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Ewan MacKenna: 'In death, as in life, Kobe Bryant should be remembered for the good and bad - but also the ugly'


Kobe Bryant was a legendary player for the LA Lakers, but he has a complicated legacy.

Kobe Bryant was a legendary player for the LA Lakers, but he has a complicated legacy.

Kobe Bryant was a legendary player for the LA Lakers, but he has a complicated legacy.

Sitting in a seat towards the back of the cinema, the soundtrack in the auditorium had been heavy laughter throughout. The Hangover was on the big screen and it was light and easy humour, a break from the real world outside.

Then, all of a sudden, Mike Tyson appeared.

The room chuckled once more at his goofy/hard-man mixture, but this time with an awe and a respect.

He was revered and loved, that rarity of a sports star that had transcended sport.

What was either not known, forgotten or ignored was this comedic figure 18 years earlier had raped a teenager. Serving time and repaying a debt is all well and good, and people need to be allowed to get on with living, but there shouldn't always be a bounce-back to heroism.

Most things are forgivable, if not forgettable, but that should've fallen into a category of following him for an eternity. But here was Tyson. Judged on who he was, not what he had done.

The last 48 hours have had a similar feel around the death of Kobe Bryant in a tragic helicopter crash. He was too young, as any 41-year-old is to be taken, and what compounded it was that he wasn't alone, with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna being killed as well as seven others.

It led to the heart-wrenching clips of father and daughter recently together in Madison Square Garden, shooting the breeze about shooting hoops in a really beautiful moment. In that instant, you could see a unique bond and a pride that was working overtime both ways.

It can be hard to get past such love and there's never an ideal time to question the deceased, but that doesn't mean we simply shouldn't. Yet what followed was a predictable rush to throw deserved praise, as the press and the world beyond poured back over his legacy. Or at least, that's the impression they gave.

They were actually selectively going over it all, and ignoring what didn't suit the agreed-upon and forced narrative.

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Eulogies are so often misleading. The recluse quickly becomes the soul of the party in passing, the miser transforms into the most charitable man in the town. And in terms of Bryant, he's become solely the genius who could do no wrong.

The 81 points against the Raptors, with 55 coming in the second half; the finals MVP in 2009 and 2010; the comeback from an Achilles injury as he played three more seasons as a testament to his ruthless drive; the 60 points in his last game as a reminder and farewell. Off the court, there were the three languages he spoke. There was even an Oscar victory too.

That's a lot packed into what should have been half of a lifetime, but there was still more.

This is not to drag down a person after they've left, but it is to remember them for all they did. For we either look back or we don't. To be selective is to tell a false tale.

There are those who will say it's not the time, but how long is appropriate? A week? A month? A year?

Often these people throw out that line as an excuse to never have their hero's memories complicated. They'll demand that you think of those left behind too, but do you really think what hurts is hearing what they already know, as opposed to knowing it?

Do you really think it's the messenger that hurts as opposed to the message Kobe himself created?

For a disturbing consensus was reached when it's not the media's job to act as cleaners of dirt and to rewrite a more sanitised version of the past.

Yet here we are. Complete and obvious censorship in most quarters.

The BBC actually ran a segment on how good he was for women, while over at the Grammy Awards Alicia Keys paid her tribute, as someone who not long ago threw her considerable weight behind a campaign to turn female oppression into an opening for women worldwide.

In this game, you always try to understand people, and consider the how and the why behind the what in a sphere of pressures few will ever understand or experience. But some things don't need much understanding.

Let's talk about the night of June 30, 2003

* * *

There are those who chatter about The Black Mamba as if it's merely an icon and a brand.

Few know of its origins though.

For Bryant, it was the creation of an alternative self as he tried to flee from his situation.

Whether he did or didn't rape a woman in a Colorado hotel a little under 17 years ago may never be known. What we do know are some disturbing details regarding what transpired.

For instance, when questioned by police, three times he said that nothing had taken place, only for this story to be changed when he found out she was having a medical examination, at which point he admitted to sex. When police said the woman had a bruise on her neck he replied that, "Yeah, I mean that's you know me and [his wife], we do the same thing".

The accuser also had a bruise on her jaw. When she went to hospital, the nurse noted that there were too many vaginal lacerations to count and that her injuries were consistent with penetrating genital trauma and that "it's not consistent with consensual sex." The nurse also said that the injuries were likely inflicted within the previous 24 hours.

A t-shirt belonging to Bryant had the victim's blood on it. His own head coach at the Lakers, Phil Jackson, later wrote about when first informed - "Was I surprised? Not entirely".

Meanwhile, the police report shows that Bryant stated, "I should have done what Shaq does... Shaq gives them money or buys them cars, he has already spent one million dollars". That same report added that: "Kobe stated that Shaq does this to keep the girls' quiet".

That's a hell of a lot to wrestle with, except the courts never had to. Through his attorneys, the woman was routinely and viciously smeared in the press, and gave up on testifying. This came after claims that it was all okay as she'd asked for his autograph, was promiscuous, and had been suicidal.

While many want to believe the lack of a conviction means innocence, they fail to realise there's a difference between that and not being found guilty.

In fact, soon after there was an apology by Bryant, a civil suit, and a pay-off.

On a wider scale, it reminded that in America, there's a culture of the rich and famous being literally allowed pay their way out of crimes so they don't have to pay for those crimes. Once more, we don't know if that's the case here, but we do know the climb-down came via McDonald's, Nutella and Nike either cutting or suspending his endorsements.

Why this would suddenly be removed from someone's history is as baffling as it is wrong. Yet it's what we are seeing, as celebrity combined with tragedy means a pass. Everyone else is to be punished for mentioning what they did, rather than them being punished for doing it.

Indeed, there's been a stark and complete reversal of Shakespeare's view that the evil that men do lives after them while the good is oft interred with their bones.

None of this is to try and bring more pain on those who already have had more than anyone should ever face, but there are many victims here. One that isn't mentioned is the woman from that Colorado hotel room. Imagine what it was like for her to open papers and turn on televisions only to see this version of Bryant portrayed despite what she had to go through. Imagine what it was like to see her and her experience removed from reality because of his sporting prowess.

She is no doubt suffering again. As are those who have tried to give the full story.

After he passed, Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post put a link to an article about the rape allegations on Twitter. For this, she was inundated with abuse that reached the level of serious threats. By yesterday, she'd been suspended pending an internal review. Journalism had succumbed to PR. A postman was to blame for the contents of a letter they'd delivered.

For all his greatness, Bryant's awful passing should have reminded us that some things are bigger than sport and status. He himself once said, "Basketball's what we do, it's not what we are". There was much more to him than the sport.

Brilliance in many areas. Many positives in other areas. And this.

In death, as in life, he should be remembered for both the good and bad - but also for the ugly.

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