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.