Kobe Bryant’s death hit like a bag of cement to the gut. I can’t write about it as a Lakers fan because I wasn’t one. I can’t write about it as a Los Angeles resident because I was never one. I can’t write about it as a Kobe-Stan because I never got into a Twitter fight about his greatness. I can’t write about it as someone who met him personally or ever saw him play live because I never did. I can write about it as a guy of a certain age who has had a life consumed by sports, social media and recently become a father…
For the older end of the maligned millennial generation, Kobe was an immovable presence in every step of your life as a sports fan. He was in Sportscenter commercials before you turned 10. He was a rapper and yearly NBA Finals fixture as you entered high school. He was at the center of a sexual assault case that dominated the news as you finished up high school. As you went to college, he was publicly beefing with Shaq, hitting insane buzzer beaters for awful teams and carrying Team USA on his back to a Gold Medal against Spain. As you got older and more “online,” he was commonly the center of prolonged social media arguments as he began stacking titles away from Shaq, couldn’t make it work with Dwight Howard and then ultimately played out the final injury plagued years of his career.
Kobe retired but never disappeared, as you got into the eventual rhythm of your adult life. He was always looming. The human meme of motivational stories, quotes and shit talking. In some ways he became a caricature of obsessiveness about winning. He would drop into Twitter and give a shove to the next generation of NBA stars, while diversifying his career into media (he won a damn Oscar) and then beginning to build a reputation as a coach for his daughter’s team, just as you likely started having kids yourself.
Throughout all those years something influenced by Kobe was consistently popping up in your life. Someone yelling “KOBE” when shooting at a trash can. Someone passing around a video of him ripping on Kyrie Irving and calling a one-on-one game against him “easy money.” Someone was getting themselves fired up for something, whether it was a Division 3 game, intramural pickup, losing weight or a work presentation with some type of “Mamba Mentality” reference. Kobe was always around as an aging, complex, larger than life character.
As the news broke Sunday, the normal and sometimes awful social media cycle played out in hyper speed. I don’t like blaming social media for the world’s problems because it is ultimately people (in most cases) who are operating the accounts but ephemeral, emotional spaces like Twitter have inherent flaws when processing news like his death.
There was a sprint of misinformation about who was and was not on the helicopter. There were fake videos circulated of the crash. There was a Washington Post reporter who shared an old news story about his sexual assault case as news of his daughter and his death was being confirmed (poor timing). She then received a barrage of death threats (an overreaction, to put it mildly) and then was suspended from her job (an overreaction to the overreaction)…all within the first 24 hours of the news breaking. It was whiplash and a double gut punch as it was confirmed his 13 year old daughter and seven others were also onboard with him.
There is no grand solution to improving how these online cycles play out in real time. People have raw emotions to tragedies like what happened on Sunday, particularly when the person involved has such a large, complicated past. What happened in Colorado will always be a major part of Bryant’s story, regardless of how his life played out after it. How that part of his life is reckoned with long term is a question many are not equipped to answer, including myself.
Kobe felt like someone who would always be around as you got older. He’d keep championing his daughter and women’s sports, get into social media spats or chats with each passing wave of new NBA stars, keep making TV shows, movies or documentaries…maybe become an owner one day. He didn’t seem like someone who would ever disappear. He was too big and for many people around my age seeing him disappear out of nowhere was a disorientating reminder about the fickleness of life.