“The Ugliness of Greatness”: A Kobe Bryant Reading List

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 14: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waves to the crowd after being taken out of the game in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 14, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

On the final Sunday in January, Kobe Bryant — a legendary and complex figure within not only basketball and sports but culture writ large — was killed in a helicopter crash on the hills surrounding Calabasas, California. More than three years into his retirement, the ex-Los Angeles Laker was traveling to the Mamba rec center with his teenage daughter, Gianna, for a basketball tournament (seven other individuals were killed as well).

Much has been written about Bryant’s loss, comparing his death to those of Thurman Munson or Roberto Clemente, but with Bryant, the impact — like a fog— is omnipresent. He was drafted by the NBA out of high school, and for certain generational demographics, like millenials and Gen Z, it feels as if there was never a time in which Bryant wasn’t a part of our everyday discourse.

Below is a reading list of articles published in the week-and-a-half since Bryant’s death that address both his sui generis athletic skillset, but also how to talk about a celebrity whose death is more than several paragraphs of any obituary:

1. It Is a Terrible Irony That Kobe Bryant Should Fall From the Sky (Charles P. Pierce, Esquire)

Kobe was the bridge from Michael Jordan to the present generation of NBA superstars, and Pierce explains the brilliance of the Lakers guard, who continually evolved on and off the court.

2. This Is Why Mothers Don’t Sleep (Henry Abbott, True Hoop)

Abbott’s True Hoop was essentially the first true NBA blog, a site you visited at least once a day (and — at maximum — kept open in a tab to continuously refresh), and he ruminates on the toll of Kobe’s death as a father, but also the emotional weight that his wife, Vanessa, must now carry.

3. Two Things Can Be True, But One Is Always Mentioned First (Jeremy Gordon, The Outline)

In 2003, Kobe was accused of raping a 19-year old employee of the Colorado hotel where he was staying. “Every time I said no he tightened his hold around me,” she told police. The case was litigated in public for the next year-and-a-half, a period in which the victim’s name was leaked, and ultimately, she chose not to testify at trial. (The Laker settled with his accuser out of court.) Gordon deep-dives into the case, and why it remains relevant — not only in the era of #MeToo, but also in Kobe’s death.

4. How To Talk About Kobe Bryant’s Legacy (Ashley Reese, Jezebel)

More than a decade after the settlement, the accusations became a blip in the life of Kobe Bryant, but the decisions made that night in 2003 need to be remembered, which is why the Washington Post‘s suspension of journalist Felicia Sonmez was so troubling. All Sonmez did was tweet a link to a comprehensive longread about the rape accusation and subsequent media and legal circus, and for that, she was dragged not only on social media but by WaPo’s editorial masthead. Reese manages to weave separate threads — on Kobe, his death, his legacy, and why it’s important to discuss troubling truths — in this compendium on the Lakers star.

5. Kobe Bryant Was Basketball’s Great Storyteller (Louisa Thomas, the New Yorker)

“The ugliness of greatness.” Kobe once mentioned that phrase to Ben McGrath in a 2014 profile for the magazine, and Thomas evaluates Kobe’s life within that context — how the basketball player evolved into the Black Mamba, and how that shift continued into his retirement and, for a moment, looked to alter the rest of his life.

6. What Made Kobe Different (Jonathan Abrams, B/R Mag)

Abrams, who has written extensively about the NBA (and covered Kobe as a cub reporter at the Los Angeles Times), reflects on what the star meant to a generation of not only admirers but also sports writers.

7. More than a number: College players tell their stories about Kobe Bryant inspiring them to wear No. 24 (Matt Norlander, CBS Sports)

During the 2019-2020 men’s college basketball season, there are 181 players who wear a No. 24 jersey. Norlander spoke with dozens of those players to ask how Kobe influenced not only their jersey number and playing styles, but also their lives. According to Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith, a highly-recruited freshman who has worn No. 24 ever since he was in grade school, “One thing I read after Kobe’s passing was that he read the entire NBA rulebook. All of it, like he knew where the refs had to stand and look, so if he needed to get away with a cheap foul, he’d know how to do it. That stuff is admirable. He lived the game because he knew it.”