On Sunday evening, Alicia Keys spent her first moments as host of the Grammy Awards honoring Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who were among the nine people killed in a helicopter crash that morning in Calabasas, California.
"We're all feeling crazy sadness right now," Keys said on stage at Staples Center, the Lakers' home for the majority of Bryant's remarkable 20-year NBA career. "Earlier today, Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero."
I spent the day trying to process the enormity of the tragedy, considering the sudden and cruel way life can be taken from us, crying as I listened to the memories of those who knew and loved Bryant. But in that particular moment, watching Keys memorialize Bryant as a hero, my thoughts went to Eagle County, Colorado. I wondered what the woman who alleged that Bryant raped her in 2003 might think upon hearing that word, "hero." What horrible pain might resurface for her and other survivors with the news of his death. What she must feel hearing people gush over the many accomplishments of this man's life and skipping over the one night that came to define hers.
When a beloved celebrity dies, social media pages fill with the grieving words of millions. It's a wonder and a gift how we can be inspired, influenced and moved by people without ever needing to meet them or speak to them. How someone's genius can bring meaning and happiness to the lives of others, motivate those watching to dream bigger or work harder, and bring together families and friends around a common interest. For all those reasons, it's hard to speak plainly and fully about someone in the wake of a tragedy. I imagine part of that also is projection: We glimpse our own mortality and that of the ones we love and hope that when the time comes, people will avoid the messy stuff.
A clean ending, one that glosses over the uncomfortable truths of life, might seem more respectful to the person who died, but it can wreak havoc on those left behind. Over the past few days, some reporters who tried to speak to the entirety of Bryant's legacy faced death threats and calls that "now is not the time" to remember the events of 2003. But survivors who are watching how Bryant is eulogized -- and those who have always felt uneasy about Bryant's story of redemption -- will tell you that it has never been the right time in the eyes of those who'd rather pretend that Eagle County, Colorado, never happened.
That conflicted feeling I had watching the Grammys wasn't new. For years, like many other sports fans and journalists, I have struggled to reconcile the Bryant from that Colorado hotel room with the charming, thoughtful, talented man I'd watched play basketball. He exemplified so many of the things we respect in an athlete: passion, work ethic, unceasing desire to win. Beyond basketball, Bryant was a polyglot who played the piano and wrote poems. He donated his time to charities, wrote and narrated an Oscar-winning short film and passionately supported his daughters and women's sports.
I have no doubt that Bryant's investment in women's sports, from women's soccer and surfing to the WNBA and college hoops, inspired other sports fans to watch and support female athletes. I'm certain that his special relationship with Gigi -- and his insistence that he didn't need a son to carry on the Bryant athlete genes -- motivated other fathers to bond with their daughters over sports.
The joy and inspiration that Bryant offered so many makes it easy to prioritize the cinematic arc of his redemption tale over the uncomfortable reality of his complicated legacy. We watched him grow up. We felt like we knew him. We know very little about the woman he allegedly raped. For many, the realities of her life are inconvenient speed bumps in the telling of a basketball legend's story. But we must include the totality of Bryant's life if we seek to remember him as a person and not just a résumé.
We do too much mythologizing in sport. Athletes are invincible, games are war, wins are moral currency, and the greatest among us are gods who will never be forgotten. But life is not made up of simply heroes and villains, good and evil. Sometimes -- often -- people can be both. "You have to understand the fact that we're human," Bryant told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne during a 2016 interview about the end of his basketball career. "We all say s--- that we shouldn't say. We all do things we shouldn't do. We all are angels. We are all devils."
On the night of June 30, 2003, while in Colorado for knee surgery, Bryant asked a 19-year-old concierge at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Edwards for a tour of the hotel. He, according to reports, invited her back to his room and, according to the woman, groped her, grabbed her neck to prevent her from leaving, turned her around, pushed her against a chair and raped her.
According to the police transcript of an interview taken with her the following day, she said that she said "no" several times and that he repeatedly said, "You're not going to tell anyone, right?" She told a bellman friend at the hotel immediately after the incident and reported it to the police the next day. A hospital exam revealed tears in her vaginal wall and a bruise on her neck. There was blood on her underwear and Bryant's shirt.
The woman told the police that Bryant raped her. Bryant told authorities they had consensual sex, despite his not explicitly asking for consent. On July 18, Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault, potentially facing four years to life in prison, if convicted.
