It has been nearly two weeks since former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant perished in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter.
That sentence still doesn’t register in my brain. I know millions grieve. None more so than the Bryant family and the families of the other seven passengers who died in the crash. The finality of death, always the most devastating for those left behind.
In the blink of an eye, all interaction, all connection, all potential…gone. And that reality is impossible to reckon with. That void unfillable. That realization of how fragile we are, too terrifying to face.
I was thankful to be with friends and family last Sunday. It helped to spend time with loved ones during a tragedy that reminds us who we actually do cherish.
Over the course of this past week, the outpouring of love, admiration, respect, and anguish has flooded every possible corner of the planet. I’ve spent a lot of time absorbing as much of it as I can. Holding on to him, a man I respected and admired. A man who I followed and cheered and celebrated and defended and grew up with across 25 years.
It’s strange. I find it fascinating that a man whose career and legacy were the epitome of divisive has become so universally adored upon his death.
In fact, it was that divisiveness that drew me to him. And, perhaps that is the answer for most everyone else too. He lived an unapologetic life, as if success was inevitable. And, as we know, he met success at every junction of his 41 years. A 17-year-old NBA draftee, a five-time NBA champion, an 18-time all-star, a nine-time first team all defense selection, a four-time All Star MVP, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a shrewd investor, a CEO and an Academy Award winner.
Success upon success upon success. And yet, to honor the totality of the man he was, I believe his greatness comes from his greatest failures.
In the 1997 NBA Western Conference Semifinals, an 18-year-old rookie Kobe sent the Lakers home after firing up four air balls. At the time, I was an Eddie Jones disciple. Loved his toughness, his style, his defense, and his humility. So after each Kobe airball, I remember yelling at the television, physically angry that this cocky teenager, this arrogant rookie who had the nerve to believe he would be better than Michael Jordan and wasn’t even better than Eddie, had taken it upon himself to try to win the game. Instead, he lost.
It is well known that Kobe used that embarrassment as the foundation upon which he built his NBA career. Three seasons later, a now 21-year old Bryant willed the Lakers to a victory in Game Five of the NBA Finals after Shaq, the MVP of the league, fouled out. The Lakers would go on to win that series, the championship, and the next two championships — the first half of the Lakers’ fourth dynasty.
In basketball, Bryant’s failures are well known. He feuded with Shaq. He failed in the 2004 NBA finals, and again in the 2008 NBA finals. He failed his fans and all who admired him when he used a homophobic slur towards a referee. He failed to lead a young Lakers core to the playoffs during his last two years in the League.
Yet, through each failure, he worked to become better. He eventually won “one more than Shaq,” including overcoming a 6-24 shooting night to help seal the 2010 championship.
He and Shaq patched things up, so much so that the last text Kobe sent out before he died was to Shaq’s son. He became a part of the pro-LGBTQ You Can Play Project. And as the words and actions of hundreds of current NBA and WNBA players have expressed over the past week, Bryant inspired them all to greatness on and off the court.
Which brings me to his greatest failure — his most abhorrent failure. In 2003 Bryant was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old. I don’t bring this up to smear the man. Far from it. But as a father of a young girl and as a Kobe fan, it would be irresponsible to not discuss its complexity and its impact on him and the alleged victim.
Sexual assault is a life-altering, life-destroying act that can never be taken back. I think of my daughter, I think of Kobe’s daughters, and it makes me sick. I think about the past few years and the #metoo movement and the utter lack of dignity shown from this country’s leadership towards women. It all makes me sick.
I think of how the media treated the alleged victim. How she was forced to move away from her home. How Lakers fans automatically dismissed the allegations. How her life was forced to dramatically change. How she must have felt every time she saw Kobe on TV or on social media winning at life.
And he won a lot. In 2016, Bryant was honored with the ESPY Icon award. He ended his acceptance speech with the following:
“My next dream, is to be honored one day for inspiring the next generation of athletes to have a dream, sacrifice for it, and never ever rest in the middle.”
Over the past decade, I’ve read and heard women describe how Kobe impacted their lives. How he supported Breanna Stewart through her Achilles injury. How he challenged Jeanie Buss by bringing Gianna to meet with her, to show his daughter that women could be leaders in the NBA. How he inspired Candace Parker to finally win a championship. How he respected ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols early in both of their careers and assured her that they were both destined for greatness.
How he became the most famous male athlete supporter of the WNBA. How he pushed and grew youth sports. How he transformed into a #girldad.
And in the wake of his death, there are millions and millions of people that have been inspired and motivated and impacted by him that have in turn birthed happiness and joy and positive, life-altering growth and affected countless others.
Does any of that erase his failure in 2003? No.
I wrestle with how I should view him and everything he has accomplished.
Failure is after all at the root of being human. Every single human does it. Even the most successful. Kobe is cherished by so many, not because he lived a perfect life, but because of how he responded to failure.
His admitted action in 2003, to many, is an unforgivable one. And, if I were the father of the alleged victim or the victim myself, I would be the most hardened against forgiveness.
And yet, should our worst moment in life define who we are? Or, can we work every single day of the rest of our lives to rectify that moment and ultimately find redemption?
I believe we can.
I believe failure can lead to redemption.
And I believe people that have failed in such abhorrent ways can still inspire.
I believe in it so much that I am taking that hollow, despondent void his death and the death of his daughter have left inside me, and transforming it into fuel.
To fail and use that failure to be better.
To never be complacent or satisfied.
To live. To cherish the ones I love.
To pursue each day as if it’s my last.
Jordan Ikeda is a frequent contributor and columnist, and a former sports editor for The Rafu Shimpo. He writes from Torrance.