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The Kobe Bryant I choose to remember

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

“Our responsibility is more than putting a ball in a basket.” — Kobe Bryant

My two greatest enduring, life-affirming memories of Kobe Bryant have nothing to do with basketball. The first is the mild but very pleasant surprise I had watching Bryant at a peace walk in July 2014. He walked with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. The occasion was the first anniversary of the grotesque acquittal of George Zimmerman for Martin’s murder.

Bryant minced no words. He called out the criminal justice system for the abomination in letting Zimmerman skip away scot-free. The Zimmerman atrocity, though, to Bryant was a deeper sign of the terrible malaise in the criminal justice system that routinely demonizes and diminishes black lives. Civil rights leaders and activists can say that until the sky falls in, but a blast at the justice system from a superstar athlete in the heart of the African American community carries real weight.

There’s another ever-enduring memory — when he ripped off his Lakers jacket during warmups at a game against the Sacramento Kings in December 2014. Emblazoned on his black T-shirt were the words “I can’t breathe.” The “I” was Eric Garner, choked to death by an NYPD undercover cop in July 2014.

Even more memorable about Bryant’s bold statement was that he felt strongly enough to get his other Laker teammates to don similar T-shirts etched with Garner’s death-throe plea.

These enduring memories show a young man who had undergone an almost total epiphany in terms of awareness of the at-times literal life-and-death struggle for racial justice. It’s important to say that, because not long before Bryant spoke out forcefully backing the racial justice fight, he was lambasted pillar to post by many blacks, including a sharp reprimand from football great Jim Brown about his supposed lack of blackness.

Bryant had posted a tweet in March 2014 that seemed to soft-peddle the Zimmerman acquittal. Bryant took much heat for this but did not dig his heels in and defiantly scream about freedom to express his opinion. Keep in mind he got raves from others for going against the alleged politically correct crowd. But clearly, he thought hard about the criticism and the heinous implications of the judicial travesty. He quickly reversed gear and called the verdict what it was: “Travon Martin was wronged. THATS my opinion and that’s what I believe the FACTS showed. The system did not work.”

Despite Bryant’s careful and cautious downplay of race during much of his playing career, for a swath of the public he was still a black sports icon. The price a black sports icon pays for resting on that high perch can be steep. One misstep, and he or she can become the instant poster child for all that’s allegedly wrong with celebrity, sport and society. Bryant got an early taste of what could happen with even the tiniest slip. That was the 2003 sexual assault charge against him in a Colorado town. The case was ultimately dropped, but it was a harsh wake-up call.

There are two reasons for the walk-on-pins-and-needles existence of black sports superstars. When Bryant tore up the NBA, he became the gatekeeper for the storehouse of fantasies and delusions of a sports-crazed public as well as advertisers, sportswriters and TV executives in desperate need of titillation and profits. Bryant was the ultimate sports hero who fulfilled that empty need.

He was expected to move in the rarified air above the fray of human problems. Black athlete superstars are handsomely rewarded for fulfilling the fantasy, if they stick to matters on the court or gridiron.

The other reason for caution by Bryant is his fame and fortune. Black superstars cause much media and public hurt when they supposedly betray the collective delusion of sport as pure and pristine. That stirs even greater jealousy and resentment, evident in fan and sportswriter carping about how spoiled and overpaid Bryant and other black athletes supposedly are. The first hint of any bad behavior ignites a torrent of self-righteous commentary on the supposed arrogant, above-the-law black athlete.

Bryant understood the harsh public and media fishbowl that he was cast into. But in the end, he did the right thing and cast his stardom, celebrity status and revered name with the Trayvon Martins of the world and the fight for racial justice. This is the Kobe Bryant I choose to remember.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. 

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