I don’t know who needs to read this, but no matter how talented someone is, no matter how often someone had triumphed in their field, no matter how popular they are, and no matter their level of celebrity status, that person is not necessarily transcendent. Many of these folk are assholes. Yet we Americans use the term so often that all one would have to do to transcend in this country is film themselves with an iPhone 11 in slofie mode while jumping from one building to another in The Matrix series (either as Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity or Keanu Reeves’ Neo) to sell themselves as such. Or, to just not talk about the realities of the ugly and oppressive world in which we all inhabit while selling sneakers and entertaining millions.
So, let me be clear. The death of former NBA player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, John and Keri and their teenage daughter Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and her 13-year-old daughter Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and the pilot Ara Zobayan is nothing short of painfully tragic. Kobe Bryant, of course, played for the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years. He won five NBA Championships and two Olympic gold medals as part of the USA Basketball team, was an 18-time NBA All-Star, and at the time he retired in 2016, was the league’s third all-time leading scorer, at 33,643 total points. LeBron James only passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list the night before the tragic accident. At 41 years old, Bryant was only into his fourth year of post-NBA life, supporting the WNBA, investing himself in girl’s basketball, winning an Oscar for a five-minute short. This polyglot, this nerd whom experts often mention in the same breath with Michael Jordan and LeBron and other all-time greats, is truly one of the greatest professional basketball players in the history of the sport, full stop.
But, does that make Kobe Bryant “transcendent beyond his sport,” as I have heard the commentators say this week, and have read the sports and culture columnists tweet and write this week? No, absolutely not. We each all have the responsibility to put our lives and our times into perspective, to take a panoramic look at the world in which we inhabit and to dig deep into the soil and rock of that world for meaning. If not, we risk idolizing the first person who comes along to rock our world, and in the process, becoming as short-sighted and as narcissistic as the celebrities, entertainers, artists, athletes, and politicians we worship.
And that has sadly been the case with Bryant. The news and sports media has been paving over the potholes and sinkholes in Bryant’s life faster than The New York Times newspaper plant in College Point, Queens can ink and fold a million hard copies. Bryant’s semi-admitted raping of a 19-year-old in September 2004 (the “incident” was in 2003) has suddenly become a full-throated mea culpa that apparently was unprecedented in the annals of American sport and celebrity. Not one that the rape survivor or any other person who has ever experience rape or sexual violence (yours truly included) should acknowledge, or believe that it would ever make up for the rape, but hey, what do I know?
But my case against transcendence hardly begins or ends with Bryant as a one-time alleged rapist. As great a basketball player as he was, for the bulk of his career, Bryant was a selfish ball hog. By comparison, Bryant made AI’s (Allen Iverson) one-on-five scoring attempts and successes look like Iverson had no choice because he was on the court by himself a lot of those times (which for half of Iverson’s career, was pretty close to the truth). Bryant’s last game in the NBA was one where he scored 60 while taking 50 shots, and he in fact owns the most field goals attempts in any single game of any player this side of Wilt Chamberlain! If this were Rucker Park and not the NBA, maybe transcendence would apply in terms of athletic ability. But as someone who saw how MJ could regularly get 30 while taking only 13 shots (and making 15 free throws) in the second half of his career, great, but not transcendent, from even within the sport of basketball.
Speaking of, the transcendence case really breaks down in terms of cultural influence outside of basketball. Some argue that Bryant was an ambassador of the game and made it international. Really? Two words in response. Dream Team! And, two more words. Michael Jordan! Without the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and with MJ and Magic and Larry and Patrick and Hakeem, et al. among 11 future Hall-of-Famers, Bryant’s overseas efforts would’ve been like selling the current brand of NFL football to the world (no one likes weak tea made from sewage water, by the way). Also, if one wants to know two more names from different sports who have MJ-esque transcendence or higher, try Tiger and Serena (I don’t even need to use their last names)!
How big was Jordan, and how big does Jordan remain? His Air Jordans are still among the leading earners for Nike in 2019, 16 years after MJ retired, and nearly 36 years after Nike started making them. Air Jordans went well with hip-hop gear and in rap lyrics and videos — for decades. MJ’s shaved head and goat-tee became fashion trends (one could argue the same for Bryant’s messy Afro look, I suppose) that remain with us to this day. But so does MJ’s reluctance to speak out against racism, homophobia, sexism and misogyny, something that Bryant inherited and adopted in shaping his public persona as well.
And it’s this last piece that truly makes the case that the late Bryant was not and could not be transcendent. LeBron James, for all his greatness, has also put his weight and words into Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, police brutality, and calling out White supremacists. Certainly athletes from the recent past, from Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe to Jim Brown and Althea Gibson, and of course, Jackie Robinson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fought oppression with the very lives they lived and the barriers they dismantled. All of them had flaws, but none of them had PR machines in their prime to cover up their mistakes and probable crimes, either. Heck, even O.J. Simpson for better and certainly for worse in transcendent in this social justice and injustice sense.
Now, could Bryant have “transcended basketball” if he had live to, say, 60, 70, or even 80 years old? Maybe. But probably not. His image mattered too much to him. The world outside of basketball and family, not so much. And that’s okay. That doesn’t make his death and the deaths of the other eight — especially the three teenagers — on that helicopter any less tragic. This doesn’t make the pain or sadness any fan feels for him and his family any less real. But maybe, just maybe, those who are just fans and members of the media should check themselves before putting Bryant on a pedestal or altar. As tragic a death as it is, death is part of life, after all, and Bryant had as full a 41 years as anyone could expect. Just not a transcendent 41 years.