On Sunday, the Disney animator Glen Keane shared with the New York Times a story about retired Los Angeles Lakers star and NBA legend Kobe Bryant that has stuck with me. Bryant, 41, was killed when the helicopter carrying him and eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter, crashed in Calabasas, Calif.
Keane — who animated the Oscar-winning short film “Dear Basketball,” based on a poem Bryant wrote when he retired in 2016 — said that he was “amazed to learn that in one championship game, ‘Kobe structured his performance and the strategy of the game to the rhythms of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.'”
The anecdote illustrates Bryant’s deep philosophy of the sport to which he devoted his life.
“Every game has a structure, just like a piece of music has structure and momentum,” Bryant told the New York Times in 2017. “You have to be conscious of how that momentum is building to be able to shift or alter it.”
Perhaps this awareness contributed to Bryant’s uncanny ability, through force of discipline and deliberate habit, to bend the arc of his own life’s narrative to his will.
In 2003, Bryant was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment in a case that resulted in a legal settlement. But by the time he died along with his eldest daughter on Jan. 26, he had shaped a legacy, albeit complicated, that will include the fact of his devotion to his four daughters and wife of nearly 20 years, and the work he’s done to raise the profile of women’s basketball around the world.
Writing in the Atlantic, former ESPN reporter Jemele Hill shared that her “first real interaction” with Bryant happened after he summoned her to call him via Tweet after she had criticized on air his tone-deaf reaction to the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.
“If we’ve progressed as a society, then you don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American,” Bryant told the New Yorker at the time.
During their heated phone exchange, Bryant told Hill that his reaction had been tempered by his own experiences with the legal system roughly a decade prior to Martin’s murder.
Eventually, however, Bryant grew to learn the error of his remarks, Hill wrote. He later met with, and apologized, to the Martin family and “even spoke at a rally for Martin that occurred a year after Zimmerman had been acquitted of his murder.”
By the time Michael Brown was gunned down by St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson, Bryant’s evolution was on full display. When a grand jury later declined to indict St. Louis officer Darren Wilson, Bryant “reacted bitterly, tweeting, ‘The system enables young black men to be killed behind the mask of law.'”
It’s likely that if Bryant had transgressed in 2018, instead of 2003, these nuanced contours of a man so committed to detail and narrative complexity in life would have been canceled by our current culture, the posthumous tributes wanting.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case. And neither should it be.
People, even celebrities, are not commercials or TV shows. As individuals, we cannot simply mute or cancel their energy and impact based on our low-information judgements about certain aspect of their lives.
Lives of flesh and bone, and the legacies they leave behind, are often ugly and beautiful and fraught with sin and grace. They are fluid, they ebb and flow like the dynamics of a basketball game or a symphony. And we are made better when we consider them in all of their complexity.
Kobe evolved. The culture should, too.