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The Complicated Legacy Of Kobe Bryant


The LA Lakers were supposed to play the LA Clippers tonight, but the game was postponed to allow people to grieve for Kobe Bryant. He died on Sunday in a helicopter crash that stunned Los Angeles and millions of his fans. Bryant was remarkable for many reasons, including how young he was when he went pro - straight out of high school at 18.

He earned five NBA championship rings and two Olympic gold medals. But even as the arc of his basketball career seemed almost preordained, his personal journey was anything but. Here's what sports columnist Christine Brennan of USA Today and Kevin Blackistone of The Washington Post told me.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: He was a complicated individual because we saw many different facets of Kobe Bryant through his entire adult career. He arrives in the NBA, 17, 18-year-old kid who a lot of people thought acted as if he already belonged - somewhat entitled because of his talent and because of his being the son of a former NBA player. And slowly he involved into maybe a spoiled star.

KING: Spoiled?

BLACKISTONE: Yeah, because at some point, we begin to see him in spats with veteran players. And then he evolves into a controversial figure when he is charged with rape. And that changed what a lot of people thought about him and created, I think, another level of enmity among some fans.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, Kevin, I certainly agree with you there. You know, it's really hard, and I think we all agree. You know, he's gone, and what a tragedy this is. And the loss of life - not just Kobe, his daughter, but her teammates and the others, it's just horrible. And yet, as journalists, I think it's important - I know you would agree - that we should mention, as part of his story, the 2003 allegations of sexual assault...

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely.

BRENNAN: ...And this was a very serious issue. It's an important point in his life and how he then moved on to have four daughters and to really become a feminist in terms of his daughters and what they could do. But I do think it's important also that he did have that statement at the end of this very long drawn-out process where the charges were dropped and there was no trial. But he said he thought that the encounter was consensual...


BRENNAN: ...He recognized now, he said that she - meaning the woman - did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. Looking at it in 2003, 2004, it's one thing. Looking at it through the prism of right now - wow, that's a very significant thing. And I don't think any of us - we don't want to back away from that. That is certainly part of Kobe's history. And I think it's wise to discuss it. But we look back to that time and think about the life he's lived. And here he is, I mean, the very quintessentially 21st century slice of Americana - a dad taking his daughter to a sporting event...

KING: Yeah.

BRENNAN: ...Kevin, you do that with your daughter. And here in this case, it's in a helicopter, and there's other girls. And they're going to go play a game - her game...

BLACKISTONE: That's right.

BRENNAN: ...And he's coaching.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah. And I was with my daughter at a women's college basketball game. And it was after that that I heard this news. And it came out in two pieces - one that Kobe Bryant had perished and then maybe an hour later that his daughter had perished with him. And that really struck home with me because in one sense, we saw the full bloom of the Kobe Bryant we came to know - and that's the basketball player, the artistry on the floor. And now he's into a second chapter of his life.

But his daughter at 13, we did not see a full chapter. We barely saw a beginning. And that's what really struck me. And I'm thinking about the relationship that Kobe had with his daughter and the support that he was showing for the WNBA. That's evolution from where he once was.

KING: Well, this is - I mean, to your point, I wonder, is this how a complicated person becomes beloved? How did this man manage to evoke so much in so many people?

BLACKISTONE: You know, it may have been because he was in the game for so long. And he became, as I've heard a number of players say in the past 24, 36 hours, he became their Michael Jordan. They didn't grow up with Michael Jordan. They grew up with Kobe Bryant. And as such, he became this avuncular figure to them. And by all accounts, he was very gracious with information about the game that he played so spectacularly well.

KING: Such a change - such a change from that arrogant young man, right...


KING: ...Who people said, you haven't earned it. It is extraordinary to see. I mean, Christine is that just maturity?

BRENNAN: Oh, I think it is. And think about it - you're a very young person, and the eyes of the world - or the sports world at least - are upon you and our culture. I mean, everyone knew Kobe or knew of Kobe. And so I think there's that. But going back to Kobe as, like, the Title IX male - men who've grown up with girls playing sports next to them or with daughters who now they're driving to their games and coaching, he evolved into that to the point where he's on "Jimmy Kimmel" a year ago or so, and he's explaining that there'd be men that would come up to him and say, hey, you know, you got to have a boy. You got to have somebody to carry on your tradition, the legacy. And before Kobe could answer, Gigi would answer, I got this. I got this...

KING: Yeah.

BLACKISTONE: That's right.

BRENNAN: ...Don't worry. And Kobe loved that.

KING: And both of them are cut short....


KING: ...We don't get to see how they turn out.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, the only thing you can hope is that Vanessa and the other kids can grow up with this image of their father as this positive father, as a father who would become a role model for other fathers with daughters. And, you know, that's kind of the image that I'll hold onto.

KING: Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist for The Washington Post and a professor at the University of Maryland, and Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today, thank you sincerely so much for being here. We appreciate it.


BRENNAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.