In 2016, in the final game of his professional career, Kobe Bryant scored sixty points. If that sounds like going out on a high note, it wasn’t. He took fifty shots—the most shots attempted by a single player in the previous thirty-three years of the league. Casual fans will cite the first statistic for years: Kobe scored sixty points in his retirement game. But in the following days and weeks, pundits voiced their disdain for this final selfish display. Proof, they chanted in unison, that it is time to say good riddance to this Narcissus.
They were right; it was time for him to bow out. Nevertheless, there is something odd about treating a great athlete’s defining characteristic as his failing. Kobe missed his first five shots that night and went scoreless for the first six minutes of the game. But when he squared up for shot six, he acted as if he had never missed a shot in his life, let alone all five in the last six minutes. Was it the arrogance of a superstar or the confidence? The jury is still out.
In the nineties and the 2000s, there was a dearth of female athletes for a sports-obsessed girl to watch on television. Only tennis reliably offered women who played for a living. I grew up on Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Justine Henin. I liked watching them but felt nothing more than cool admiration. Then came a young teenager called Serena Williams. She was astonishing, but she was also too loud, too angry, too aggressive, too proud. I saw myself in her and it made me uncomfortable.
It was easier and more fun to watch the men. Sampras and Agassi, Beckham and Zidane, Iverson and Shaq. I took pleasure in them all but I had only one idol: Kobe. I wanted to be him; I felt that I was him. The feeling that overtook me when I played tennis, soccer, basketball, netball, and touch football, I saw it in his eyes every time he stepped onto the court. Later, he gave that feeling a name: Mamba Mentality. Watching him play felt like willing a dream into existence. He didn’t just want to be the best, he always wanted to be better than himself. I wanted his confidence, his swagger, his no-apologies attitude.
When I first heard of the rape accusation against Kobe, I was fourteen. I played basketball for my high school. I refused to entertain the possibility that he was guilty. No hero of mine could be capable of this.
My denial continued for years.
Kobe taught me that being a great athlete is not primarily about talent; It’s about discipline, focus, and hard work. Talent is luck and it is meaningless. You win by training harder than your opponents, by studying their weaknesses and knowing your strengths. This is, in some ways, an odd lesson to take from Kobe Bryant. He was gloriously gifted, anointed by the heavens. But it was the lesson I needed. I knew early that I could never be the fastest or the strongest but I also knew that I could work the hardest, I could be the best student of the game. And, like Kobe, I always wanted it the most. I still do.
It took me far too long to realize that Serena had the same qualities, but that the world used different words for her. His confidence: her arrogance. His determination: her hostility. His killer instinct: her aggression. It’s no wonder that I wanted to be him, not her.
There was so much I needed to learn about the world before I could learn to love Serena. I needed no such lessons for Kobe. I loved him immediately, with my head and with my heart.
My childhood dreams didn’t come true: I am not a professional athlete. Instead, I study literature for a living (although I have represented two countries at four World Cups in a sport called touch football). Even so, in the minutes before a job interview, I swap my notes for headphones as if I were about to walk onto the court at the Staples Center. The only thought in my head is: switch on, game time.
I see Kobe in the unlikeliest of places. In Paradise Lost, when Eve opens her eyes for the first time, she sees her reflection in a lake. She’s so mesmerized that God has to lead her away to meet his first, better creation. But when she sees Adam, Eve can’t help but think him “less fair, less winning soft, less amiably mild than that smooth watery image.” She thinks: I’m better.
The details of the sexual assault case in 2003 make clear that Kobe’s self-obsession often came at others’ expense. In this case, a nineteen-year-old girl. The criminal case was dropped, but it seems almost certain he was guilty. He was definitely guilty of the aftermath: he hired lawyers to destroy a young woman’s reputation.
His apology, lauded by some as exemplary, was additional proof that he couldn’t see others fully. He was blinded by himself, just as he blinded so many of us for too long.
If Eve’s ultimate sin is poor listening, her original sin is poor seeing. She looks downward not upward. She thinks the still water of the lake is another sky, comparable to the incomparable heaven. She sees herself as a creature of unrivaled beauty. In that still clear water, Eve can only see a distorted self, yet she perceives perfection.
Several lines later, with the touch of his hand, Adam instils in her the wisdom to see clearly. He makes Eve see that it is he, not she, who is truly beautiful. He teaches her to recognize the danger of her vanity. Eve, now educated, sees herself with all her limitations.
I prefer untutored Eve.
In March of 2012, the Lakers played the New Orleans Hornets at the Staples Center. Kobe scored only eleven points, and he missed eighteen shots. He didn’t score a single time in the first three quarters of the game. Then he scored eleven points in the last seven minutes of the game, including a clutch three-point shot that won them the game. I’ve watched the highlight reel over and over again searching for doubt, even just a momentary flicker. It is entirely absent from his face and his actions. The crowd gets nervous, the commentators seem almost embarrassed, but Kobe continues to play. He plays as if the last missed shot had never happened. When he makes his first basket, the crowd whoops and cheers, and for the first time you see Kobe get upset. Did you doubt me? How dare you.
If Eve was robbed of that perfect reflection, Kobe never was. No one held his hand and opened his eyes to another, more accurate vision of himself. He never saw himself clearly—not on his first day, not on his last.
Kobe’s impaired vision is fundamental to what made him one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. He thought he could do the impossible, and that belief made the impossible possible, again and again: playing through a dislocated finger, making both free throws after tearing his Achilles, forcing overtime with a buzzer beating 3 and then winning that game with a fadeaway three-pointer in double overtime, those eight-one points.
I can’t let Kobe go. This fills me with shame. I should throw him off the pedestal; he deserves at least this. I know I should, but I don’t know if I can. I can’t explain to friends, especially the ones who don’t love sports, why I haven’t been able to dismiss him. He is too much a part of me, too deeply embedded in my DNA. In the formative years of my life, I didn’t just adore him, I made myself in his image.
Even recently, as I watched him fight for women’s basketball, I felt something close to adoration. He didn’t just boast about his daughter Gianna, he also championed countless young girls, college athletes, and WNBA players. Yet even this, I know, isn’t redemption.
Whatever I do, whatever I think now, I cannot change the fact that no single athlete has taught me more about what it means to compete than Kobe. I conceded recently (unreasonably recently) that LeBron James is a better basketball player. But, like so many of the players dominating the league today, he is derivative of Kobe. And so am I.
My shame about loving, and now grieving, Kobe is laced with anger. I feel anger, and sorrow, that I grew up in a world that made it easy to adore him and easier still to dismiss the nineteen-year-old woman brave enough to speak out against him. I needed to learn about the world before I learned to love Serena, and learning about the world has made me realize I need to love Kobe less. My head knows this, but my heart hasn’t caught up.
Tara K. Menon is a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and will begin as an assistant professor in the department of English at Harvard University in the fall of 2020. She has represented Singapore and the United States in four Touch Football World Cups.