Kobe Bryant was a giant. For most of his 20-year career, he took up a lot of space in his sport and in the world, often consumed much of the oxygen in the room, and lived rent-free in millions of people’s heads. Since retiring in 2016, Kobe had receded. But he still loomed large as an elder-statesmen-in-training, a guru to younger players, and the gold standard for a particular brand of hell-bent, possibly ill-advised, competitiveness.
By any measure, Kobe was one of the most gifted and accomplished basketball players to ever set foot on a court. But trying to make sense of Kobe in purely athletic terms barely scrapes the surface of his legacy and does almost nothing to explain why so many people who only knew Kobe as a larger-than-life myth or a cluster of pixels on a screen have been so devastated by his death. He was a celebrity, a natural-born star amplified by the megaphone of Los Angeles, and a savvy marketer who kept close tabs on the public’s perception of him. Kobe was one of the most famous individuals, period, a testament to the gravity he could exert within the NBA and beyond.
That gravity was never self-evident, straightforward, or easy to parse, for the simple fact that it was forever in flux. Kobe was an ongoing conversation, a never-ending debate. He took up a lot of space because we never stopped talking about him. And how could we have? With Kobe, there was always a sticking point, a controversy, or some flat-out ugliness that reared its head. It was impossible to discount just how gifted he was. Beyond that, though, Kobe was endlessly polarizing. His acolytes thought he walked on water, in large part because many of them were Lakers fans eternally indebted to the man who won five titles for the franchise. For everybody else, there were innumerable reasons to dislike Kobe, and almost all of them were of his own doing.
The way prime Kobe made his way through the world could be deeply off-putting. He could be caustic and arrogant. He was a demanding, sometimes alienating, teammate. He prided himself on his ruthlessness. His ego was immense. He could be a stubborn and selfish player. He was accused of slavishly imitating Michael Jordan and trying to be someone he wasn’t. And of course, in 2003, he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in Eagle, Colorado. The case never went to trial and the civil suit ended in a settlement, along with a statement from Kobe that basically admitted fault. But especially in recent years, there has been an undercurrent of skepticism about the way this episode unfolded, as well as frustration that late-stage Kobe was being lionized as if he were a model citizen. It’s impossible to be honest about his life and legacy without acknowledging these concerns. But wrestling with them is, in some ways, completely consistent with the (remotely sane) world’s relationship with Kobe. He was a complicated, even difficult, person, and our relationship with him was, or at least should be, no less complicated and difficult.
Kobe’s death has had such a seismic and devastating effect exactly because that relationship was always fraught and frequently exhausting. Yet somehow, for twenty years, this dynamic kept roiling. The debate never ended because Kobe always found a way to start it up all over again. Turmoil became the leitmotif of his career, and—especially after his blatant, self-conscious heel turn post-Colorado—he went out of his way to encourage it. It’s often said that people either loved or hated Kobe, and that he fed off of negative energy. But Kobe’s narrative depended on our never truly being able to figure out how we felt about him, and yet feeling a deep need to keep trying. If you cared about the NBA, you ended up under Kobe’s unavoidable sway and invested in his tumult. It was emotional and personal because consuming sports is emotional and personal. Whether people should feel that way about Kobe matters far less than the fact that so many of us do. He got his hooks in us and we welcomed it. We devoted so much time and energy to attempting to make sense of Kobe—we were more entangled with him than, say, LeBron James, whose time in the public eye has been, relative to Kobe, far less volatile and, as a result, less engrossing.
It’s often said that people either loved or hated Kobe, and that he fed off of negative energy. But Kobe’s narrative depended on our never truly being able to figure out how we felt about him, and yet feeling a deep need to keep trying.
All that began to change, though, in the waning years of Kobe’s career. Slowed by age and injury and saddled with a subpar Lakers team, he was, for the first time, irrelevant, and seemingly unable to do anything about. You might have expected the game’s most stalwart competitor to melt down or turn into a black hole of negativity. Instead, Kobe, who had previously had as little chill as a person can have without spontaneously combusting, softened a bit around the edges. Maybe he had accepted that this was the end of the road. Maybe he also felt like he had accomplished what he set out to do, and there was no need to constantly press anymore. Whatever the reason, Kobe stopped being, and stopped trying to be, a perpetual lightning rod and settled into an almost benevolent role. Once famously isolated, Kobe was now everybody’s close friend and a mentor to younger stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Devin Booker. He went from lording over the league to being part of the landscape. And he seemed to now see himself as having a clear role to play in the grand scheme of things, rather than making his aims the center of the universe.
This shift was made almost explicit in his final season, a year-long victory lap that both celebrated Kobe’s hell-bent drive and introduced us to a new piece of his psyche. In the documentary Kobe’s Muse, he explains that he only got serious about basketball when his family moved back to America from Italy, and it was because he needed an outlet for his anger and feelings of alienation. This explained why Kobe, who had never for a second in his life been the underdog, played with such an outsized chip on his shoulder. But by the time Kobe retired, he was openly professing his love for the game, to the point of producing an animated short (Dear Basketball) that was, well, an open love letter to basketball.
It’s impossible to say whether this outlook was as new to Kobe as it was to the rest of us, but it sent a clear message: Kobe would no longer provoke and challenge us at every turn. He had morphed into a stable, even reassuring presence who seemed poised to do great things for the league (and the WNBA) and genuinely enthused about it. We’ll miss Kobe because of the drama, the exaltation, and yes, the ambivalence that defined him. But we were also getting to know him in an entirely different way. And now, we’ve got nothing to glom onto except the void he has left behind.
Is Kobe Bryant possessed of transcendent talent? Of course. But that’s not what makes him great. For fourteen grueling seasons, the 31-year-old former prodigy has cracked, fractured, strained, torn, cut, bruised, nicked, and risked every part of his finely tuned self. And he’s got the rings—and the scars—to show for it.
Originally Appeared on GQ