Kobe and Gianna Bryant mural by Mr. Brainwash
Kobe and Gianna Bryant mural by Mr. Brainwash | Photo: @impermanent_art, Instagram
See: https://www.discoverlosangeles.com/things-to-do/discover-kobe-bryant-murals-in-los-angeles

Last January, Los Angeles was reeling from the news of Kobe Bryant’s sudden and tragic death, as well as the deaths of eight others. At the time, it felt like we were marinating in the shock of it all – the unspeakable tragedies of life gone too soon, the knowledge it could have been prevented, and the death of a legend just beginning to build his post-career legacy. A colleague remarked to me that Kobe was “giving us a real LA moment.” Her words resonated with me, and I’ve been mulling over why this statement struck a chord with me. What was it about Kobe’s death that made for an ‘LA moment’?

I think we can all agree that sports has the power to unite disparate groups of people in a variety of ways – the unabashed joy we feel when ‘we’ win a championship, the fury when we find out we may have lost because the opposing team cheated. We get to know the players – their faces, their quirks, their stories, their families – and in a place like Los Angeles where celebrities are ubiquitous, sports figures are in a different class. They seem more real, more human, and feel more like one of us. In the case of Kobe Bryant – a flawed human being with otherworldly talent, a man who spent the entirety of his career in one place, who grew into a role model, who gave us five championships, and who in his post-basketball career set out to inspire and build up young people through the powers of storytelling and sports – this tragedy seemed to hit Angelenos especially hard.[1]

If we take a step back, though, I think Kobe’s death represented something more – this tragedy gave us an opportunity to share something in a world where sometimes it feels like we might have nothing in common anymore. In such a massive place like Los Angeles there was something utterly unifying about the collective mourning of a legend and his young daughter.

I intended to publish this piece in February 2020, but hesitated. I am one of those who felt conflicted about Kobe during his life because I felt uncomfortable with reverence for an athlete accused of committing a horrible crime. I was completely taken aback by how deeply his death and the deaths of 8 others affected me. I felt shocked and devastated. Perhaps it affected me so because I could not imagine losing my own child and husband in the blink of an eye in such a manner. But then came March lockdowns in the face of a pandemic, and the thought of writing about the helicopter crash felt like the moment had passed. Little could I have imagined the magnitude of the tragedies, deaths and despair that would come in 2020. At times it has felt like America is more divided than ever.[2]

Nearly one year later, however, the time feels right to reflect on Kobe’s death and once again consider how important these moments of community and connection are in a metropolis like Los Angeles. In 2020, those moments materialized in the loss of Kobe, and quite emotionally during the Lakers’ run up to the championship and the Dodgers’ long overdue World Series win in October. What did it mean to Angelenos to come together in those moments and share such joy in what felt like a year of neverending loss?

I’d like to leave you with this – I think the Kobe tragedy resonated so deeply with so many Angelenos because Kobe embodied a spirit of determination, innovation, and reinvention that defines Los Angeles – both the people and the metropolis – in so many ways. I really love the way Skylar Berman defined what Kobe called his Mamba Mentality – “the voracious desire to constantly learn, improve, and reinvent oneself…the ability to singularly focus on a goal and stop at nothing to achieve that goal.”[3] In a place like Los Angeles with a diffuse power structure and “a history of erasing or forgetting the past in pursuit of…reinvention,” our civic leaders require a combination of charisma, innovation, and the ability to foster connections and community, particularly amongst everyday folks.[4] Kobe Bryant became such a leader, first on the court, and later as a storyteller and mentor. As Jeff Weiss so aptly wrote in a Los Angeles Magazine tribute to Kobe: “Greatness isn’t merely enough to conquer a city like Los Angeles; it’s imperative to seize the imagination.”[5] Like so many civic leaders of the past, Kobe Bryant captured our attention in a place with limitless distractions. He inspired so many to be the best versions of themselves. And in a place where reinvention and storytelling matter, our collective sense of loss for what Kobe left unfinished hit especially hard. An ‘LA’ moment indeed.

[1] I would be remiss not to acknowledge the sexual assault charge levied against Bryant in 2003, and the triggering effect the media coverage of his death caused for survivors of sexual assault. Jerry Brewer’s discussion of the accusation and its impact on Bryant in the Washington Post captures my own sentiments about it. See Jerry Brewer, Perspective | Kobe Bryant accomplished so much. It’s devastating to consider what he left unfinished. Washington Post, January 26, 2020. See also Barry Svrluga, A single action should not define Kobe Bryant. Nor should it be forgotten. Washington Post, January 28, 2020.

[2] I wrote this sentence on Jan. 5th, the day before insurrectionists descended on the U.S. Capitol. Little did I know it would feel even worse less than 24 hours later.

[3] Skylar Berman, “Kobe and the Mamba Mentality,” Jan 29, 2020. https://medium.com/@skylerberman/kobe-and-the-mamba-mentality-d67f8be395a8

[4] Andrea Thabet, Shawn Landres, and William Deverell, Space to Lead: A Century of Civic Leadership in Los Angeles, Future of Cities: Los Angeles and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, 2017, p. 5.

[5] Jeff Weiss, “Kobe Bryant Embodied the Soul of Los Angeles Like No One Else,” Los Angeles Magazine, Feb 24, 2020. https://www.lamag.com/mag-features/kobe-bryant-los-angeles/

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