jerry West is the logo. Kobe Bryant could be the logo. In fifty years, who and what is a logo? The loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter prompts such moribundly stupid questions as that one. They are true to the point there is no point in asking them. They are Ecclesiastical, and bourbon-inducing, without a god to redeem their hopelessness.

Last Sunday afternoon I had been grading semester portfolios for my high school English classes. I was reading the words of young people describing the ways in which they might improve a skill or hone a craft. In hindsight, I realize these reflective pieces are exactly the kind of mental exercise that made Kobe Bryant such a great basketball player, entrepreneur, storyteller, whatever the Black Mamba brand called for at the time. He successfully sold and manifested the idea that he was always improving, that he was always about to do something bigger and better than the last time his star blipped on our radars. This ability is rare and gifts those individuals who have it with an iconic status that is omnipresent. Kobe Bryant wasn’t going anywhere — he would always be in everyone’s lives, telling them that improvement is possible. I think even his worse detractors — and, at times, I have admittedly been one of them — could say that he offered a model for overcoming defeat, for perseverance and survival, even if such traits meant surviving one’s own deviousness.

No singular event or activity ever captured who Kobe Bryant was or who he was becoming.

On Wednesday, I saw my juniors for the first time since the semester ended. I handed back their portfolios. I then projected Jacob Weinstein’s “Chasing Perfection” on the board. In the piece, Kobe holds a pair of tweezers in his left hand. He appears to be placing a sail onto a model ship. He is almost done with the ship. Glue and string sit on the table.  A cup holds scissors and writing utensils. The table is flat and rectangular like a basketball court is flat and rectangular. Kobe’s face is frozen in concentration, not quite so intense as a scowl, but close to it. Kobe’s talents have always walked a line between seriousness and destruction — the perfect basket and the flamboyant turnover. The airball in a playoff game against Utah. The dominance against Indiana in Shaquille O’Neal’s absence. That godawful showing against Detroit. The fourth and fifth championships. Under the table in Weinstein’s illustration is chaos, but the brokenness is a result of seeking the whole. At any point, Kobe’s schemes could be written off as madness, except for his talent to always scheme again.

Only one or two students realized the image was Kobe Bryant before they were told it was Kobe Bryant. After learning the man in the drawing was Kobe, the lightbulb went off for many in the room, as if viewing art is the same as playing a game of Pictionary. One day, I admit, they will all need to be told who Kobe Bryant was. Relevance is hard to control. The illuminated smiles faded in the classroom, and the laughter died down, giving way to an inevitable question: Mr. Harvey, how did you respond to the news?

I reached for Roland Lazenby’s biography about Kobe Bryant, Showboat, The Life of Kobe Bryant. I did this on Sunday night, and I did this when students asked me how I responded. I told them this book had sat for two years in a pile near my nightstand and that Sunday felt like the night I should start reading it. In other words, I confessed that investing my time in reading a massive book about Kobe Bryant had not seemed entirely pressing while he was alive. Maybe I took for granted that he would always be around. He was, after all, only 41, and 41 is an age I still want to believe is young. I am, after all, 36 now. When Kobe entered the league, I was in middle school.

I have not finished Lazenby’s book, but I am working through it. What strikes me most so far is the physical heft of the thing. Biographies are often like that. The ego to stuff an entire life into a finite number of pages, along with the required footnotes, results in a physical artifact that for many of us who will never touch the bodies that make history can at least feign intimacy with them. We read books in quiet corners. We read books before falling asleep. We listen. We turn the page. We gesture toward what is not there in body and, in some ways, never was.

I held up this heavy book in front of my students and told them I’ve never really been much of a Kobe fan. I told them people my age witnessed Michael Jordan and judged Kobe against his antecedent. I told them how I fell hard as a basketball fan for Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and that I simply had trouble actively rooting for a duo so talented and complete as the one composed of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

I also mentioned Eagle, Colorado and what Louisa Thomas labeled “another kind of ugliness” in The New Yorker. And I know it’s debatable as to how much of a role that chapter in Kobe’s life should play as fans and friends and family grieve within days and weeks of the tragedy, as details of the crash still surface in our timelines and news feeds, but I also know it makes no sense to tell Kobe’s story without talking about Eagle, Colorado. As much as his ego and drive shattered his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal and that first Lakers dynasty, to some degree those same character traits sunk Act One of his life into a shadowy nadir.

