Editor’s note: This essay is part of a recurring column that is titled “Everything’s the Best.” It is a column that allows for rumination and thinking beyond then typical topics of Liverpool Football Club.
There is no predicting the ways in which sudden and unexpected bad news are absorbed by the body and heart. On Sunday, I woke up feeling lethargic, which I thought was the result of a night spent staying up an hour later than usual to watch an episode of Anne with an E with my wife. Turns out, it was the beginning of a respiratory infection which is now in full bloom.
What unraveled over the next few hours was a blur of life that spooled out in front of me. A period where I felt much more like an audience member in a movie watching these scenes play out in front of me.
First, Liverpool dropped their two goal lead in stunning fashion to Shrewsbury Town, forcing a replay in the FA Cup. Then, running a bit late for Mass, I arrived there only to see a young man step out of the sanctuary and seemingly crying. After a few minutes, while I was tending to my daughter who was busy running around the fountain which is what we do since this parish has no cry room, he approaches me to inform me that he’d just found out Kobe Bryant, Lakers’ legend, had died.
The loss of a celebrity and, perhaps, one who would be considered an icon can feel like a blanket source of mourning for a certain group of people. And when it comes to professional sports, I feel like it can have the double impact as that loss is often most centralized to a certain age range of people who live or hail from a specific corner of the world.
I first immigrated to a neighborhood in South Los Angeles - Hawthorne - from the Philippines in 1988. My father preceded us as he landed a job working for a commercial airliner before we followed him. A thing that I remember is a phone call I took from my father, while I was in Manila, where he was telling me about the Lakers.
The thing you probably need to know about the Philippines is that we’re a basketball obsessed nation - it’s that, boxing, and karaoke in no particular order. And being an 80’s kid meant that the premier team in the world was the Showtime edition of the Los Angeles Lakers. Which then meant that I was familiar with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabar and James Worthy and Michael Cooper well before I’d actually touched down at LAX. I was a Laker fan and the inevitability of my first true sporting love was sealed when we took up roots in Hawthorne.
You’ll often hear on national broadcasts of games for iconic teams - the Yankees, Dodgers, Cowboys, Liverpool, Barcelona, and Real Madrid, for example - how the region that they play in is completely different when a successful version of that team is in full bloom. That’s Los Angeles with a championship or dynastic Lakers team. There’s something different and unifying within the city when the team does well and is flying high.
For older millennials in Los Angeles, like myself, Kobe Bryant was a mainstay of our sporting memories. He arrived in the draft of 1996, the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years. The Shaq and Kobe three-peat Lakers happened spanned the 17-19 years of my life. When he won again with Pau Gasol, I was a professional at the start of my career.
And the thing about Kobe was that watching him was such an exercise at times: he wanted to be great so much as to sometimes look like he was trying too hard. Contrasted with the effortless charm of Magic and the aloof regality of Kareem, it came off as a bit too much.
For me, his arrival on the squad presented a conundrum: what to do with Eddie Jones, an all-star guard in the same position? Eddie was my favorite Laker - his hard-nosed defense and hustle spoke to me, a chubby and asthmatic kid who wasn’t tall enough to do much scoring but could maybe be a pest on defense.
But like a shadow that loomed over everything, Kobe’s presence lingers over my Eddie Jones memory, too. I got tickets to watch the Lakers at the Great Western Forum during one of their last seasons in the building and wore my Eddie Jones jersey to the game. It was my first ever Lakers game. When the starting lineups were announced, I noticed that Eddie wasn’t listed. I thought that was curious. Partway through the second quarter, we realized what happened: Eddie Jones had been traded. The conundrum of having two guards in the same position and not enough minutes had been solved.
Kobe’s legacy as a Laker is generally cemented now, though. Even with the images of those airballs in the 1998 playoffs or the pouty performances in 2006 when he clearly felt he didn’t have a good enough squad, he’ll generally be regarded as a hero.
And what do we make of all of that? What to make of the hagiographic coverage since his death - which includes his 13 year old daughter - that is seemingly intent on blowing past a specific period of his life the way young Kobe would blow past a defender who was crowding him?
What about Colorado?
The sports world is rife with figures who are “complicated.” Complicated in the sense that we - and by “we,” I mean people who are often part of populations not directly impacted by the less savory behavior or incidents that color a specific celebrity’s life - must necessarily tangle with the memories of this person in ways that are varied and complicated.
One of my favorite sporting memories are those Junes between 2000-2002, when the Lakers were fighting against everyone for a shot at the title. My neighborhood would be absolutely rocking when the Lakers pulled one out. After we clinched that first title, one of my best friends, Fernando, picked me up in his car - he was the first to get a driver’s license among us - and we drove along Hawthorne Boulevard all the way to the South Bay Galleria honking our horns and yelling Lakers along with what felt like all of the South Bay. I swear to you that I can remember the ground shake when Robert Horry hit that shot against the Sacramento Kings in 2002.
But my initial reaction to everything yesterday was a numbness and a reticence. I’d distanced myself someway from Kobe and the fandom that envelopes him because looking at his sexual assault case in 2004, it feels like no justice had been done.
I squirm now thinking about how the woman in the case was treated, a seeming archetype for the way high-profile athlete cases of sexual assault are handled. I cringe thinking of how this news has necessarily affected survivors and their loved ones as the media has gone on with remarking very little on this moment.
We carry the ability within all of us the capacity to hold multifaceted images of people. The choice to only see Kobe Bryant’s legacy as spotless or, more troubling, one that uses the incident in Colorado as a source of redemption, is still that: a choice. One that renders a picture incomplete. One that does not allow us to grapple with the full measure of a human life.
I did not begin to feel the shock of it all until the text messages come rolling in. In a bit of a Filipinx trope, I’m sure, my family all texted on the group message about it. I got a text from my aunt, the basketball obsessed one who would always get my photographs of Pinoy ball players from the Philippine Basketball Association as a kid. I got texts from my friends here on TLO.
I thought a lot about the memories of the people that were around during those times and how we might carry this weight appropriately. I thought about Fernando and his car and all of Hawthorne, Lawndale, and Torrance out in the streets. I thought about my sister who’d taught Kobe’s daughters in dance classes. I thought about my daughter. I cried a little bit.
I don’t know that my mourning of this moment of loss - seemingly on the heels of so much more personal loss over the last 10 months - is appropriate. But I do think it’s honest. And that’s all I hope for people grappling with this news now: that they can process it in ways that validate their experiences and are not asked to blunt or silence themselves out of deference.
That space that we afford each other to respond or grieve is a mercy. A mercy that we all need.