By Ken Reed
I was walking off the tennis court last Sunday checking my messages when I saw several texts saying Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash.
My first reaction was disbelief. Then shock. Then sadness.
As I got in my car, I wasn’t sure why I was so sad. While I definitely respected his athletic ability and amazing competitive drive, I was never a Kobe fan. I guess the sadness came because it seemed so unfair that a guy who was only 41 and still making positive contributions to society had died so instantly.
Then when I got home, I heard that his 13-year-old, basketball-loving daughter had been killed in the crash as well. My heart sank. Here was a young lady who had her whole life in front of her.
I watched a clip of Kobe talking to his daughter at a basketball game. It was a very poignant moment, and as the dad of two basketball-playing daughters with whom I have shared similar moments, it really hit home.
The news continued to worsen. Eventually, we learned nine people had lost their lives in the accident. That meant several families were now having to deal with the hardest news that anyone can ever hear: the unexpected, tragic death of a loved one. My heart sank further.
Gradually, we started learning more about the other victims. First, it was another 13-year-old girl, a teammate of Kobe’s daughter, along with her mom and dad, a legendary college baseball coach.
There was also a young female assistant basketball coach killed. She was a mother to kids ages 11, 9 and 3. Then we learned about another 13-year-old basketball player on board, along with her mother. And, of course, the pilot.
So sad. So tragic. For everyone involved.
But Kobe Bryant was naturally the focus of the news stories and tributes. He was a basketball superstar, one of the greatest players ever. We’ve seen him on our screens for more than 20 years. He played in numerous NBA playoff games. He appeared in hundreds of commercials and interviews. He won an Oscar for a short film).
In the past year alone, we saw Kobe coaching his daughters, attending basketball games and enjoying the U.S. Open tennis tournament. His image had become so familiar we felt we knew him. That’s part of the reason the news of his death rocked not only the United States but also countries around the world. Basketball is a true global sport and Kobe was a global icon.
As I sat numb watching the news coverage on ESPN, my emotions were about to take another twist. A piece about his legal troubles in Eagle, CO started playing.
This was the ugly part of Kobe’s legacy. In July 2003, Bryant, 24, was arrested following a sexual assault complaint from a 19-year-old woman, an employee of the hotel where Bryant was staying. At the time, Bryant had been married a little over two years to his wife Vanessa.
The pain I was feeling for Bryant, his family, and the others involved in the crash had now expanded to include pain for the woman involved in the Colorado hotel incident.
Allegedly, Bryant forced the young woman to have sex with him in his room after she gave him a tour of the hotel. She also said Bryant repeatedly choked her. Details of the transcripts and records of the case are disturbing. After several months of non-stop media coverage leading to a trial, the woman involved decided to not testify and the criminal charges against Bryant were dropped. Bryant settled with the woman in a civil case.
We’ll never know exactly what happened that night. Bryant didn’t admit guilt but he did issue an apology.
“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,” wrote Bryant in a letter. “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.”
Like it or not, that incident is part of Bryant’s legacy. But it doesn’t complete it.
In the 16 years following that case, Bryant became a devoted family man, an advocate for women athletes, a supporter of the WNBA, a promoter of the arts, a successful businessman and a basketball coach and trainer for athletes from elementary school to the pro ranks through his academy.
It appears that at the time of his death, Bryant had become a model husband, father, citizen and businessman.
Nevertheless, Bryant left us with a complicated legacy to reflect upon.
There is plenty to read about Bryant’s accomplishments. But, as Joan Niesen wrote in The Guardian:
“You won’t read as much about 2003 … Bryant got a second chance. He used it to play his way into the conversation as one of basketball’s all-time greats. There was never another criminal accusation directed at the superstar. He was a family man, a businessman, a man who sat on Jimmy Kimmel’s couch and told the world with a look of satisfaction that his daughter would carry on his basketball legacy.”
Could he have done more? Probably. For one thing he could have made a regular practice of speaking to young males about the importance of treating women with respect.
That said, I’m glad Kobe Bryant had evolved into the man he was by the time of his death. He looked totally at peace, a man dedicated to loving and serving others. He was positively impacting the world and his future looked bright.
I won’t forget the incident in Colorado. But moving forward, I will focus more on the person Kobe Bryant had become when his journey on Earth had finished.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
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- Ken Reed's Author Page on Amazon
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
A League of Fans Special Report