Diss Guy & Miss Guy: Kobe Bean Bryant
My favorite image of Kobe Bryant is the image you see above. It is the iconic print by Jacob Weinstein created for Kobe’s section in Bethlehem Shoals et. al.’s FreeDarko Presents: The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. In the picture, Kobe is seen trying to construct a model wooden ship in a jar. His face is rapt with attention, and his body is positioned uncomfortably in a cheap-looking office chair. The ship he is building seems to be nearly complete, replete with tiny riggings and masts, and sharply-creased sales sitting proudly at attention. However, the floor beneath his feet is a disaster; a bloody massacre of broken model ships, with balsa wood and glass shattered all over the monochromatic floor. On the opening page of the entry, Shoals cuts to the core of Kobe, provides us with excellent encapsulations of Kobe that remain true today, nearly 10 years after the publication of the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. “No superstar has cut a stormier path through his era than Kobe Bean Bryant,” write Shoals, adding that he “may be the Great American Shooting Guard,” but that “he has spent his whole life aspiring to this kind of abstract dignity.” Shoals directs our attention towards American magnum opuses, and offers that “just as Moby Dick defines our national literature despite its rollicking imperfections, Kobe’s drives and desires have made him equal parts pristine legend and unwieldy mess of humanity.” On the entry’s sidebar, Shoals argues that the discipline of deconstructing Kobe is driven by an extremism between polar sides of a spectrum. “Where others see only their love or hate for Kobe,” he writes, “we see a complex mess of a man’s best and worst qualities.”
This “complex mess” — the term Shoals uses to describe the existence of Kobe in our own lives — has been put on full display over the last few days. Kobe recently did an interview with The New Yorker, and snippets of that interview have been leaked as excerpts to the general public. Kobe speaks about a lot of things in this “wide-ranging” interview (is any interview “narrowly-focused”?), but most attention has been paid to his comments about African-American identity, specifically as it relates to the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, and the trial (and subsequent acquittal) of his killer, George Zimmerman. According to the excerpts, Kobe offers a cool view of the outcry around the wrongful death of Martin, and focuses on the Miami Heat’s hoodie-picture protest as emblematic of his critical views. Kobe is worth quoting at length here, without additional commentary from myself:
I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American..that argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well, we’ve progressed as a society, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.
Of course, the comments were not received well, and criticism came from multiple angles and individuals. In general, the criticism touched on many gray areas revealed in Kobe’s incisive comments, which illustrated Kobe’s rather spongy views on race, identity, and politics. Many referenced December 2013 comments made by seminal athlete, activist and cultural icon Jim Brown’s takes, which focused on Kobe’s positionality as a black man who spent his formative years outside of the United States (and who garnered an angry response from Kobe). Additionally, in response to Kobe’s comments, civil rights activist Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E., angrily called for “African-American youth” to “no longer buy Bryant’s jerseys or shoes” and “boycott all products he endorses.” The justification, according to Ali, was simple: “Bryant doesn’t identify with the struggle that our African-American youth face nationally. So why should we continue to support Bryant who has never truly identified with the African American experience?”
Jamilah King of NPR’s Colorlines took exception to what she termed as Kobe’s “stingy insistence on clinging to a ‘post-racial’ identity,” and defined as an “old, conservative notion that black people should not be treated differently in this country — despite all of the evidence, like Martin’s death, that they are.” And finally, Yesha Callahan of Clutch Magazine decried Kobe’s failure to look outside the failures of the system, and instead recognize who he is: a black man who himself was accused of raping a woman. The anger in Callahan’s voice is clear as she lambast Kobe for his hypocritical comments about Martin, as she labels him a traitor and a rapist: “The irony, is that people jumped to Trayvon’s defense, because he was murdered by a trigger happy asshole and it showed just how invaluable a black child’s life is. But it’s obvious that Bryant forgot how quick people jumped to his defense during his rape case. But of course Rapey Bryant didn’t mention any of that.” Clearly, the comments struck an emotional nerve with a large part of the African-American intelligensia online.