Two of my drafts did not make it past how to discuss the most difficult chapter in thinking about Kobe Bryant. Admittedly, to stop with that chapter is not very Kobe like. After all, Kobe Bryant is an individual who didn’t stop for anything. He was history personified, and history, while full of blind spots, meticulously marches on. For some, he became even more heroic in that wrecked space, even as he admitted his own treachery: “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

In talking with students this week and over the last couple years, I have come to realize that even knowing Kobe was charged at all demarcates the line between certain generations of basketball fans. There are those who do not remember what it was like to watch Kobe play behind Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, to play in fewer minutes per game than an ancient Byron Scott. And there are also those who are fond of forgetting his flaws on and off the court. For both these groups, Kobe will always as a basketball player be a finished product, and these individuals will project who he was at the apex of his career both forwards and backward in time. These individuals will probably also fail to see how the details in the charges brought against him project his competitive spirit and drive for control in a harsher, less complimentary light. Attempting to engineer one’s life — to control all sides of a narrative in the aftermath of terrible decisions — can lead to serious abuses in wealth and status. But to know these chapters is to better understand Kobe Bryant. He was always shedding skins, and he was never finished. The lesson isn’t so much be a killer on the court and a storyteller off it, but that controlling a story is a particular kind of violence. The mentality in both places could suck the oxygen out of a room.

Grief is such a strange and cruel beast. I understand its healing powers — its necessity in the process of dealing with life’s most difficult scenarios — but it toys with both intimacy and distance. It makes a family of vultures. I mean that in the kindest way possible, but I also know that the metaphor sounds, and is, ferociously vile. I am trying to say that if we do not process and digest loss, then what is lost will remain unsettling. And, in trying to say that, I don’t think I’ve said what I set out to do. I wanted to say something about redemption and how Kobe Bryant, if not already there, was well on his way, but I also felt ridiculous in making such a claim, as if I could know when another human being is redeemed.

I do know that each draft I’ve written about the helicopter crash has moved farther away from any basketball court and has made the game appear and feel like everything and nothing all at once.

The game, after all, does very little to answer any of the questions that arise from losing friends and family, but the game — or any activity where individuals invest time and body—is the connective tissue of our lives and actions. It sustains us, and yet the game is a thin answer to any question that starts with why and probably doesn’t even account for how. But those aboard the helicopter were flying to participate in basketball and those who have grieved this week turned to basketball for community.

I did not know Kobe Bryant. I do not fly in helicopters. I am a teacher and a father. I watch basketball. I was in high school the first time I heard someone yell Kobe! after releasing a jump shot. I then taught a generation of students who heaved garbage and yelled Kobe!. I had not heard a student yell that name in some time until this week, and it’s been a minute as old as LeBron since I’ve argued with students about whether Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant is better, but Kobe Bryant, who I did not know, links me to Dylan Johnson and Richie Larson and Michael Bailey and Ms. Smith, whose corpse had to be wheeled out of a classroom full of students and down the hall. I remember how pale and blue her body looked in the wheelchair, her leg still in a cast jutting out in front of her like a battering ram. Dylan showed up to class soon after with a tattoo on his forearm he said was dedicated to her. The ink a swirling angry mess that looked shocked and confused and anything but hopeful or endearing, and I stopped myself from telling him I didn’t think she would like it, that for two years he had driven her and me crazy by misbehaving and not doing his work and that he was one of the reasons I couldn’t sleep at night. Those academic standards may not have mattered. Then again, how was he going to move on in life without meeting those standards. I didn’t know and still don’t know, but in those years when Kobe was winning, when he was vying for all-time Alpha status and had the whole world in the palm of his hand, those were the years when my career was just starting, when I met my wife and thought knowledge might be a means to some end.

The first sentence in Lazenby’s book reads: “In the beginning, he came across as a fun-loving kid. He wasn’t, of course. Kobe Bean Bryant had to work hard to show that nothing bothered him.” The first chapter then tells a story about Kobe’s father. This story was unfamiliar to me prior to reading, but Kobe’s father was involved in a police chase that ended with a car accident. Given the racial tensions in the city at the time and the nature of the accident, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was extremely fortunate to survive. At his trial, he was again fortunate in regard to the judge’s sentencing, and Lazenby concludes Part I of the book by writing: “If not for a lenient judge, Joe Bryant could easily have gone to prison, and there likely would be no Kobe Bean Bryant.” The Philadelphia 76ers began the next season 14-1, and in that promising start, Kobe Bryant was conceived.

His life was a collection of bold choices made within a dull fog. Another twenty or thirty feet and the helicopter would have cleared the mountain. Vanessa Bryant would have her husband and her Gigi. Her family would be whole. Kobe has been, like his father before him, both cursed and blessed. His life is yet another reminder that a person can not control everything. On the other hand, his life is also a beacon that suggests nothing is beyond individual will power. That line is a hard one to tow, between the nothing and everything that are both real and invasive. The candles outside Staples Center are a welcome sight. There really is no other place to go than back to a gym, to the play, to the work, to the honing of one’s craft. As I finish this draft, I can hear my daughters waking upstairs from their naps, and I will ascend the steps as best I can. The distance from here to there must be about the same.

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