Forty-one is too young to die. They say when it's your time, it's your time, but do we ever really imagine that we will die so young? Except for those who live with fatal, debilitating illnesses that leave families counting the days, we imagine that we will all live long, full lives that give us each the opportunity to learn, grow, and make valuable contributions to the world around us. When someone who seems healthy, happy, and focused on living their best life dies young, it forces us to consider our mortality, the reality that when it's time, it is indeed time, and whether or not we have done what we were on Earth to do.
Kobe Bryant, legendary basketball player, was killed in a helicopter accident, along with his daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, family friends, and their pilot. When the news broke, there was a massive outpouring of disbelief, grief, anger, and confusion. Fans from around the world poured their hearts out and on social media, eulogies and memories flooded timelines and feeds. Bryant touched so many people and inspired so many youths throughout his 20-year basketball career and beyond; for most people, Bryant represented the hopes and dreams of so many who simply want to do what they love, have successful careers, grow a beautiful family, and have reasons to wake up every day smiling.
When Kobe was a younger man (and new dad), a rich, reckless baller, cavorting around the world, he sexually assaulted a woman. Even though fans and media did everything they could to rip the woman to shreds and blame her for marking a blemish on the record of their beloved hero, Bryant eventually admitted to the assault after civil proceedings revealed the woman did not consent to the experience.
"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognise now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did," he said. "After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her lawyer, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
Bryant also cheated on the wife he said he loved and had been with since they were 20-years-old and 17-years-old respectively. He cheated on Vanessa Bryant so many times that she got fed up and left him, eventually filing for divorce. Enough times that the stress of his extramarital behaviors contributed to her miscarriage. The couple reconciled, though, and together built a beautiful family of mom, dad, and four daughters: Natalia, Gianna, Bianka, and Capri (born just last year). All relationships have their ups-and-downs and the Bryants decided theirs was worth fighting for, so fight they did. The two of them were the ones who had to make the decision about their marriage, so fans and haters have little choice but to accept it for what it is. In recent years, the Bryants have been the picture-perfect image of a happy, loving family who have overcome many a trial and tribulation.
When Bryant retired, he took a lot with him. To say he was a game-changer is an understatement. If you go back and watch reels of his court action, you have to admit that he was a player like no other. People envied his confidence, resented his arrogance, and were awed by his athleticism. It was an honor to play with and against him--he was that kind of athlete. Championship rings, Olympic medal, MVP titles, you name it, he probably had it; Bryant even won an Emmy and Oscar for the animated short film, Dear Basketball.
While he may have walked away from the game, he wasn't done being "Kobe Bryant". The next iteration of who he was meant to be was still taking shape. Bryant became a low-key philanthropist, helping struggling families, supporting charitable organizations, and making hundreds of wishes come true with the Make-A-Wish foundation. He became a huge supporter of women's sports and advocate for women athletes. He and partners founded the Mamba Sports Academy where young people could go and optimize their athletic skills in sports like basketball and volleyball and embrace the "Mamba mentality". He was a coach and his daughter, Gianna, was following in his footsteps. Bryant really seemed to be settling in retired dad life and his evolution and growth as a man, as an athlete, and as an overall human being is a solid study for what it means to move beyond your past and transition into the person you know you are destined to become.
Bryant fucked up. He grew up really fast as a teenager thrust into the adult world of professional sports straight from high school. He wasted money, partied too hard, and did stupid, young superstar athlete shit. He cheated on his wife and almost lost her. And he sexually assaulted a woman, eventually admitted to it, and took responsibility for it.
“I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident,” he said. “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."
What strikes me about Bryant's statements about the assault and his role in causing this woman pain is that they reflect an educational moment. At some point, Bryant had a lightbulb go off and he realized he had severely harmed the woman, despite him originally believing he'd done nothing wrong. He thought they were having consensual rough, aggressive sex, which many young men think is what they're supposed to do to and with women. The #MeToo movement has forced many men to check themselves and acknowledge how their own behaviors have been harmful and complicit in rape culture and the silencing of women. Several men have spoken about how they didn't know some act they were doing or behavior they engaged in was wrong or harmful. Education is important and it happens when survivors come forward and conversations happen. Bryant had his learning moment and, to our knowledge, he's never harmed another woman in such a way again.