Never one to be labeled “incorrect”, Kobe took to the great defense stand of modernity — Twitter– to explain himself. In his first tweet, he again redirected the discussion of the celebrity case away from questions of race and identity, and back towards Kobe’s insistence that “facts” justify the outcry over Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. The next day, he linked his political worldview with his racial worldview, explaining (in 140 characters or less) that in an ideal society, that identity really doesn’t matter, and that everyone is hashtag colorblind, and hashtag genderblind. Between the two — and his inclusion of standard-issue liberal/reformist leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela in his response to Jim Brown’s questions of his allegiance to his African-American identity — highlights that Kobe’s focus is not on parsing out the messy history of oppression of blacks in America, but rather, moving forward towards that crown jewel of the crown of liberalism: the post-racial, gender-blind society.
Now, it’s clear that these quotes make us feel some type of way. The agitated responses above illustrate this, and indeed, it’s very difficult to totally support Kobe in his purposeful overlooking of race, not just in his comments about Martin and Zimmerman, but also in regards to his own identity. In regards to his views on the death of Trayvon Martin, Kobe’s insistence on focusing on the “facts” directly conflicts with the actualities of the Zimmerman case. Kobe’s point of view seems largely in line with others who feel that Zimmerman got away with murder, or at the very least, that Martin’s death is indicative of patterns of racial violence in America. What is perverted is his reasoning that the “facts” can be separated from larger questions about race. Contrary to Kobe’s perspective, public outcry of around Zimmerman’s acquittal is focused on the jury’s reading of the prosecution’s presentation of the “facts”, and the prevailing feeling that the “Stand Your Ground Law” is being used as an excuse for a racially-motivated murder. Additionally, Kobe’s refusal to support the Miami Heat’s (admittedly soft) form of protest, which depicted the African-American members of the team wearing black hooded sweatshirts in solidarity with Martin’s family, is a personal choice, but unmistakably disappointing as well.
Kevin wrote about this nearly two years ago, when he applauded LeBron for making an overt political statement about Trayvon Martin, and compared this act to anti-political statements Michael Jordan made in the 1980s where he asserted that the last thing a marketing giant wants to do is make a firm political stance. In many ways, the same sentiment exists for Kobe, who opts to look towards a mythical post-racial society that will not exist as long as America remains America. Kobe’s focus has, and always been, on his brand and legacy, and taking a middle path works well for investors. In his view, he both champions racial equality, while stating that the system does not work. Such problematic safeness doesn’t get high marks here at The Diss, and for these reasons, he wears the Miss Guy label.
However, as Shoals said back in 2008, the mess surrounding Kobe is a complex one, and his complicated views on race, as well as his own identity, are worth deconstructing further. While it is clear that Kobe has no doubts about who he is — “I’m an African-American,” he says in the interview — his critics seem to question his own ability to identify with the struggles of the African-American community. According to their calculuses, an opinion that deviates from the perspective of the united front against racism and racial violence shows a lack of solidarity with the movement, and by extension, his own racial identity. It is unsurprising that their critiques drift into questions of authenticity, and whether Kobe’s life as a wealthy, traveled African-American can be seen as legitimate when he offers opinions on blackness and the African-American experience.
In the critiques, we get an implication that Kobe’s view of blackness is not correct, or even more damning, not authentic. We see this in Jim Brown’s strangely xenophobic accusation that Kobe’s childhood spent abroad makes him less “African-American” than someone who matches his own conception of what that particular type of experience is supposed to look like. It is apparent in Yesha Callahan’s critique of Kobe, where she calls-out Kobe’s childhood spent in suburban Philadelphia (his father played for the Sixers), and uses it as a way (really, a weapon) to question his legacy as a basketball player. “Bryant loves to brag about how he was raised in Italy and the suburbs of Philly, as if it sets him apart from other black men in this country,” she writes. ”But what he fails to realize is that no matter how many rings he has, thanks in part to Shaq, in certain people’s eyes, he’s just a n-word that can shoot a ball in a basket. He needs to keep his social commentary to himself.” In these comments, we see a troubling theme, and perhaps an even more troubling implication: that Kobe’s own upbringing does not qualify as a truly “African-American” experience, and as such, that his opinion, and perhaps his existence, should be viewed as wholly incongruent with that of black American, and perhaps among African-Americans everywhere.
