The only NBA game I’ve ever seen in person came in Kobe Bryant’s second year in the league — a preseason affair played in Kansas City. The Lakers played the Cavaliers, then led by a past-his-prime Shawn Kemp. The thing that stood out from that game, for me, was the insanity of Bryant’s talent. On a floor featuring some of the best athletes in the world, his physical tools were amazing to behold in person — he was noticeably faster, more agile, than the players around him. It was impressive.
Bryant’s career was nearly derailed by a rape allegation a couple of years after that. The case never went to trial, and he settled a civil suit out of court. And he gave what I thought then was kind of a remarkable statement — in which he didn’t admit guilt to rape, but acknowledged that the victim experienced the encounter as an assault.
First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colo.
I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.
The era of #MeToo has apparently revived hard feelings against Bryant: As a new Washington Post profile reports, “When Bryant won an Oscar for his animated short, “Dear Basketball,” more than 17,000 people signed a petition asking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rescind it. Last month, protesters forced Bryant’s removal from the jury of an animation festival.”
What else has happened? The nuance that Bryant brought to the resolution of the rape case is nowhere to be found. Though he doesn’t address the case directly in the profile, he talks about the aftermath — in terms that make it seem that he considers the rape case a thing that happened to him instead of a problem created by his own actions. In the aftermath, he created a new persona for himself: “The Black Mamba.”
Creating an alternate persona, he says now, was the only way he could mentally move beyond the events of Colorado.
“I don’t know what would’ve happened had I not figured it out,” he says. “Because the whole process for me was trying to figure out how to cope with this. I wasn’t going to be passive and let this thing just swallow me up. You’ve got a responsibility: family, baby, organization, whole city, yourself — how do you figure out how to overcome this? Or just deal with it and not drown from this thing? And so it was this constant quest: to figure out how do you do that, how do you do that, how do you do that? So I was bound to figure something out because I was so obsessively concerned about it.”
But it moved the discussion past Colorado, and so did the way Bryant behaved. If Kobe once forced smiles, “The Black Mamba” scowled. He hurled profanities across the court, was fined in 2011 for calling an official a gay slur, told GQ in 2015 that he had little interest in being anyone’s friend. He cursed at Lakers staff, ridiculed teammates by name, effectively refused to pass the ball. In the top 10 list for most shots taken in an NBA game, six of the spots belong to Bryant, who didn’t just break the record of most missed shots in NBA history: He has over 1,000 more misses than second-place John Havlicek.
He had always done some of those things. He just stopped apologizing for them.
“During the Colorado situation, I said: ‘You know what? I’m just going to be me. I’m just going to be me.’ F— it. If I don’t like a question from a reporter, I’m going to say it,” he says. “If they ask me a question about this thing, I’m just going to tell them the truth.”
His fist strikes the desk.
“Like me or don’t like me for me.”
So Bryant considered the fallout from the rape allegation — an allegation that, remember, his official statement suggests has some merit — and decided the best response to his problems was to become a bigger jerk — to be meaner, to resist accountability, to embrace his selfishness, and to do it all in the name of authenticity.
I think he learned the wrong lesson.