Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

The Complicated Legacy of Kobe Bryant

Transcendent. It is perhaps the only word that can properly describe Kobe Bryant. A global icon, a hero to a wide-eyed generation of young fans, the quintessential Los Angeles Laker, and one of the most prolific scorers in basketball history, Bryant was larger than life itself—which is exactly why it’s so hard to believe that he’s gone.

On Sunday, Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. It was a devastating loss not just for the basketball community, but for every community across the whole realm of sports.

While Sunday games across the NBA were played as scheduled, it was clear that the league as a whole was shaken by the news. Players and teams alike paid tribute, taking 8-second and 24-second violations to start their games in honor of Bryant’s jersey numbers.

Bryant’s death is, simply put, unprecedented. Not since the likes of Roberto Clemente or Sean Taylor has a star athlete died in such a sudden and tragic manner. The loss of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, in addition to the seven other on board, make this tragedy even more difficult to come to terms with, especially for those who idolized him throughout his NBA career.

On the court, Bryant was a character out of a basketball storybook, the closest thing to Michael Jordan that the NBA has ever seen. He sits in fourth place on the league’s all-time scoring list, with Lakers star LeBron James passing him just hours before his death. A five-time champion, two-time Finals MVP, and one-time league MVP, Bryant’s achievements speak for themselves, but they are not what made him truly one-of-a-kind.

His drive, his “Mamba mentality,” his constant desire to outwork his opponents, and his unrelenting desire to prove that he was the best is what made Bryant so much more than one of the game’s very best. For most fans, Bryant’s unparalleled work ethic is what makes him immortal.

No fan will forget where he or she was when Bryant dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors.

Or when he scored 60 in his final game.

Or when the news broke of his death.

For most, Bryant was a cultural figure just as much as he was an athlete. He was a pioneer in the advancement of women’s basketball, a staunch supporter of the WNBA, and one of the NBA’s best global ambassadors.

However, his legacy is far more complicated than just his on-court contributions. Bryant is remembered by his colleagues as a dedicated father and husband, as well as a friend and mentor to the game’s younger generation.

It is also important to acknowledge his past. In 2003, Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Though the charges were dropped and Bryant apologized to his accuser as well as settled the civil suit outside of court, the allegations remain a crucial aspect of his legacy which cannot be ignored or glossed over.

Many of those who personally knew Bryant have stressed that he was a family man first and foremost. Despite his unrelenting work ethic and love for basketball, his dedication to his family far exceeded his devotion to his craft.

In retirement, Bryant could often be found coaching his late daughter Gianna, an incendiary talent in her own right. She was a mirror image of the Black Mamba himself in many ways, with her talent and motivation putting her on the fast track to basketball stardom.

Bryant was an immensely talented, incredibly impactful player and human, but he also may have made some serious mistakes. Both things can be true. His legacy is exceedingly complicated, but he remains an inspiration to many, as both an athlete and a father.

However he is regarded, his death remains one of the greatest tragedies in recent memory. His wife, Vanessa, lost a husband and a daughter. His daughters, Natalia, Bianka, and newborn Capri, lost a father and a sister. The families and friends of the others killed in the crash are experiencing the same kind of pain right now.

But Bryant’s perspective on life remains clear in the way he lived, and he surely would urge those mourning his death to be strong and persevere in the face of tragedy.

“Everything negative—pressure, challenges—is all an opportunity…to rise."

If there is a lesson that can be learned from Bryant’s life, it is that dreams can be achieved through hard work.

“My brain, it cannot process failure. It will not process failure. Because if I have to sit there and face myself and tell myself, ‘You’re a failure,’ I think that is…almost worse than death,” he said in his documentary, Muse.

And while most of his most iconic and inspirational quotes relate to his basketball career, his candid discussion of the twilight of his career seems the most comforting in the wake of his untimely death.

“There is beauty in that. I mean, it’s going through the cycle. I mean, it’s the cycle that is the natural progression of growth, of maturation. There’s no sadness in that…I see the beauty in getting up in the morning and being in pain because I know all the hard work that it took to get to this point. So I’m not, I’m not sad about it. I’m very appreciative of what I’ve had.”

Bryant’s style of play was poetry in motion and he will be eternally revered as one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball. Despite his controversial past, he was so important to so many and his death is a devastating loss.

Mamba out.

Rest in Peace, Kobe Bryant (1978-2020)

Born and raised in New Jersey, but I’m a Wisconsinite at heart. I talk way too much about the Green Bay Packers, Bruce Springsteen, and It’s Always Sunny.