Kobe Bryant’s death was, most immediately, a family tragedy. Popularly, it was disorienting. For more than two decades, this large and potent man impressed his will on more than the basketball court. We know that death is constant, recurring—but somehow his seemed unnatural.
It’s not surprising. For decades, Bryant and advertising executives had spun his gifts into fables. Fables that celebrated his talent, but stressed the importance of honest virtue in realising it. Which made commercial sense. The public can’t emulate prodigious athleticism, but it can believe in better applying discipline and self-belief to their own quiet, uncelebrated lives. ‘The minute you get away from fundamentals—whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation—the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing,’ Michael Jordan’s ghostwriter declared in the 1994 bestseller, I Can’t Accept Not Trying.
The stories we tell about athletic prowess—at least the stories that marketing executives tell—ignore the frequently pitiless, unsociable motivation that creates greatness.
In the iconography made by marketing executives, both the athlete’s mind and body are cathedrals—two clean, virtuous and symbiotic systems. In reality, greatness is often fueled by rage, selfishness, sadism, and sustained myopia: for the world to marvel at you, you must erase the world. That’s not always true, but it was true of Bryant. And he knew it. In a 2014 New Yorker profile, he called it the ‘ugliness of greatness’.
Bryant’s career was defined by virtuosity, and simultaneously the excesses of the ego that supported it. Offensively unstoppable, his career was brilliant: In his twenty years in the league, he was an All-Star for 18 of them. He retired with five rings, two gold medals, and an MVP.
But there were long spells of flamboyant selfishness, an arrogance that taxed his famously philosophical coach Phil Jackson, and very public criticism of his own teammates—most notoriously of Shaquille O’Neal, a large talent but one who irritated Bryant with his smiling indifference to doctrines of self-improvement.
Kobe Bryant resembled his ‘big brother’ Michael Jordan. Not in talent—though he rivaled it—but in his brutal, imperious will to dominate others. Including teammates. Jordan punched, abused and intimidated his—Will Perdue’s black eye, and Luc Longley’s bruised ego will attest—and in David Halberstam’s excellent book on the NBA’s GOAT there is the fascinating detail of BJ Armstrong, an All-Star point guard himself, being so intimidated by Jordan’s brilliance that he borrows a book about genius from the local library to better understand him.
Hatred helped polish Jordan’s gifts. If he was ever having a quiet night, there was a sure way to ignite his brilliance—talk trash. More than one opposing player was pulled from the court for such self-defeating provocation. Jordan didn’t just want to embarrass cocky proteges, he wanted to destroy them. Really destroy them. He wanted them to bleed, weep, surrender. He wanted to inflict career-ending humiliation.
In 2012, famed sports writer Bill Simmons wrote that Jordan had ‘evolved into a withering, homicidally competitive bully… And Kobe tried to evolve into a withering, homicidally competitive bully, if only because his idol acted that way once upon a time. Eventually, that’s what he became.’
You can’t use that for a commercial slogan. If one thought that Michael Jordan’s retirement might have softened his competitiveness, or that his consensus anointment as the game’s greatest player might have offered comfort and grace, well, his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech disabused you: Jordan devoted much of it to prosecuting obscure grievances and complaining about the cost of the night’s tickets.
We should be thankful. Jordan was being honest. He was showing us ‘the ugliness of greatness’. Like Kobe, his capacity for nursing grievances was transmuted into a maniacally sustained brilliance. As much as their patrons at Nike obscured it, the ‘ugliness’ was inseparable from their success.
There’s nothing uglier than the 2003 rape allegation against Bryant, which was withdrawn when the complainant refused to testify—and after she was publicly undermined by Bryant’s legal team—but for which Bryant himself apologised, albeit in legalese: ‘After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.’
Phil Jackson, who coached both Jordan and Bryant, would later write about first hearing of the allegation in his memoir The Last Season: ‘Was I surprised?’ he wrote. ‘Yes, but not entirely. Kobe can be consumed with surprising anger, which he’s displayed toward me and his teammates.’
That Bryant’s coach was ‘not entirely’ surprised about an allegation of rape against his star player might testify to the ‘ugliness of greatness’. Always attentive to his ‘brand’, it’s also unsurprising that Bryant sought to divert public attention with a corporate-sponsored alter ego—the Black Mamba.
What is surprising is that a man credibly accused of rape would choose a venomous snake as his smokescreen and redemptive avatar. I’m unsure if this suggests outlandish chutzpah or childlike obliviousness. Maybe it’s just cold business sense: The ‘Black Mamba’ conceit worked, bearing profitable sneakers, clothing and academies. Its Nike shoe line is worth many millions. ‘Each sneaker in the ‘Black Mamba’ Pack relates to a destination that has shaped Kobe’s Mamba Mentality and uncompromising approach.’
In 2018, Bryant released a book, The Mamba Mentality, which more practically detailed his ‘uncompromising approach’: ‘I liked challenging people and making them uncomfortable,’ he wrote. ‘That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement.’
Police documents from 2004 also attest to his uncompromising approach. One detective, who accompanied Bryant to the scene of the alleged rape, described Bryant throwing his semen-stained t-shirt at him. Then there was the medical judgement of a nurse, who examined the alleged victim the next day: ‘[The nurse] stated that there were several lacerations to the victim’s posterior fourchette or vaginal area… Too many to count… [The nurse] stated that the injuries were consistent with penetrating genital trauma. That it’s not consistent with consensual sex.’
Novak Djokovic considered Kobe Bryant a friend and mentor. An imperious beast on the court, his eighth Australian Open title rightly returned him to the world’s top seed. But his performance in January’s final was also marked by petulance and his offence that the crowd had sided with the underdog Dominic Thiem. When the umpire correctly, if officiously, penalised Djokovic for a time violation, Djokovic’s contempt was explicit—he condescendingly patted the umpire’s shoes, and accused him of seeking fame. ‘You made yourself famous. Well done.’
The modern athlete who aspires to greatness—and whose value can capriciously fluctuate like the stock market—understands the benefit of disguising the essence of their success, and offers trite homilies about ‘perspective’ in their victory speech.
‘There were some devastating things that started 2020 with huge bushfires here in Australia, conflicts in some parts of the world, people dying every day,’ Djokovic said after the final, holding his 17th Grand Slam trophy. ‘Of course we are part of a professional sport, we compete and we try our best but obviously there are more important things in life and it’s important to be conscious and humble about things that are happening around you.’
If Djokovic’s competitive rage was humbled by his contemplation of Australia’s bushfires—or by the unspecified conflicts—it didn’t show. But why do we need him to be? And why does he think we need him to be?
Fans aren’t blameless in this tired duplicity. We want passionate spectacles born of skill and heat, yet simultaneously demand grace and charity, thus creating a second spectacle of false humility and conspicuous benevolence. Witness the intense focus upon Ashleigh Barty’s humility. This isn’t a subtle appreciation. It’s a narrative tic. It’s the reduction of a human to an icon.
Few things demand more self-involvement than the pursuit of athletic greatness, but the narratives created in newsrooms and corporate bull sessions are enthusiastically devoted to iconography. Successful narratives are simple ones, storylines that have been scrubbed clean of ambivalence. Which is to say they’re fantasies.
We’re very good at accepting people we admire for the people they tell us they are. Which is only natural when we want so desperately to believe them.