Kobe: An Image Built On Her Pain

Kobe Bryant had a metamorphosis during the second stage of his career that was predicated on an accusation of rape. An accusation that he, himself, later described as seeing how the accuser would have not considered the encounter consensual.

Although I truly believe this encounter between us was
consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this
incident the same way I did. 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.

This change was of one on and off the court, and it included a heavy, on-going marketing campaign. Kobe changed his number, symbolically putting to death the old, rape accused self, which breathed life into a phoenix-like creature that would no longer put care into holding his tongue on or off the court. A number change, a new, conspicuous logo, a new, self-given nickname. All parts of a new way to present himself as a person who took on chaos head first and reveled in not being likable.

I can’t help but wonder how we would view Kobe if he hadn’t done such a massive re-imagining of himself. But for that to have happened, it means the rape trial never happens; although not necessarily the night in question as we know that so many women never come forward because of the playbook his legal team deployed. I could try to separate the off-court from the on-court, but I can’t in this case. Nor will I try. This transformation was directly triggered by this case, so anything related to his media coverage has to be connected to that night as well.

Most individuals accused of rape, sexual assault or sexual misconduct who try to reinvent themselves do so in a way that tries to make you forget they were ever connected with something so atrocious. Their objective, and the job of their PR team (or friends and family for the not so famous) is to focus on building up the positives that can be highlighted about that person. They look to either exonerate the accused in the court of public opinion or make the malefactions seem so blurry and out of character that we, the public, question if it happened or could ever happen again.

On its face it looks like this is exactly what Kobe has done. He’s gone to great lengths to mythologize himself as a player, and he’s now doing so off the court. It has, to a great degree, worked for him, although typically famous men don’t have to work very hard after violent and inappropriate behavior occurs.

However, Kobe has in several ways distanced himself from the rape trial by closely linking himself to a persona and marketing tools that will be forever bound to that case. He dubbed himself the Black Mamba after this all happened. He leaned even more heavily into the psychopathic, cold blooded killer ethos that he already courted prior to the case. He’d always pushed for that, but he also pushed to be well liked and to seem affable even when his teammates thought he wasn’t extremely likable.

Now, though, he leaned into a villainous persona that was supposed to make him seem unbothered by things beneath him. He gave very curt answers to reporters when he bothered answering at all. He questioned the dedication of those around him. He pushed down on others to elevate himself and believed that he was built different than those who came into the league with him and after. He belonged with previous, greater generations. He didn’t roll around in the muck with the newer guys. He was above it all, even though he dedicated plenty of time slighting current and former teammates in interviews and during practice. His transgressions were not born out of not being tough enough or too sensitive. He wanted you to believe his outbursts were born of a competitive nature known only to a few. This is what he told himself and sold to us, an audience that greedily gobbled it up.

The man’s work cannot be separated from the accusation and soft admission, because he based the second half of his career on a pivot that’s derived from his actions. The adulation that’s heaped upon him certainly came prior to the trial, but his myth grew exponentially from there. Everything from him choosing to stay with the Lakers, to getting rings without Shaq, to having a rugged end to the last few years, to being a celebrated basketball mind who produces well received artistic endeavors and is championed by the WNBA, NBA and athletes across various sports has been directly linked to this moment. Because that moment can’t be separated from his rebirth. Because his rebirth meant building a shrine on top of the accusations that hit him.

The media helped him sow the early seeds of turning this violent incident into a hero’s story by focusing on his rape trial through a very distorted and peculiar lens. Much of the coverage focused on the fact that Kobe would often have to travel to Colorado by private jet for court proceedings and then back to L.A. or wherever the Lakers were playing that day, often arriving in dramatic fashion shortly before the start of the game. The rape trial became a backdrop, a canvas against which the artistry of Kobe’s sheer will and single mindedness was put on display.

For the fifth time this season, Bryant went to court during the
day and then flew by private jet back to Los Angeles for a game.
His previous two playoff games under the same conditions were
outstanding: Bryant scored 31 points against the Houston Rockets in
the first round, and 42 points against San Antonio in the second
round.

He also had two big games during the regular season after court
hearings. He missed just one game in Atlanta because of his legal
problems.

“It’s not that he’s not focused, but long days like that seem
to get him at least more jump-started and focused,” teammate Karl
Malone said.

These spectacles were covered the same way other things were covered, like when Derek Fisher went to New York to be with his daughter as she had surgery and returned via private jet midway through a game to a raucous home crowd reception, eventually hitting the game winner; Isaiah Thomas playing in a playoff game after finding out his sister had been killed in a car crash; or Brett Favre playing on Monday Night Football after learning his father had passed the night before. The sports world fixated on Kobe in much the same way as it did with these players who were dealing with tragic moments. Kobe was not the victim here, but he was treated as such, making fans and the media culpable in the offensive rebrand that quickly followed.

I do not believe that a person is not allowed to atone for past sins or personally grow into a better person. The issue is that Kobe, and many others, are allowed to say they’re better and present themselves as personally improved without making the connection as to why they needed to in the first place. It’s possible that he has reckoned with this internally, but when it comes to something like this that’s just not good enough. He has never apologized for the circus he put that woman through, which is also a circus he dragged other victims through then and now as a consequence of the damage this did to how we cover these instances when it comes to rich and popular men. Tearing down a victim is certainly not something he nor his legal team created, but it’s an issue they helped perpetuate. You can look at Derrick Rose’s civil trial to see how alive and well this strategy is.

Kobe shouldn’t be able to cash in on the image he created in direct relation to a rape case and then tell us why he’s a better person now than then without ever having to draw a direct line to that night. If you truly are the person you purport to be today, you should be able to admit who you were then and show exactly why you aren’t that person anymore. Anything else is just lip service.

 

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