January 27, 2020 – Yesterday afternoon, amid a busy news Sunday on multiple fronts, the basketball legend Kobe Bryant died in California, and our media took a sharp collective breath. Bryant, who was 41, was killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, close to LA. Eight other people died, including Bryant’s daughter Gianna, who was 13; her basketball teammate Alyssa Altobelli; and Altobelli’s father, John, a baseball coach at Orange Coast College, and his wife, Keri. Celebrity deaths almost always cause an outpouring; this one—amplified by its randomness and human cost, as well as Bryant’s legend—felt especially raw. The New York Times called it “a moment of national mourning, coast to coast.” In LA, thousands of people flocked to the Staples Center, where Bryant played for the Lakers, his only NBA team; last night, the arena hosted the Grammys, which saw multiple Bryant tributes. Bill Plaschke, a sports columnist at the LA Times (which dropped its paywall from Bryant stories), wrote that he was “screaming right now, cursing into the sky, crying into my keyboard, and I don’t care who knows it.” He told his readers to “cry with me, weep and wail and shout into the streets, fill a suddenly empty Los Angeles with your pain.”

Much of the mourning happened on social media, which was fitting, since Bryant was and will remain an online phenomenon. Bill Simmons, of The Ringer, noted on his podcast that Bryant’s career “spanned basically the entire internet, and how it intersected with basketball in all these different ways”—from his NBA debut in 1996 (“right when most people have email”) through early sports blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. “He’s there every step of the way and becomes the defining guy of his generation,” Simmons said. After Bryant retired in 2016, he doubled down on multimedia performance: he founded a studio that made an ESPN+ show and a family podcast, oversaw the publication of fantasy books for children, and even won an Oscar, in 2018, for Dear Basketball, an animated short film based on a poem Bryant wrote ahead of his retirement. On Thursday, three days before Bryant’s death, USA Today ran a recent interview in which Bryant reflected on his post-career projects, as well as his pride in his Oscar and other movie awards. “They’re at the top for me,” he said.

In other words, and as many observers have noted since his death, Bryant was a transcendent figure in the culture. His death “kinda feels bigger than basketball. It feels more like Prince,” Chris Ryan, also of The Ringer, said on Simmons’s podcast. “I know that this is a completely useless metric, but there is something weird about when somebody passes into the one-name category: Prince, Bowie, Kobe.”

Not that the reaction to Bryant’s death was uniformly laudatory. Many observers, some of them journalists, tweeted about a historic rape allegation against Bryant which was made, in 2003, by a hotel worker in Colorado. Bryant was arrested, but his alleged victim—who faced pressure from the media and Bryant’s lawyers—declined to testify against him, and so the case collapsed; Bryant claimed the sex was consensual, but later settled with the hotel worker, and acknowledged that “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Many news reports and reflections on Bryant’s death mentioned the episode, but they often did so as a footnote, or in passing. Online, some critics said his alleged victim had been erased by the wave of public grief; critics of the critics, including in right-wing media, called that conclusion insensitive. 

Hagiography is a tempting impulse whenever a beloved figure dies, but it often distorts the truth, which is usually far messier. It exerts a flattening effect, when moments of shared remembrance should be times for nuance and complexity. As Rob Mahoney asked yesterday, also for The Ringer: “How can we process the death around us without coming to terms with the mythologies we create? Bryant is everything that he has ever done, with all of the painful complexity that entails. What was admirable about him can still be admirable. What was troubling can still be troubling.”

As we’ve come to know all too well, the internet can have a profoundly distorting effect on any walk of life. But the internet is not one thing: it can pull us apart, but it can also bring us together around difficult events; it can make myths, but it can also offer important checks on them that may otherwise go unoffered. And it can channel and reflect the deep complexity of real life and real characters. “He engaged you on an emotional level the way very few athletes do,” Ryan told Simmons yesterday, of Bryant. “You can respect athletes, you can fear athletes, you can hate athletes. Kobe had the ability to trigger all of those emotions in me.”

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