I have watched Kobe Bryant for many years now, and like most of my peers, have a very complicated relationship with the man. Most of the time he has been cast as a foe, described by words such as “killer”, and tasked with ending a preferred-team’s dreams. Many moments stick out in my mind that seem to define Kobe for me, but one clamors for attention more than the others. It dates back to 2002, when a much younger, greener Kobe won his first All-Star MVP in Philadelphia. One forgets that Kobe haters used to decry Kobe’s youthful smugness — this was long before he faced rape allegations, as well as a public that largely assumed that the system had failed in establishing his guilt — and this All-Star MVP, as well as his championship rings from the prior two seasons, seemed to announce his arrival as a bona fide superstar in the NBA, and perhaps the best player on a team that also featured Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe was excellent in the game — he scored 31 points, had 5 rebounds and 5 assists –which he felt he played in front of his hometown crowd, where his father had once been a fan favorite.
However, the Philadelphia fans booed Bryant lustily, their howls echoing off the bulwarks of the Wells Fargo Center. Much of it was certainly due to the fact that Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers had defeated Allen Iverson’s Sixers in the NBA Finals the previous summer. But much of it was issued as an indictment of Kobe’s proclaimed Philadelphia-ness; his authenticity as a local. In their boos, their message was clear: you’re not one of us. You’re an outsider. And as the boos rained down, and a look of hurt came across Kobe’s face, I placed a timestamp on that moment. For the first time, I saw something besides what I perceived to be smugness and invincibility; the assumption that he would be excellent forever. Instead, I saw vulnerability, I saw an unsureness I had never seen before. You can see it above. Kobe’s smile is weak, and his lips are quivering as he half-heartedly holds the MVP trophy above his head, and a place that he called home let him know that he wasn’t part of the club. And since then, as each season passes, the Kobe I see seems more dark and isolated, more defensive of what he is, and what he means. He seems to have far more foes than friends. This has been the case for many years now.
Kobe Bean Bryant has long been lambasted for not being something that we’ve always wanted him to be. We have wanted him to fall in line with a particular image of something — a sidekick, a superstar, a global icon, a leader, a husband, a teammate, an all-time great — and year after year, he has not met that expectation. In the early part of his career, he was held accountable for not being the authentic heir to Jordan we always wanted. In the latter parts of his career, he has been indicted for not being LeBron. In a long line of individuals whose statures are elevated to represent the NBA product as a whole, Kobe’s presence is perhaps the most uncomfortable. He has not been able to follow the line-of-best-fit for a myriad of aspects of his personal and professional life, and he has largely been held accountable. There is a long history of Kobe being linked with inauthenticity; of being a troubling counterpoint to a prevailing narrative. In many ways, it is unsurprising that for some, his African-American experience makes his opinion as an African-American illegitimate. Because his experience was unlike Jim Brown’s, Trayvon Martin’s, or any other black male’s experience, which is based upon environment, upbringing and access to opportunity, it is disqualified. It is the unfortunate given of Kobe; a ragged storyline that follows him like a shadow.
It’s instances like these that bring me back to the image that leads off this piece; FreeDarko’s iconic image Kobe attempting to complete his impossibly-detailed model ship, arrayed neatly in its glass vessel. While Kobe himself is focused entirely on completing the ship in the bottle, our eyes are drawn to the entirety of the picture, the bleak carnage strewn about the floor. Those broken ships on the floor — each one still clinging onto beautiful little riggings and masts, even as they lie as rubble on the teal — seem to be the versions of his legacy and identity that did not meet his approval, and were deemed unfit to live. In each ship, there was a flaw that was only seen by him, and him alone. The failed ships perhaps have names that only Kobe could see emblazoned on their hulls, names like “USS Sidekick” or the “HMS Inefficiency”; ships that are steered by false navigators, who question the experience of the vessel’s engineer. Only Kobe can represent Kobe; there is no one else who can tell him what is right, and what is wrong. Those moments lay on the floor, their existences disregarded. And we don’t know what is going to happen in the next moment. Will Kobe be satisfied with his product, an authentic representation of his identity and experience? Or will he deem this, too, to be unrepresentative of who he truly is, and smash it on the floor in a fit of rage?
For me, that question, and that assertion — that there is no one way to look at something, that opinions can be held strongly, and that experience is only lived by the person who is living it — is what has made Kobe so compelling over the years, whether he is playing the role of a friend, or a foe. And in my mind, perhaps that’s worthy of being a Diss Guy. That sort of stubbornness, that “complex mix of a man’s worst qualities”; a steadfast feeling that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, makes Kobe a person worth considering with an open mind, even if his tiny ships are broken all over the floor.