Kobe Bryant wrote his own legacy

A few days after his death, an unfathomable amount of words dedicated to Kobe Bryant had floated onto the internet and into print. There’s a lot to be said about the American professional basketball player. He had a life and career that left behind countless opinions to express and infinite statistics to analyse.

Our descendants won’t have history books but rather a bottomless pit of think pieces to delve through.

In this regard Bryant did himself a favour: he began to write his own story. He was a big believer of athletes taking charge of their own narratives and his exploration into media and storytelling will provide many lessons. Perhaps even some warnings too.

As the end of Bryant’s 20-year playing career came into sight, the perfect testing pool for his writing ambitions sprang up: The Players’ Tribune. It’s a media platform founded by former baseball player Derek Jeter that publishes work written by athletes themselves. Or at least it has their bylines — almost everyone uses ghostwriters.

The concept was to give a voice back to the sportsperson, something that is often lost in the world of sport journalism that too often falls prey to a sensationalist clicks-first approach.

Bryant swallowed the idea whole. He became one of biggest investors and most prolific contributors to The Players’ Tribune. Even before he called time at the Lakers, it was clear a new passion was swelling inside him. As The New York Times wrote two years ago, a standard editorial discussion was not beneath the shooting guard. Regarding one such meeting, “Bryant showed up via helicopter with a small black notebook that he quickly filled as he proceeded to ask an intense stream of highly informed digital-media-strategy questions.”

When he decided to call it quits on his playing career, he naturally selected the Players’ Tribune to break the news — in a poem titled Dear Basketball.

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream/ And I’ll always love you for it./ But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer./ This season is all I have left to give./ My heart can take the pounding,/ My mind can handle the grind/ But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.

Bryant seemed to relish any opportunity he got to offer introspection into the sport that had largely defined his life. His willingness to do so with an extreme degree of experimentation is something we’ve rarely seen come out of the sporting world.

Which is not to say that the intent is wholly benevolent. Much of the criticism of The Players’ Tribune approach is about the danger of it devolving into a PR exercise.

Bryant had his reputation decimated in 2003, when he was arrested after being accused of rape by a 19-year-old hotel employee. Ultimately, the woman refused to testify, but not before being dragged through the media. After this experience, he turned to introspection, apologising for his misreading of her consent and portraying himself as the imperfect man doing his best to right his wrongs. The endorsement money he lost at the onset of the scandal was quickly recouped.

Bryant has always understood the power of a story. This extends beyond affirming his own legacy. The film he had written and narrated, also titled Dear Basketball, won an Oscar in 2017. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho revealed this week that the two had been collaborating on a book that would seek to offer inspiration to underprivileged children. Then there are the countless TV shows, podcasts and business ventures he was throwing himself into. He may have once marketed himself as a flawed human — there’s little denying he was — but such was the power of his pen that few have thought to pause in their veneration of him this week.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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