When some people leave us too soon, it can have a larger-than-life impact. That was certainly true for Kobe Bryant.
It’s not just the “too soon” part. To make that kind of impact, the departed also had to touch a nerve in those who were watching them long before their passing. That nerve can be triggered by struggles they shared with the rest of us whether they wanted to or not. In Bryant's case, it was a mix of “take it or leave it” and “not wanting you to see what was really going on.”
Like a tease that kept us looking so we could finally figure him out.
I met Kobe Bryant like almost everybody else in Philadelphia did. He was a phenomenon on the basketball court of Lower Merion High School, a few miles away. Before he made his splash there, it was a public school more noteworthy for graduates headed to Stanford or the Ivy League. Oh, and then Bryant took Brandy—a teen singing sensation—to his prom. He wasn’t just the best high school basketball player in the country any more; he was saying "Here I am" in other ways too. So yes, he pulled me in and I've been watching right down to today.
Earlier posts here have profiled others I couldn’t ignore (like Oprah) and those who’d said things or done things that needed to be noticed too (like when my ethics teacher, Margaret Farley, faced down the Church, when author Neil Gaiman become the story he was telling, and when poet Philip Levine extolled the virtues of his life at work). I’ve also tried to understand how Lance Armstrong, Brett Kavanaugh and former Missouri governor Eric Greitens reacted--and really how any of us might react--when facing pressure from onlookers about our personal conduct when all we really want to do is keep our jobs..
What fascinated about Kobe was the effort he’d made to reconcile some of his best and worst motivations on the court and when he was off it. His was not only a very public struggle, it was also—in the end—how much he wanted to share "his way out" of that struggle with the rest of us.
The contest between his best and his worst tendencies was a theme in most Kobe Bryant post mortems. What seemed like his selfish behavior on the court clashed with his teammates (perhaps, most notably, with fellow Laker superstar Shaquille O’Neal). After his first championship seasons, he was accused of rape (a charge he never publically denied) but he toughed his way through it and back to a second set of career highs before finally retiring in 2016.
Bryant was interviewed on HBO's “Real Sports” about the withering comments that others had made about his conduct as a basketball player and as a man. He straightforwardly acknowledged his worst tendencies, having already named them after a particularly venomous snake in Quentin Tarrantino’s movie Kill Bill. Bryant called his bad side “Black Mamba” and the game his “outlet for venting” his dark and sometimes lethal side.
As I listened to himtalking about it I didn’t hear any pride in the association, more the utility of naming something that he didn’t know what to do with—beyond plugging its negative energy into the effort he'd have to make to dig himself out of the next hole. Which, of course, he did in terms of the championship seasons that followed the rape controversy, including the farewell basketball tour that culminated here, in Philadelphia, with the crowds “hugging,” in his words, “a kid who’s not used to being hugged.”
But confronting Black Mamba had a half-life beyond Bryant's owning the label and channeling its toxic drives into something that seemed more productive. The same “Real Sports” segment that had him looking back on sexual assault allegations and poor teamwork also had him looking ahead. This part of the interview showed that much of the story about his inner turmoil and how to turn it into something more than points on a scoreboard still needed telling.
Bryant said he wanted his next job to be “one of the world’s next, great storytellers,” following in the footsteps of Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, J.K. Rawlings and John Williams, whose pictures line the walls of the room where he worked during the day and in the long hours when he couldn’t sleep at night. In their movies, tech innovations, novels and film scores, each of these storytellers had grappled with the struggles between good and evil in their characters and, in Job’s case at least, within himself.
As a highly marketable “product,” Bryant had already worked with Nike and others on storytelling-ad campaigns, including one called Hero/Villain (“Channel the villain. Unleash the hero”) whose concepts, words and music he says were “all his.” He tells his interviewer that he wants to make books, movies, even video games where the “stories will come from me” and tell everyone that we're more than what we've done already. They’d be about an introvert’s unleashing of the hero that few had seen, though many suspected, and that Kobe Bryant was convinced was still in there, needing to find a way out. They'd be universal stories about atonement and eventually, redemption.
A shrine made mostly of candles, flowers and basketballs
Writing and storytelling are common ways to puzzle through the contradictions that keep tearing one’s insides apart. I’m sorry that I didn’t get to experience more of Bryant’s stories, but I was hardly the only one.
While I was with my kids in grief group this week (helping them in the aftermath of losing a caregiver), several of the adults who are caring for them now were in a different room talking about their own sense of loss and (as it turned out) what Kobe Bryant’s family must also experiencing. As I learned later, each of them agreed to write letters to Kobe’s wife or or to one of his surviving children with words of consolation that came out of their own time grieving. They identified with what he’d meant to them and still promised. They wanted to say that his death had not been the last word of the story that he’d been telling them either.
This will be a long good-bye.
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(A brief shifting of gears before signing off.)
Here and in next week’s post I'll be ending on a practical note that dovetails with a frequent topic here: the surveillance of our on-line activities, and, in particular, the collection and sale of our personal information by platforms like Facebook, Google and the companies that work with them and others as data brokers.
On this page, I’ve usually been registering my concern about how our behavioral information is being used to manipulate us on-line and what that means for our autonomous decision-making, whether it’s to buy a product, choose a candidate to support, or be alarmed about the new coronavirus. This week and next, I’ll be offering a couple of “first steps” that you can take (and that I’ve also taken) if you’re concerned about it.
Under considerable duress, Facebook has recently offered its users a way to minimize the connection between the personal information that will still be collected about you and your actual identity (that is, identifiers like your name, your home or IP address). In other words, these steps will hopefully anonymize (or render anonymous) your personal information as it passes between Facebook and others who are profiting from its sale today.
If Facebook’s representations are to be believed (a whole other matter), by taking the following steps you should be able not only to identify some of the third-parties (beyond Facebook itself ) who are tracking you, but also anonymize your current and future data as it moves between Facebook and them.
As I was, you will either be surprised by how many “strangers” are tracking you or by how few, as well as by the identities of some of them. (For example, I am being tracked by my grocery store, which is owned by grocery giant Albertsons.) These steps should take your most personal identifiers off of your behavioral and other data—at least when it comes to Facebook.
On your desktop web browser: go to your Facebook page and from the menu bar, click Settings. Then click “Your Facebook Information” and click “Off-Facebook Activity.”
Once you’re in the “Off-Facebook Activity” tool you’ll see a list of all the apps and websites sending data to Facebook about you. Click any item on this list to find out more information about who is sending your data to Facebook.
Under the “What You Can Do” header on the page, click “Clear History.” This will disconnect your off-Facebook activity history from your account. However, those same apps and websites will still send data to Facebook.
If you want to disable any and all future off-Facebook activity from being associated with your account, click the “More Options” header and then select “Manage Future Activity.” On the Manage Future Activity screen toogle the “Future Off-Facebook Activity” switch to OFF (white) then confirm your selection by clicking the “Turn Off” button.
These steps won't stop all on-line surveillance of your activities, but greater anonymity on Facebook is a good place to start. Drop me a line with what you discover about your trackers or other reactions that you have. Next week, I’ll provide similar steps regarding the monitoring and capture of personal data around our use of Google's search engine.
See you next Sunday.
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