A 19-year old worker accused Bryant of rape in what became the most shameful moment in his life and career. The fallout did significant damage to his reputation and image although the criminal charges were dismissed. It ultimately cost him his partnership with O’Neal and would cause strain around the team that led to coach Phil Jackson’s retirement. A civil suit was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, and Bryant admitted in a statement that read, in part: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual … I now understand how she sincerely feels that she did not consent.”
It was a moment that would follow his name for the rest of his life. But a stint with Team USA wrought a gold model. After Shaq’s departure from the Lakers in ’04, Bryant was free to go on scoring binges like the league had never seen — ultimately reaching its crescendo in a legendary 81-point outburst against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
His young family also became a public fixture at his games and in his life. He married Vanessa Laine in 2001, and they had two daughters, Natalia and Gianna. His family became his shadow, and while some saw a man still working to change public perceptions about him, it was also evident that he was a man who realized how close he’d come to destroying the thing that meant most to him in the world.
Bryant’s death won’t be easy for his family, friends, fans, colleagues and anyone who loves Los Angeles to handle. Last year, he won an Oscar for his animated short Dear Basketball, a love letter to the sport that had given him so much. He was forging ahead as an entrepreneur, raising four daughters — Bianka was born in 2016, and little Capri arrived last year — and coaching Gianna to follow in his footsteps. The 13-year-old “Mambacita” had become a phenom in her own right — one of the most talked-about teen players in the country, just like her dad was 25 years ago.
The loss of all of that, the tragedy of it, is incredibly sad. Bryant became a symbol for self-actualization, motivation and drive for a generation of athletes who embrace his go-for-the-gusto, against-it-all “Mamba Mentality.” He also became a symbol of privilege and victim-shaming. We’ll have to wrestle with both of those things. His life wasn’t simply defined by his worst moments or his highest achievements. At the still-youthful age of 41, he and his little daughter had so much to look forward to.
But that’s not always how stories are meant to end. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers was teary-eyed as he spoke about his fallen rival and friend, whom he battled in the 2000s when Rivers was coaching the Celtics against Bryant’s Lakers. Acknowledging that sometimes “things don’t make sense,” Rivers shared his memories of Bryant and spoke for NBA fans everywhere.
“I think everybody right now is a Laker fan,” Rivers said. “We’re all Lakers today.”
Story by Stereo Williams
Images by A.R. Shaw