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'Smooth as raven's claws': On the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant

January 27, 2020
<p>The Rock on Farm Lane reads “RIP Kobe &amp; Gigi Bryant 24” on Jan. 27.</p>

The Rock on Farm Lane reads “RIP Kobe & Gigi Bryant 24” on Jan. 27.

Jim Morrison, the troubled frontman of The Doors, was the author of probably my favorite poem, "The Severed Garden." Morrison, who surely knew his final hours were approaching — owing to his hedonistic lifestyle — wrote that “death makes angels of us all, and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as raven’s claws.”

I thought about that line — and that poem — a lot Sunday, with the news of former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant’s death at 41, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash outside Calabasas, California. 

Bryant was no angel. In 2003, he — while married to the former Vanessa Laine, with whom he had four daughters — was accused of rape by an employee at a hotel in Colorado. The details are available here, but suffice to say: the accuser was intimidated, bullied and eventually chose not to testify in court, settling for an undisclosed amount in a civil trial. Bryant issued an awkward, superficial statement. At best, he was guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of the word "consent," and at worst, of something far more sinister. 

So how do I reconcile that with the intense grief I felt Sunday upon hearing the news of his passing?

Bryant, a hero to a generation, wasn’t one of mine. I loathed his Los Angeles Lakers, bemoaning his tendency to play “hero ball” and not pass to his less-talented teammates. I copied the coded language I heard from my elders about him not “playing the right way.” That didn’t really pass the smell test, because how could someone who won five NBA championships be playing the wrong way?

And yet, there was something magnetic about him, even after his career ended. He was a passionate supporter of women’s sports, establishing the Mamba Sports Academy, which gave as much time and instruction to seventh-grade girls’ teams, like the one Gianna was a part of, as it did to established NBA players such as Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, who both trained there. 

It was on the way to Gianna’s practice that they died, which seems especially unfair. Collisions don’t discriminate. No amount of wealth, clout or good intentions matter.

There is a clip making the rounds on the internet of Bryant talking to Jimmy Kimmel about the pride he felt in his second-eldest daughter’s burgeoning basketball career.

“(Fans will come up to me and say) you gotta have a boy … have somebody carry on your tradition and legacy,” Bryant said. “She’s like, ‘Oy! I got this! You don’t need no boy for that.'”

I can’t think of a better example of fatherhood, by any celebrity in any arena, period. 

She had the same megawatt smile as him. She played like him. She embodied the “mamba mentality” he talked about, a preternatural commitment to winning above all else. The two could be seen together at NBA games, or WNBA games, or men’s college games, or women’s college games. 

Oregon star guard Sabrina Ionescu, likely the top pick in the 2020 WNBA draft, had developed a friendship with Bryant, and after her team’s win over Oregon State on Sunday, tearfully said she was dedicating the rest of her season to him.

The gender of the player never mattered to him. Only whether or not they could play.

Bryant won an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball,” released upon his retirement in 2016. It’s chilling to watch now. Basketball was, of course, just a vessel — something to connect him first to his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant — with whom he traveled early in life to his various professional stops in the U.S., Italy and France — and then to his daughters.

He was many things. 

A basketball genius, perhaps the most skilled player of his era and certainly the most competitive. He once told the fanbase of his hometown Philadelphia 76ers that he intended to “rip their hearts out” during the 2001 NBA finals. Of course, he averaged 24.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in a five-game demolition. 

A businessman and thinker whose stake in “Kobe Inc.” was valued at approximately $200 million in August 2018 after it was purchased by Coca-Cola. He had a venture capital firm, an Oscar-winning production company and he spoke three languages. 

But he was also the person who violated that woman in Colorado. 

Though I respected him greatly, particularly for his commitment to growing women’s sports, it is inescapable. 

Bryant and Gianna are survived by Vanessa and three other daughters. Two are under the age of four, including baby Capri, who will never truly know her father. His oldest, Natalia, just turned 17.

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The hotel employee in Colorado was nineteen, just two years older than her.

As I grapple with my own demons, knowing that he had made some measure of amends in the last 17 years of his life gives me some hope.

His broad shoulders, the ones that carried the city of Los Angeles to five NBA championships and his family to generational wealth, were smooth as raven’s claws.

It is Gianna, whose lifespan flashed on my TV on Sunday as 2006-2020, whose wings I will remember. 

Her father accomplished so much in 41 years, good and bad. She never got that chance. 

Not even Morrison had a line to express that pain.


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