After the death of my friend Elizabeth Wurtzel earlier this month, I spent a lot of time thinking about how complicated people leave complex legacies.
I returned to that line of thought today, as the country reacted in shock to the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, 41, in a helicopter crash that killed a total of nine people in California. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna died with him; they were on the way to her travel basketball game. Bryant is survived by his wife Vanessa and three other daughters: Natalia, Bianka, and seven-month-old Capri. The other crash victims identified as of this writing are John Altobelli, the head baseball coach at Orange Coast College; his wife Keri; and one of their two daughters, Alyssa. The remaining names have yet to be released, but so far at least two families are facing unimaginable grief.
Of course, when someone is as talented and famous as Kobe was, people far outside the family circle feel profound sadness too, including many thousands who never knew him personally. Bernice King — who was five years old when her father Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — wrote on Twitter:
Mourning a “celebrity” does not = lack of “consciousness.”
And sometimes, the death of someone we feel like we knew, but we never actually touched, triggers pain about the death of people we knew well.
We are on a brief pilgrimage here, reconciling life and death.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) January 26, 2020
In Bryant’s case, the grief is intensified by the fact that, since retiring from the NBA in 2016, Bryant seemed to be, as President Barack Obama wrote, “just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act.” His family foundation was a founding donor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian in D.C. In his own wheelhouse, Bryant became a highly visible supporter of women’s basketball. Just last week, he told CNN that there are women players who are ready to play in the NBA now. For an iconic player to stand up for women in the sport like is significant. Consider that in 2017, John McEnroe said tennis great Serena Williams would rank “like 700 in the world” if she played on the men’s circuit. Former WBNA player Rebecca Lobo pointed out that Bryant’s open encouragement made him exceptional among male players.
— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) January 26, 2020
Bryant did have a compelling personal reason to support the women’s game: Daughter Gianna, known as Gigi, was poised to become a major talent and Bryant was proud to consider her his “legacy.”
Kobe talking about his daughter and how she was determined to break gender norms to carry on her father's legacy
"I got this. Don't need no boy for that. I got this" 💔
This is heartbreaking to watch. Exemplary and Exceptional father to his daughter. 😭pic.twitter.com/fgfPearHGk
— StanceGrounded (@_SJPeace_) January 26, 2020
But he also spoke of inspiring kids in general, not only the ones who bore his last name.
Kobe loved being an inspiration 💜💛 pic.twitter.com/tQnjS9ibSl
— ESPN (@espn) January 27, 2020
I hope he will have that impact on future generations of athletes that he wanted to have. I wish he had more time to ensure it, and to keep speaking up, especially for women. Not only did his efforts benefit those who aspired to emulate his career, but they suggested Bryant might have evolved in meaningful ways since 2003, when he was credibly accused of rape. (The details of the story are appalling: the assault itself, Bryant’s lies to the police, and the high-priced pressure and smear tactics he and his enablers used to force the 19-year-old victim to back away from criminal charges and settle out of court.) That’s the difficult part of looking at his life and his death. Who among us would want to be defined by the worst thing we ever did? But those things are part of our stories anyway, even if they aren’t the headlines. In Bryant’s case, his story includes a woman’s pain — part of his story is her story too, and there’s no one to blame for that except himself. Writer Jill Filipovic wrote about it thoughtfully about that issue today.
Speaking of women’s stories, I’ll return to Elizabeth Wurtzel here, because editor Garance Franke-Ruta published a essay of hers posthumously. It was about Elizabeth’s separation from her husband. Last year, I did wonder if or when Elizabeth, with her devotion to ruthless truth-telling, would address her impending divorce. I should have known she was working on something! As it turned out, Elizabeth’s husband Jim not only stayed with her until the end, but he agreed that she’d want her piece to be published. Garance wrote an introduction and afterword. The essay is called “I Believe in Love.”
You can also read Galt Niederhoffer’s tribute to Elizabeth on Jezebel.
UPDATED MONDAY, JAN. 27, TO ADD: The four other victims of the crash have now been identified. They are a mother and daughter, Sarah and Payton Chester; Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan.
For more reading, I recommend Jessica Valenti’s piece about how the successes of Kobe (and other talented men) shouldn’t erase the experiences of women they’ve hurt. Valenti makes a good point about the unusual public apology Bryant made to his victim after the case was dismissed:
“If Bryant’s fans are looking for a way to reconcile their love and grief with the accusation, one way would be to consider this apology as a sign of someone who seemed to be taking stock of the hurt he caused.”
The apology is covered in more detail in this 2016 story by Dave Zirin.