It Is a Terrible Irony That Kobe Bryant Should Fall From the Sky
The late poet and singer Jim Carroll could really play. He came up in New York in the era of Connie Hawkins and Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He ran as an equal with playground legends like Pee Wee Kirkland and Herman (Helicopter) Knowles. At about the same time, he got interested in writing and in heroin, but he still produced the greatest line ever written about a game. “In basketball,” wrote Carroll, “you can correct your mistakes immediately and beautifully, and in midair.”
That line seemed to hover around me when the news came in about the death of Kobe Bryant and eight other people, including his daughter, Gianna, in a helicopter crash in the hills around Los Angeles. Kobe was 41 years old. Gianna was 13. Bryant’s life was marked by a stunning ability to play the game that so entranced Carroll that, even in a heroin fog, Carroll could cling to its beauty that had sunk so deep in his bones. To watch Bryant at his peak, in his prime, is to appreciate the terrible irony that he died in a fall from the sky.
Bryant slam dunks over Eduardo Najera of the Denver Nuggets in the second half of Game Two of the 2008 Western Conference Quarterfinals.
His life also was marked by one terrible episode in which he was accused of rape by a 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado. The victim was traduced in various ways, all of them vicious. Eventually, there was a settlement and an apology that was half-acknowledgement from Bryant that something untoward had happened in that hotel room. He went on to a storied career—five NBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, one of the five leading scorers in NBA history, and the Hall of Fame. Remarkably, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player only once—in 2008—and people wondered if what transpired in Colorado maybe had something to do with that.
His game was more fluid than Michael Jordan’s and less bullish than that of LeBron James, to name the two transcendent talents who bookended Bryant’s career. He scored 81 points in a game in which he scored 55 in one half. He scored 60 in the last NBA game he ever played. He was a vital link in the golden chain of modern NBA talent first forged when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the enterprise in the late 1970s. The NBA’s signature went from those two, to Jordan, to Bryant, and then to James who, on the night before Bryant died, passed him to become the league’s third all-time scorer. It was this swift passage of overlapping generations that created the parameters of how to be a celebrity athlete in the modern world, because those parameters were created in the modern NBA before they were created anywhere else.
Bryant will be judged on whether he corrected his mistakes immediately and beautifully.
He went from an arrogant teenager to a gray eminence in the league to one of the NBA’s most prominent sports parents, a relatively recent phenomenon, consistently showing up at games with one of his three daughters. His fourth, Capri, was born only six months ago and will never know him, and that’s the most heartbreaking part of his death.
There was no way to work that night in the Colorado hotel into the biography that unspooled thereafter and came to such a sudden end on Sunday. In Massachusetts, for decades, political writers wrestled with where to place Chappaquiddick into the saga of Ted Kennedy, and too many of them gave up and erased the event and Mary Jo Kopechne. But it is 2020 now, and Jeffrey Epstein is dead and Harvey Weinstein is in a New York courtroom, and erasing a female victim is no longer a viable moral and ethical strategy. Kobe Bryant died on Sunday with one of the young women in his life, and how you will come to measure his life has to be judged by how deeply you believe that he corrected his grievous fault through the life he lived afterwards, and how deeply you believe that he corrected that fault, immediately and beautifully, and in midair.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.