Yesterday, my social media feed became a solidified wall of Kobe Bryant. From shares and reshares of news stories to personal testimonies about the inspiring, heroic nature of the athlete who perished alongside his daughter Gianna in a helicopter accident Sunday morning. Lost also were John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli; Christina Mauser; Sarah and Payton Chester; and Ara Zobayan.
I’m not a big sports person, but I appreciate excellence. And one of the few things I know about Kobe Bryant is that he played excellent ball. I’m of the Air Jordan generation—the man, the hangtime, the shoes and jumpsuits—and Bryant hits me like a younger people’s Jordan. It stuns us when someone so monumental suddenly stops being. I can only imagine the outcry had Michael Jordan gone out in an accident in 1994. We worship our heroes with adolescent purity and ardor, and when that juvenile part of the psyche experiences loss, it fucks with us. These pictures of strength shouldn’t be vulnerable to the same mundane deaths that the non-famous suffer and pass with.
I watched a friend go through it this weekend. He’s a ball player too, a pitcher who taught me to appreciate the psychology behind dugout shit-talking. A former teammate of his—a state trooper with a big, confident smile whom my friend called “an Adonis”—was murdered Friday night while he sat in a cigar bar with friends. Executed from behind with no warning, as unexpected as a helicopter crash.
I ache for my friend’s loss. We’re in our forties, but it doesn’t matter—the part of grown men that makes them play baseball outside MLB during middle age is the last preserved piece of the eight-year-old who joined Little League, and the eight-year-old got the wind knocked out of him when he found out his teammate had died.
Celebrities have a way of making us feel like we’re on the same team. They’re magnetic—it’s part of how they achieve fame. They cultivate worship and gather followers with or without intention. The people posting paeans to Kobe Bryant feel like my friend did when he got a text telling him Gregory Rieves died, and it seems the first step in realizing loss is telling someone. We want a witness to our pain. So my friend told me, and the world told Twitter. It’s the 2020 version of the most natural reaction.
A whole other group of people are posting angry things about the public grief for the Lakers icon. They protest his idolization because he was accused of rape in 2003, and although the criminal case was dismissed and the subsequent civil one settled outside court with allegedly no financial exchange, not all of the public believes justice was blind. They say fame backed by money protected him, and you know what? That happens all the time. Celebrity and wealth are both forms of privilege. And while I’m not an expert on calculating privilege in America, and I don’t know the exchange rate between social status and skin color, I do think a certain amount of money and fame can help even Black men get out of trouble with the law. Sometimes.
So now the Sad People are angry with the Angry People. Everyone is triggered, and everyone hurts.
In the same way Kobe Bryant’s death can put tens of millions of people in touch with feelings of personal loss attached to their own lives—my friend had the cosmic (mis?)fortune of a parallel death making it really easy to connect those emotions—a lot of people who were raped and not believed are connecting this celebrity story to their own. They feel like no one believes them all over again, and their assailants are all being celebrated in the form of one NBA star across every platform on the planet.
Death, sex, and people are complicated. This story involves all three, and it’s frosted in fame. We want our heroes to be better than us, not just in prowess and charm but in morals and mien, but there’s nothing in the history of TMZ or time to substantiate this thought that celebrities are infallible. They’re as multifaceted, hypocritical, weak, weird, and fragile as the rest of us. When everyone is done screaming, after a few years pass, we’ll be permitted to have a slightly more balanced, human view of Kobe Bryant that allows him to be both heroically athletic and an alleged rapist. Until then, everyone is yelling. And everyone has the right.