The Deification of Kobe Bryant

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should reveal to the reader that I haven’t been a big fan of professional basketball since the days of Bird, Magic, and Michael Jordan. But even then, I realized that my “heroes” often had feet of clay. These men were human beings with a great talent for throwing a large, round ball through a metal hoop fixed ten feet overhead, but they were not exactly paragons of virtue. Larry Bird was rumored (probably false) to have fathered an illegitimate child. Magic Johnson contracted HIV due to having unprotected sex with too many people. Michael Jordan allegedly has had issues with gambling. Professional athletes appear to have a bad (and expensive) habit of impregnating women who are not their wives.

Great players, even Hall of Fame players, but great people? Let’s be honest for a moment. Jesus said we shouldn’t even think of ourselves as good. Yet society puts these athletes on a pedestal.  

In a tragic accident, former NBA “superstar” Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash on January 26th, 2020, along with eight other people: Bryant’s daughter Gianna, pilot Ara Zobayan, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, John Altobelli, Kerri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, and Christina Mauser. I deliberately mimicked the way most newspaper headlines reported the tragedy, as if the other eight victims were an afterthought. Bryant was much too young to die, but so were the other eight people who died in the crash.

Kobe Bryant, an All-Star who led the Lakers to become league champions five times, played twenty years in the NBA. He and Shaquille O’Neal led the Lakers to three consecutive NBA titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Bryant won two gold medals as part of the U.S. Olympic basketball teams of 2008 and 2012.  He was clearly one of the best players of his generation.

Should we be sorry he’s dead? Of course we should, assuming that we have even a modicum of human decency within us. He was only 41 years old -- I have scars older than that. But several of the other victims were teenagers, and the truth is, Kobe Bryant was only a human being. Ugly accusations of sexual assault were leveled against him. He ultimately settled a civil suit against him after confessing to adultery, even admitting that he believed the victim was engaged in consensual sex at the time but realized after hearing her testimony that the 19-year-old woman thought she was being raped. In fairness, I remember wondering at the time if  Bryant was as much a victim as the young woman because she voluntarily went to his hotel room alone, and the victims of Harvey Weinstein will tell you what a bad idea that might turn out to be. Nobody deserves to be raped, but nobody deserves to be falsely accused of rape after consensual sex, either. I wasn’t in the room, so I have no idea what happened. All we know is that something happened years ago, and Kobe Bryant is dead. You know who is probably the least happy Gayle King asked that question? His accuser, because she got paid and moved on with her life, and now a national news anchor is asking about it on CBS This Morning.

In the Deep South, this is known as “speaking ill of the dead” and I’m quite reticent to do so, but must for the sake of this story because CBS anchor Gayle King asked retired WNBA player Lisa Leslie about the unfortunate incident and promptly received death threats. Intellectual heavyweight Calvin Broadus, Jr. (a.k.a. Snoop Dogg) warned King to “Respect the family and back off, b----, before we come get you.”

According to Mr. Dogg, this is not a threat, and he’s a nonviolent person. This video of him fantasizing about shooting President Trump would seem to corroborate his claim, right? 

Well, former ambassador Susan Rice wasn’t convinced for one, warning Snoop to “back the **** off.” CBS News president Susan Zirinsky called the implied threat “reprehensible.” However, this is the fearless, violent rapper Snoop Dogg we’re talking about, right? He’s not afraid of 63 million Trump voters. He’s not afraid the Secret Service, even having the nerve to pose for an album cover with a body under an American flag wearing a toe tag labeled Trump.  He’s not even (gasp) afraid of Oprah Winfrey.

And who did Gayle King blame for the uproar? Her employer, naturally, claiming that CBS took the question out of context in a longer interview. Yes, they did… the idea of promotional material to draw a larger audience is to create an interesting tease to lure the attention of otherwise disinterested viewers. Didn’t she learn that in journalism school? Alas, she majored in psychology at the University of Maryland.

But this isn’t about Snoop Dogg or Gayle King. This is about Kobe Bryant. Yes, he was a very talented basketball player, and it’s a real shame he’s dead. It’s a real shame eight other people died, and they seem to be a footnote, while the rest of the world pays tribute to Bryant whether we believe it’s necessary or not. I can understand doing a special tribute at a Lakers game because his entire career was spent in Los Angeles, but everybody has been getting in on the act: Novak Djokovic talked about his friendship with Bryant after winning the Australian Open. It makes a certain amount of sense given the proximity of the accident to the championship match and the personal nature of their friendship, yet I still wondered how many Australian tennis fans actually care about American basketball and even knew what he was talking about. Spike Lee wore a purple-and-gold tuxedo to the Oscars paying a special tribute to Bryant -- but isn’t Mars Blackmon a Knicks fan?  

Frankly, it’s getting pretty ridiculous. I don’t know what’s more absurd -- the idea of grown men getting tattoos on their body as “tribute” to a guy who died prematurely, or the media writing articles so we’d be sure to know they got Kobe Bryant tattoos. LeBron James does a breakaway dunk that reminds some people of a similar play by Kobe Bryant and create a video doing detailed side-by-side analysis of the two plays.

Even O.J. Simpson felt the need to chime in, telling Gayle King we should be “celebrating the greatness of Kobe” and that only three weeks or so after the accident, it was still too soon to bring up any sordid events from his past.  His threat to Ms. King was much more subtle: “I’m just saying, take care.” Indeed. When O.J. Simpson warns people, they should take him very seriously. He’s a credible threat.

At what point can we say enough is enough? When can we let these poor people rest in peace? Maybe that day will come on February 24th, after the Lakers finally hold the official memorial service for Bryant. He was a very good, maybe even a great basketball player, but a flawed human being, only because he was human like the rest of us.

Perhaps worthy of admiration, but not adulation. RIP.

(Now the death threats begin in 3…2…1)

John Leonard writes novels, books, and articles/blogs for American Thinker. You may find him on Facebook or at his website at His books are available here.

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