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Opinion: On Kobe, celebrity, and the complicated feelings of grief

A conversation with U of T Women’s Basketball coach Michèle Bélanger regarding the death of a basketball icon
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NBA legend Kobe Bryant passed away in a helicopter crash in January.Courtesy of Keith Allison/CC Wikimedia Commons
NBA legend Kobe Bryant passed away in a helicopter crash in January.Courtesy of Keith Allison/CC Wikimedia Commons

Content warning: mentions of sexual assault.

Kobe Bryant, five-time NBA champion, global icon, and ambassador for the NBA, died this past January in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year old daughter Gianna. He was 41 years old. On February 24, a public memorial service was held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to honour Bryant and Gianna, with many of basketball’s biggest names, including the likes of Michael Jordan and Bill Russell, in attendance.

Bryant, through both his impressive athleticism and his legendary tenacity, seemed impossibly vital to the basketball community. The fact that he could die, and die so young, is impossible to reconcile with his aura of immortality. 

For the millions of Los Angeles Lakers fans worldwide, he was the messiah: a figure of divine, almost maniacal competitiveness who stewarded the franchise through times of glory and pain, leaving a legacy of unmatched devotion to the game of basketball. Conversely, to fans of rival teams, he was the Black Mamba, a cruel villain who compiled dozens of highlights against our favourite teams, who reveled in breaking the hearts of anyone who didn’t wear purple and gold.

However, despite his attempts to dissuade us from the notion, he was not a basketball god. He was a human being, with a list of faults that gave context and pushback to his own mythmaking. On the court, he could feud with his teammates, take too many ill-advised shots, and bring an energy that made basketball feel more like war than sport. Off the court, the details of his 2003 sexual assault case will complicate his legacy, and are part of a larger conversation about how we reconcile the alleged terrible actions of the people we admire.

His efforts to grow women’s basketball post-retirement, as well as his closeness to Gianna and his three other daughters, further entangles his memory, and raises the question of what his ultimate legacy will be.

The Varsity asked U of T women’s basketball coach Michèle Bélanger about the complicated nature of Bryant’s legacy. While she admitted she did not love him as a player, and that she does believe his accuser, with whom Bryant reached an out-of-court decision that included a cash settlement and an apology, she spoke glowingly of his efforts to champion women’s basketball.

“It validates from the outside. From someone of his stature, with his knowledge of the game, that he could view women’s basketball at the same level [as men’s], it was massive.”

For Bélanger, these efforts did not erase what misdeeds Bryant may have committed, but she believes that his actions after retirement can be seen as a possible atonement for past sins.

“[These allegations] can’t go unsaid,” Bélanger said, “But maybe he’s trying to do good by providing more for women… maybe that was his way of paying it forward.”

These comments highlight how complicated it can be to hold a neutral view toward Bryant, and how the tragedy of his death makes summing up his life all the more challenging. Although he had spent more than two decades in the public eye, in many ways his life had just begun. Retirement softened Bryant’s steely nerve, and he made forays into the world of entertainment, where he won an Oscar for Best Animated Short, while also falling in love with basketball once again through Gianna’s passion.

In Bryant’s infrequent appearances at Lakers’ games and other public events, he seemed content as he charted a new course for the rest of his life. Though his past transgressions can be taken into account, he did not deserve to have this chapter taken away from him. Neither did Gianna. He was robbed of the opportunity to make the second half of his life as extraordinary as the first, and, judging by the brilliant, whole-hearted way he lived his life, his admirers were robbed of the opportunity to be along for the ride.