As is often the case with sexual assault accusations, the defense of Bryant was rooted in attacks on the alleged victim. At the preliminary hearing, Bryant's attorney, Pamela Mackey, used the woman's name six times despite court efforts to keep her anonymous, brought up her sexual history and mental health, and questioned her credibility. As sports journalist Lindsay Gibbs detailed in her reporting of the case, "[The woman] had friends, acquaintances, and even strangers accept money from the tabloids or gifts from television producers to tell stories -- some the truth with a spin to it, others outright lies. Photos of the woman were leaked and plastered all over magazines in the supermarket. Even the Eagle County court contributed to the onslaught by inadvertently making private court documents public."
The victim blaming was so damaging that the woman was hospitalized after the first day of the preliminary hearing. After 14 months of enduring public scrutiny, including death threats left on her home answering machine, she was "physically ill" as the trial approached and decided she no longer wanted to testify. Criminal charges were dropped, and a civil case was settled with a nondisclosure agreement that has prevented the woman from speaking about the incident. It's impossible to know how many people watched as this very high-profile case unfolded, saw the way this woman was treated and decided not to speak out about their own sexual assaults.
After the dismissal of the criminal case, Bryant issued a statement read in court by his attorney. It said, in part, "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
It's hard to reconcile that remembrance of things with the woman's claims that she was choked and physically blocked from leaving the room, but it's still worth noting how rare it is for an accused celebrity to acknowledge that anything untoward happened at all. That statement came after the case was dismissed, and there's no evidence that the court required Bryant's apology. Did the statement make things easier for the woman, give her some sort of closure, or did it stir up more anger and distress? Bryant faced criticism and lost sponsorships but went on to reestablish himself as a beloved superstar. How did the woman's life change?
What could have been
Three young girls were among those who died in Sunday's accident: Bryant's second-oldest daughter, Gigi, and two of her teammates at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester. The dreams their parents had for them, and they for themselves, died along with them. There is tremendous sadness in that unrealized potential, which included Gigi's hopes to play basketball at UConn and one day make it to the WNBA. Also lost were the gifts of the six adults on board: a trusted pilot, respected coaches, beloved parents and a former professional basketball player who had enjoyed just a few years of getting to be a devoted father of four, with the youngest born in June 2019.
Society often callously mourns what could have been for men accused of sexual assault, ignoring the lasting effects of their behavior on the women who have been affected. We don't know how the 2003 incident impacted the woman in Colorado -- or other survivors who watched how she was treated in that Eagle County courtroom and beyond. In the case of Bryant's death, there is certainly a feeling that he was destined for more great things, as a storyteller, coach and dad, but I wonder if his future might also have held a more meaningful and honest look at what happened in Colorado.
Bryant showed the capacity to evolve and change many times, including his making good on a vow to advocate for LGBTQ rights following an incident in 2011 in which he called an official a "f---ing f----t." He was excoriated by many for his initial thoughts on Trayvon Martin's death, but then he spent time learning about the case and eventually apologized to Martin's family, spoke at a rally in his honor and continued to engage in activism around the wrongful deaths of people of color. Without knowing what was truly in Bryant's heart, I want to believe that his oft-stated goal of becoming a better person every day was genuine.
Some were made uncomfortable by Bryant's omnipresence in women's sports, questioning the authenticity of his post-retirement persona. In March of last year, Toronto Star columnist Morgan Campbell wrote of Bryant's appearance in an ESPN ad for the women's NCAA basketball tournament that it's "logical to question whether a famously selfish basketball player -- a man once accused of sexual assault -- is the ideal male cheerleader for the women's game, and whether the TV spot is actually a brand-building exercise for Bryant as he polishes his post-retirement public image."
Campbell and others wondered whether Bryant's involvement in women's sports was not solely about bonding with his daughters or respecting the athletes he supported but also a ploy to help change his public narrative. And I suppose there's nothing wrong with that -- if the change is real. Isn't it only human to hope that people recognize who you are now and not who you were before? At the same time, it would have been easier to trust Bryant's motives if he had been explicit in his growth and transparent in addressing the 2003 incident.
Instead, the nondisclosure agreement has been upheld when outlets requested comment from the woman, and Bryant refused to answer questions about the incident as recently as November 2018, when he was interviewed for a lengthy Washington Post profile. Bryant took one big step in admitting to wrongdoing in his apology statement. Imagine the role he could have played in redefining how fans, the media and the public in general handle sexual assault accusations if he had chosen to speak out about the case later in his life.
Neither time nor death can earn you salvation. What can? The hard, messy work of reconciling your actions and how they've affected others. The uncomfortable task of seeking forgiveness and proving you've earned it. We might never know if Bryant got the chance to do that. He's gone far too soon, at 41 years old. And so we're left to grapple with the complicated legacy he leaves behind. To argue with one another about the fairness of an honest retrospective. To decide for ourselves whether to remember the man he was or just the man we wanted him to be.