My two greatest enduring and life affirming memories of Kobe Bryant have absolutely nothing to do with basketball. There will be plenty of hashing and rehashing of his legendary NBA exploits in the mountain of tributes and remembrances of him. The first is the mild but very pleasant surprise I had watching Bryant at a peace walk in July 2014. He marched and stood shoulder to shoulder with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. The occasion for the peace walk was the first anniversary of the grotesque acquittal of George Zimmerman of the murder of Martin.
Bryant minced no words. He called out the criminal justice system for the abomination in letting Zimmerman skip away scot–free. The Zimmerman atrocity, though, to Bryant was a deeper sign of the terrible malaise in the criminal justice system that routinely demonizes and diminishes black lives. Other civil rights leaders, activists and I can say that until the sky falls. But a blast at the justice system coming from a superstar athlete in the heart of the African-American community on his home turf Los Angeles carries real weight.
There’s another ever-enduring memory I have of him. That’s when he ripped off his Lakers sweat jacket during pregame warm ups at a game against the Sacramento Kings in December 2014. There it was, emblazoned on his black tee shirt, the words “I can’t breathe.” The “I” was Eric Garner, choked to death by an NYPD undercover cop the previous July. Millions saw and heard Garner scream those words as he writhed in the death grip of the officer while pinned down on the ground.
What was even more memorable about Bryant’s bold statement about racial injustice was that he felt strongly enough about the issue to get his other Laker teammates to don similar black tee shirts with Garner’s death throe plea to the world etched on them.
These enduring memories of Kobe had even greater meaning for me because they showed a young man who had undergone an almost total epiphany in terms of his growth and awareness of the at times literally life and death struggle for racial justice. It’s important to say that because it wasn’t long before Bryant spoke out forcefully backing the fight for racial justice that he was lambasted by many Blacks, and that included a sharp reprimand from football great Jim Brown about his supposed lack of blackness.
Bryant posted a tweet in March 2014 that seemed to soft peddle the Zimmerman acquittal. Bryant took much heat for this, but he did not dig his heels in and defiantly scream about his freedom to express his opinion. Keep in mind that Bryant got lots of raves from others for allegedly going against the alleged politically correct crowd by taking a contrarian position. But clearly, he thought hard about the criticism, and the heinous implications of the judicial travesty. He quickly reversed gear and called the verdict exactly what it was, “Travon Martin was wronged. THAT’S my opinion and that’s what I believe the FACTS showed. The system did not work.”
When you really think about it, though, it really wasn’t terribly hard for Bryant to switch roles from basketball superstar Bryant to racial justice activist Bryant.
Despite Bryant’s careful and cautious downplay of race during much of his playing career, for another swath of the public he was still a black sports icon. The price a black sports icon pays for resting on that high perch can be steep. One misstep and he or she can become an instant poster child for all that’s allegedly wrong with celebrity, sports and society. Bryant got an early taste of what could happen when there’s even the tiniest slip. That was the charge against him of sexual assault in a small Colorado town in 2003. The case was ultimately dropped. But it was a harsh wake-up call.
There are two reasons for the walk on pins and needles existence of black sports superstars. When Bryant tore up the NBA, he became the gatekeeper for the storehouse of fantasies and delusions of a sports-crazed public as well as advertisers, sportswriters and TV executives in desperate need of vicarious escape, titillation, excitement and profits. Bryant was the ultimate in the sports hero who fulfilled that empty need.
He was expected to move in the rarified air above the fray of human problems while raising society’s expectation of what’s good and wholesome. He was handsomely rewarded for fulfilling that fantasy, if they stick to matters on the court or gridiron. When they stray from that, think Kaepernick, whom, by the way Bryant strongly backed and even embraced at a tennis match
The other reason for caution by Bryant and others is his fame and fortune. Black superstars cause much media and public hurt when they supposedly betray the collective self-delusion of sport as pure and pristine. That stirs even greater jealousy and resentment. That’s evident in the constant fan and sportswriter carping about how spoiled, pampered and overpaid men such as Bryant and black athletes supposedly are. The first hint of any bad behavior by them ignites a torrent of self-righteous columns and commentary on the supposed arrogant, above the law black athlete.
Bryant well understood the harsh and glaring public and media fishbowl that he was in. But in the end, he did the right thing and cast his stardom, celebrity status, and revered sports name with the Trayvon Martins of the world and the fight for racial justice. This is the Kobe Bryant I choose to remember.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One and the host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.