When news of his death broke on social media, there were a lot of comments about his sexual assault and support for survivors who may be triggered by seeing someone who was an admitted sexual assailant be praised and mourned. Social media has created space for all opinions and, regardless of whether or not we believe there is a time and place for everything, people are going to say how they feel about whatever the hot topic is. For some, Bryant was an irredeemable rapist. For some, Bryant was their greatest role model. For others, Bryant personified the complexities of humanity and his death forces us to think about if we want to be remembered for our lowest points and worst moments. Do we want our entire lives to be defined by that one time we did or said something really fucked up? Is that even fair? Depends on who you ask.
Men like Miles Davis, Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.), James Brown, Big Pun, Marvin Gaye, and Russell Simmons have had several people come forward and speak about the ways in which the men abused them, be it physically or sexually. These men continue to be celebrated even though they didn't have a redemption arc in their stories--these men were never held accountable for their actions and people praise and celebrate their contributions and accomplishments like they are gods. Men like R. Kelly and Chris Brown continue to have droves of fans defending them despite the violent, abusive behaviors they continue to exhibit and the lack of effort to become better people or rehabilitate themselves. I don't know or pretend to understand why we "forgive" some and "cancel" others, but the arbitrary process of choosing who gets a pass and who doesn't, especially when it comes to famous Black men, is definitely worth further investigation.
And then you have people like Mike Tyson, who, for all intents and purposes, seems to have done a lot of work to turn his life around after being convicted of rape in 1992 (he maintains his innocence to this day). People bring up the conviction every chance they get, holding arguably the greatest boxer of all time to that low moment from which he's done his best to move beyond. Tyson has become a pretty regular retired man. He was able to win some comeback fights back in the day and go on to create his own beautiful family, all while managing to have some fun times in Hollywood. When his four-year-old daughter, Exodus, tragically died, there wasn't a huge outpouring of support for him that didn't include the rape conviction asterisk.
I've been a supporter of Mike Tyson and his redemption story. His life was one that was headed in a very different direction and it was by great intervention that he was able to become the history-making icon that he was. He was a man, like so many other men, who learned to communicate with his fists, inside and outside of the ring. And like so many other men, he felt entitled to women's bodies and treated them like personal property.
A long time ago.
When he was a younger man.
He's 53-years-old now.
I'm not in any way making excuses for people who do atrocious things in their younger years. When you mess up, you gotta own up, and do your best to be better going forward. Tyson maintains his innocence and I admit that while it may make me a bad feminist, I believe him (particularly because he so readily admits to having once been a repeated abuser of women). Unfortunately, the world never forgets and there are some people who simply cannot accept that others can learn and grow from their mistakes. Or, they know people can, but they refuse to let go of whatever thing they feel gives them an edge over another person. "At least I'm not a rapist" on the Tinder profile is endearing, I'm sure.
I'll be forty-one in a couple of months. I have a thirteen-year-old son. I've tried to do the best I can to make the world a better place. I've devoted my life to advocacy and liberation. I would hate to be held to my lowest moments or, when I die, have someone on Twitter produce a screenshot of a tweet from 2011 as some statement on the woman I am now. But that's exactly what will happen because that is who we are as a society. We live in a world that remembers your fall and forgets your ascent. We live in a world in which we personalize the words of strangers and insert ourselves into everyone else's business with audacious struts. We have come to believe having an opinion on everything and sharing it fast and furiously makes us popular. And we have tossed nuance aside in favor of polarized discourse that resolves and reconciles absolutely nothing.
Kobe Bryant is gone. Gianna Bryant is gone. John and Keri Altobelli, their daughter Alyssa, Sarah and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan are gone. Nine lives tragically taken in a terrible accident that devastated the lives of all those who loved these people. All of the people they touched are allowed to mourn, allowed to be angry, allowed to sink into deep disbelief and wish it hadn't happened. People are also allowed to bring up his past and point out it was part of who he was. It's the truth, so let it be what it is.
Maybe that incident changed him and set him on the path he eventually wound up following. Maybe it was going through the criminal and civil processes related to that event, losing a pregnancy, and almost losing his wife for good as a result of his abhorrent behavior was what it took to shake him up and set him on a path to true greatness. Maybe he carried that acknowledgment of the pain he caused these women with him and it motivated him to become better about supporting women and being a better man. Maybe the "Mamba mentality" is really about giving it your all, accepting your flaws, owning up to your mistakes, and doing the best you can to be a good person and do the least amount of harm to others for as long as you're alive.
That's who Kobe Bryant became and I hope the world never forgets that.