While basketball fans rejoice at the start of the 2020-21 playoffs, I am eerily reminded that it will mark the culmination of the first full NBA season since the untimely death of one of the league’s greatest stars—Kobe Bryant. On the foggy morning of January 26, 2020 in Calabasas, California, a tragic helicopter crash claimed the lives of Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, and seven others. The stunning news consumed the sporting world and left many people reeling for solace, mourning in disbelief. Many fans like me, who grew up watching Kobe, still experience trouble accepting his sudden ascension.
When Kobe Bryant passed away, the flood of grief from around the globe became eerie as I realized that most of it came from people like me who did not personally know any of those who tragically died on that foggy Sunday morning. The grieving process led me to an analysis of the ways in which people make sense of themselves through celebrity figures. For an autoethnographic manuscript recently published in Sociology of Sport Journal, I describe the unexpected grieving process in dealing with Bryant’s death. In particular, I focused on the mourning process of tragic celebrity deaths and the relationship between celebrity, mortality, and the ways in which people make sense of themselves through celebrity figures. To do so, I pulled from personal experiences as a Black man in order to understand public mourning, race, and the Black masculinity of Kobe Bryant.
To help make sense of the reaction to Kobe’s untimely passing, I began with the concept of Terror Management Theory, which helps explain our tendency as humans to fear death or transcend it in some way. Death is the only inescapable conclusion that all humans share, and the untimely passing of Kobe Bryant brought home the reality that no amount of money, talent, or fame can shield us from the inevitable. Kobe was a larger-than-life figure who seemed superhuman at times, like many cultural icons and celebrities who exist as emblematic individuals that reveal larger meanings about the social world (for example, consider Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality”). Cultural icons are like modern-day “superheroes” that help people make sense of themselves by consuming their lives through the media. Sadly, even the jaw-dropping talents that many fans had come to love about Bryant could not shield him from the inescapable conclusion of human existence. He was a human, just like the rest of us. He had a heartbeat, just like the rest of us. He died, just as we will.
In the midst of his tragic passing, we must not forget that Bryant was a Black man. Although Black athletes are prominent in the world of sport, the racial politics surrounding the Black body are riddled with the centrality of stereotypical depictions of Black masculinity, such as baggy shorts, dreadlocks, or tattoos, and “rags-to-riches” stories. In particular, Black athletes have historically been viewed as dangerous criminals and hypersexualized beings in need of paternalistic oversight (and control) by White leaders. Kobe Bryant exposed the limitations of that stereotypical outlook, as he was a clean-cut Black athlete from an upper-middle-class family. That is, until the events that transpired during the summer of 2003, which included a complaint against Bryant on allegations of rape. Although the charges were dismissed when the accuser declined to testify, the media firestorm that ensued was a deeply-racial contest which exposed tensions related to Black Masculinity, White femininity, victim blaming, and the politics of reporting sexual violence. Bryant issued a public apology after the case was dismissed, which marks at least two major points that must not be overlooked: (1) Bryant acknowledged that although he did not believe he was guilty of wrongdoing, the woman’s feelings on the matter were also valid and should be respected; and 2) his apology recognizes the harmful consequences of condemning women for reporting sexual assault. From that point forward, Bryant became yet another in a long line of racial signifiers that represented Black male sexuality and uncontrolled savagery in need of control. No matter what was said in apology or done from that day forward, the allegations would follow Bryant for the rest of his career…and beyond.
As I matured, I made sense of myself as a Black man through watching guys like Kobe Bryant, which was complicated when my auntie explained the congruencies between Kobe’s life and the trajectory of my own. In a discussion that followed the news break in 2003, I vividly remember the words that exited my aunties mouth that night. It went a little something like this…
“lil man, listen to me very carefully”
“This ain’t me being mad at you so excuse my cursing. This is serious”
(I sat up, scared of what was to come).
“You are a star. You gon make a lot of bread one day. You are also Black, and these white folks are going to try to take it from you…you hear me? They will take everything.
they love their white women and they will be damned if a n**** has sex with their white women.
“You remember the story of Emmett Till?
All that happened because of a damn whistle
…at a white woman
by a lil boy not much older than you
They was so mad, they tortured the poor boy
…they killed him
And they threw his ass in the river like he was trash
…for a damn whistle at a white woman.
Very soon, these lil white girls gon catch wind that you goin places
And they gon start throwing ass at you for that very reason
Trust me, honey. I den seen it a thousand times
…and Kobe Bryant ain’t no different.
If they caught that n**** up, don’t think you any different
He Kobe Bryant, but both y’all just n**** to them
…you hear me? They will take everything!”
Auntie’s words, coupled with education from Kobe Bryant’s lived experiences, prepared me for a fearless life to be lived. As I thought about his life and death, I realized that Kobe Bryant and I are not so different. Metaphorically speaking, he was me and I am him. We are two Black males who have defied racial stereotypes and faced tribulations with kindness at heart. Through the viewership of his life and untimely death, I was able to find peace, power, and freedom with my Black existence. I am no Black Mamba, but I am a Black man.
A. Lamont Williams completed his Ph.D. in Sport Management at Florida State University. His research areas are interdisciplinary in nature, covering Critical Race Theory, sport litigation, social justice, and intercollegiate sport. Beginning Fall 2021, he will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at San José State University. The complete version of the study discussed in this article can be found in the Sociology of Sport Journal.