The Insensitivity of Tearing Down Kobe Before the Smoke Has Cleared

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I didn’t watch Kobe Bryant play basketball; the sport is just not on my radar. I’ve never seen a full game in all my 70 years, although I do know the big names from my past and a few from the present. My closest association with the game was when I narrated an audiobook of Jack McCallum’s The Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever. But that association hardly entitles me to comment on the rigors of the game, the work it takes to become an NBA star, or the vicissitudes of any given athlete’s career. And so, I can’t write a column about Kobe Bryant’s contribution to the sport, or about his life.

What I can write about is human frailty, human corruption, inhumane behavior, falling from grace, quests for vengeance, burning anger, real and false humility, true and faked redemption, and violent death. I can write about these things because I have either fallen prey to one or more of these character traits, or I have seen their effects up close, or I have been intimately associated with people who have. Even so, that is not what this article is about — except for the violent death part.

What brought me to my keyboard this morning, about 24 hours after Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, was the following string of Facebook posts, led off by someone who is no longer a FB friend of mine, and followed by several other posters who joined in to vilify a man whose death was horrific, whose daughter’s death was horrific. Of course I have left off the names of the posters, but each post is reprinted in its entirety:

Person 1: Before you share how sad you are about Kobe Bryant, look into his background as a rapist. His money and fame kept him out of prison….he apologized to his wife with a 4 million dollar ring, and his lawyers paid off the victim.

Person 2: So we should ignore his talent? I think we all have done things we regret. When you are rich and famous people will find ways to get paid. Two sides to every story. I’m surprised at your post. RIP Kobe and Gianna.

Person 1: Yes, he assaulted a woman and I have no problem ignoring his talent. Do you support Bill Cosby? He was talented too. (Person 1 then posts lengthy and vivid portions of the Kobe Bryant victim statement from the court transcript)

Person 3: Exactly my thoughts

Person 4: I am glad I am Not the Only one…..sick of rapists glorified no matter what……

Person 5: I never liked him. I can’t stand that he’s all over the news, every channel every show like he was some kind of huge war hero that just got assassinated.

Person 1: Exaxtly [sic]

Person 6: And why is this worthy of interrupting and pre-emptying [sic]the last 1/2 hour of ice skating tournament?

The visceral spew of bitterness and hatred, posted within four hours of Bryant’s death took me off guard, and caused me to look away from my Facebook page for a while and contemplate the core reason for such brutal post-death remarks. Person 2 made an effort to seek some middle ground of understanding, but it was a weak showing. I am not rising to Bryant’s defense; I know little about the accusations and court proceedings and resolution of the case. And I can’t know anything about the shattered emotions and long-term effects of assault because I have never experienced them, so I am mute when it comes to the victim’s statement. I am also mute when it comes to whatever Kobe Bryant’s thoughts and actions were; none of us can know the workings of another person’s mind. So it would not even occur to me to lift the records of the man out of the still smoking wreckage of the helicopter, and parade them in a public forum like Facebook.

And yet, that is what my former FB friend did, and did so unbidden, with no apparent pretext, with no relationship to Bryant or his past, with no knowledge of anything about Bryant beyond what the world at large knew about him. It was nothing more than a venomous fang into a corpse, beside which lay the corpse of his daughter. Why post that in such a fevered rush? What motivates someone to reach into the past of the dead and hold aloft the banner of his sins?

The writer appears to be writing as a champion of Bryant’s victim and as a scold to those Bryant fans who mourn the man by reminding them that their hero was capable of more than just basketball greatness. I don’t dispute the record; I don’t countenance or dismiss out of hand any kind of assault, and certainly not rape. But I do dispute and am frustrated by the FB poster’s need to hold it over the dead within hours of the accident. Within hours.

Because I mentioned violent death earlier, let me expand on it here. On October 3, 1970, I watched an airplane carrying the Wichita State football team crash and burn in the high forest of Loveland Pass in Colorado. That crash took the lives of 31 people. I arrived at the crash site in time to watch, helplessly, many of those passengers burn to death inside the white-hot fuselage of the plane. No one should die that way, and no one should ever have to see such terrible death. But they did, I did. The sight, sound, and smell of that day have never left me, and things that trigger those memories shake me every time — 50 years later. For whatever reason fate ordained, I have seen other fatal airplane crashes, but none like the one on the mountainside.

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As I watched the plane burn, I did not know who among the dead and dying were saints and who were sinners. I didn’t know whose lives were exemplary and whose lives were riven with faults. I didn’t know who might have become great football players, and who might have taken different paths. I didn’t know who was a wonderful parent, and who may have struggled with parenthood. I knew nothing about their individual pasts or the trials they faced, the despair they fought, the principles they upheld or failed to achieve, the love they gave, or the love they yearned for. I did not know them any better than I knew Kobe Bryant.

What I do know instinctively is that in the moments before their lives were extinguished, Kobe and his daughter Gianna were terrified — he for her life, she for his, and each for their own life. The scene and sounds within the helicopter were unimaginable; the impact and subsequent fire were hellish. Kobe and Gianna and the other passengers and crew were wrenched from their present, and cast roughly, brutally into another place unknowable to us.

To the Facebook poster and to those who joined in with equal ugliness to relitigate the sins of the dead, I have only one question: Do your postings make you feel better? If so, I am almost sadder for you than I am for Kobe and Gianna and the others who perished.

Journalist, former Capitol Hill staff (House and Senate), former Cabinet speechwriter, editor, photojournalist and bird photographer. Top Writer Quora 2016–2017

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