After all-time great Kobe Bryant announced his impending retirement, there has been no shortage of people rushing to remind us of his accomplishments and accolades as a basketball player. They are undoubtedly very impressive: he is a five-time NBA champion, 17-time All Star, and has scored more points than Michael Jordan. However, I firmly believe that when we talk about an athlete’s legacy we should not only talk about their impact on the court or field, but also off of it. Athletes are put up on a pedestal and given a platform, and it is how they behave as human beings that will outlast any of their accomplishments in their sport.
One of the great contradictions in life is that the things that people value and the things that people believe they should value are not the same. We believe we should value things like integrity, generosity, and kindness. But instead, we value things like beauty, athleticism, and charm. Although the first set of characteristics make us feel warm inside and optimistic about human nature, it is the second set of characteristics that we reward with money and fame.
Actors, music artists, and athletes are given money and fame because they are incredibly talented. However, what is troubling is that it is in these professions that the characteristics that we would make someone a “good” human are least important. In most jobs, workers are held to morality clauses. This means that their welfare depends on them acting like decent human beings. However, athletes are told by society that it doesn’t matter how they act as long as they are good at their jobs.
About a year and a half ago, Justin Bieber was named the 5th most hated man in America. Patrick Carney, drummer of the famous rock band Black Keys, summarized what many people were thinking when he referred to him as an “irresponsible a**hole.” After all, he was speaking of a pop star who threw eggs his neighbor’s house—causing $80,000 in damages—and then failed to complete his community service, and also was once arrested for drag racing, while under the influence, with an expired license, and then resisted arrest. However, after releasing his new album that was well received by critics and immensely popular with four songs peaking in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, his popularity has again skyrocketed.
Alex Rodriguez has been named among the top ten most hated athletes in America many times and has been caught taking steroids at least twice. After, Alex Rodriguez’s return from his year-long suspension, the headlines read “Alex Rodriguez’s Bat Must Do the Talking to Ever Earn Yankees Fans’ Forgiveness” and “If Alex Rodriguez hits, Yankees fans will forgive lies again”. This past year, he hit his way back into many fans good graces after he hit 33 home runs and helped the Yankees to their first playoff berth since 2012.
LeBron James, considered one of the most, if not the most popular athletes in the world was one of the most hated athletes not too long ago. In 2010, he broke the hearts of Cleveland Cavaliers fans when he announced that he was, in an unprecedented and egotistical one-hour special titled “The Decision,” leaving his hometown team in favor of a new “super team” in Miami. However, after he won his first title, his brand again began to grow until he became the icon he is now.
We conflate the things that society values with the things that we should value. When someone performs well, we forgive them for their shortcomings because we believe in some way they have made up for their deficiencies as human beings. It scares me to ask—because either answer is equally chilling—but do we forgive the famous because we believe that their excellent performance actually makes up for their character flaws or is it that we truly just value talent way more than we do strong character?
I believe that most people would say that they would want to teach their children to be a good person, and that this would be much more important to them than that their child is a good singer or a good athlete. These entertainers are put on pedestals and are role models for children—whether they deserve to be or not. As such, we should hold them to a higher standard, not one that disappears once we are impressed.
Kobe Bryant should not just be measured by his accomplishments on the court, but also by his conduct throughout his career and how he carried himself. When we remember Kobe, we should not gloss over the things that make us uncomfortable but acknowledge that these things are also part of his legacy.
Kobe Bryant had an amazing drive to win, which led to him having an incomparable work ethic. He is not only one of the most talented players ever, but also one of the hardest working. Winning was his ultimate goal, and he was determined that nothing– and no one– would stop him from achieving that. However, this determination also has hindered him from getting along with his teammates.
His feud with Shaquille O’Neal broke up a potential Lakers dynasty that had already won three championships in a row. While blame belongs to both players, some of the main reasons why this team broke up was because Kobe Bryant’s ego made him discontent with being a second option, and also because his incredible work ethic made him publicly criticize Shaq who he believed did not show the same dedication to his craft.
Bryant has also criticized former teammates such as former Lakers point guard Smush Parker. He publicly called Parker “the worst” and someone who “shouldn’t have been in the NBA.” Parker recalled trying to talk to Kobe at practice: “he looked at me in practice and was dead serious and said, ‘You can’t talk to me. You need more accolades under your belt before you come talk to me.’” Parker continued to say that he was not a fan of Kobe’s personality, or how he treats people.
Bryant is also the all-time leader missed field goals and has been called selfish on many different occasions. Kobe’s former coach, Phil Jackson, recounted a team meeting where Shaq said “I think Kobe is playing too selfishly for us to win” and recalled that many on the team nodded in agreement and that not one player came to Kobe’s defense. Jackson, a Hall-of-Fame coach who holds the record for most NBA championship won with 11, refused to return to the Lakers after the 2004 season because he deemed Kobe “uncoachable.” An ESPN article written last year quoted an anonymous source close to Laker decision makers who said that Kobe “wants to win, but only as long as he’s the reason we’re winning.”
As a result of how he treats his teammates and perceived selfishness, many players refuse to play with Kobe. That same article also quoted an agent who represents several star players who said “I’ve had a lot of clients in the last five years, good players, who didn’t want to play with Kobe.” Kobe once acknowledged that his “nature makes [him] less enjoyable to play with,” but continued to say that he does not want to play with the type of players that are intimidated by that.
However, the worst publicity Kobe has ever received was the sexual assault case he was involved in from 2003 to 2004. After a sexual encounter with a 19-year old hotel employee, the woman alleged that this encounter was actually rape. Bryant admitted to the encounter, but claimed it was consensual. While Bryant was cleared of wrongdoing after the accuser said she wouldn’t testify, it led his wife to file for divorce. While the divorce action was dropped about a year after it was filed, his actions at the very least betrayed his wife, and at the worst was sexual assault.
On the court, Kobe Bryant was larger than life, but it is also clear that he was never a role model off of it. He is a man that consistently pushed away all of those around him, failed to check his ego, and betrayed his wife. He was an incredibly talented, skilled, and hard-working player, and it is for these reasons that he is a legend and a sure-fire Hall of Famer. But do not conflate his accomplishments in basketball with heroism. Our heroes should not be those who are blessed with amazing talent, but instead those that we would truly want our children to imitate; those who love others and carry themselves with integrity. Kobe Bryant’s legacy will always include his incredible achievements, but let us take care not to simply gloss over the aspects of his legacy that we don’t like. Bryant was an amazing basketball player, but at the same time, a very flawed man.