By Royce J.
Kobe Bryant loved being a father to his four girls. Conversations with others confirmed that he never had any regrets about not fathering a son. But he was America’s son, and that’s as difficult to deny in conversation as he was to defend on the court. Although there was no defense for some of his actions as a young man, his is an all-American story of public rise, ruin, and eventually redemption.
Growing up as a member of an athletic ex-pat family in Italy, Kobe was obsessively driven by the notion of being an outcast. Unable to fluently speak the language or identify with many of his peers, he was often the only African American in his circles. In a conversation with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe suggested that this notion of being alienated fueled his hunger for success on the basketball court. So how does this fit into the image of an American?
America is and always was a nation of outcasts-religious freedom seekers, sons and daughters of liberty, prospectors, outlaws, punk rockers, protestors, marchers, conscientious objectors, rejected inventors, college dropouts, entrepreneurs, dreamers. We are a nation built from the bricks of visions laid by the sore hands of those with enough courage and conviction to strap on their boots and walk the, narrow, lonely, and often obstructed path to success.
We all grew with Kobe, from his supremely talented but brash teenage years in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, to his promising early seasons as a Laker, to his global superstardom and championships with Shaq, to his fall in the face of rape allegations, and finally to his rise from the ashes of a smoldering public image to become the black mamba, to coil around championship trophies again. We’ve seen him as dunker, scorer, leader, rapper, feuder, writer, teacher, husband, and father. His wife extended him a second chance after he went astray, and it seems like most of America offered a similar forgiveness.
Kobe showed us that hard work was the compass that guided him along that path. He told us that the American dream is the journey itself, and all of the work and personal sacrifice it entails, not the destination. The time that many of us devote to being friends or being social was time that Kobe just wasn’t willing to give in his career. He lived in the gym, once declining Allen Iverson’s club invite after a dinner they shared following a game in Los Angeles during their shared rookie year.
When talking with Ahmad Rashad in 2015 about his thought process before winning that all important championship without the shadow of Shaq looming over him, Kobe offered us a glimpse of the relentless competitive motor constantly cranking inside of him: “Understand that the time is going to come. Why? Because I’m going to keep banging on this door until it comes.” He emphasized each word in the last sentence, pounding his fist into his hand in rhythm with his speech for added effect. A will is enough to make a way, even when the way is blocked.
Unlike so many celebrities, his death carries no asterisk: no self inflicted wound, no speeding, no alcohol poisoning, no drug overdoses, no downward spiral. If anything, Kobe was spiraling upwards as an entrepreneur, husband, father and man. The loss of him, his daughter, and seven others is literally earth shattering in ways that many of us have never felt before.
William Butler Yeats once wrote that, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Things did fall apart on that fateful Sunday morning. The man who offered a superhuman reel of achievements reminded us of our own mortality. But contrary to Yeats’ claim, Kobe’s death has brought about not a sense of anarchy and division, but a union of community in all corners of life, from schoolyards, to neighborhoods, to barbershops to office break-rooms.
To some he was a hero, to others a villain, but to all he was a legend, As evidence of his mass appeal and accessibility to all races and demographics, we are all either directly or indirectly affected. We should rest assured that our suffering is widespread and communal, as will be our healing–America coming together in a time of such division.
As a leader, Kobe always wanted to be the best version of himself and for his teammates and family to follow suit. We should follow that example in the wake of his passing—to be those best versions of ourselves in honor of America’s lost son. In his words, “The most important thing is how your life touches those around you and how it carries to the next generation.”