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Trying to understand Kobe Bryant's complicated legacy a year after his death

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 1/22/2021 Jeff Pearlman, Special for USA TODAY
Kobe Bryant poses for a portrait inside of his office in Costa Mesa, Calif. on Jan. 17, 2020. Bryant, one of the greatest NBA players in history, is building an impressive resume in his post-basketball career, including winning an Academy Award. © Harrison Hill, USA TODAY Kobe Bryant poses for a portrait inside of his office in Costa Mesa, Calif. on Jan. 17, 2020. Bryant, one of the greatest NBA players in history, is building an impressive resume in his post-basketball career, including winning an Academy Award.

USA TODAY Sports is marking the first anniversary of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others with a six-day series of stories, photos and videos looking back at the Lakers legend and the aftermath of his death.

Enough time has passed.

I know … I know. Who’s to say? Who is the arbiter of such a decision? Who is the official life historian in charge of deciding when we can speak truthfully of a deceased human being’s complicated legacy?

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I’m not sure.

But, for me, enough time has passed.

It has been nearly a year since Kobe Bryant and eight others died in an unthinkable helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas, California, and in the ensuing months we have (rightly, understandably, humanely) been reminded that the legendary Laker was an Academy Award winner, a #girldad, an entrepreneur, a youth coach, a visionary. We’ve discussed his five championship rings, his unrivaled work ethic, his unwillingness to take no for an answer. Kobe Bryant was a savvy businessman, a forward thinker, a Southern California staple and — one might argue — the most revered athlete in the Golden State’s history. He signed autographs without hesitation. He contributed to myriad charities. His smile rivaled Magic Johnson’s for sunny optimism, and his game was magnificently Jordan-esque.

But here’s the harsh reality: If we want history to matter, and we want our children and grandchildren to understand the nuances of life, we must ultimately be honest and forthright when unspooling the stories of our heroes. That’s an across-the-board edict. From Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama to Marilyn Monroe and Taylor Swift to Babe Ruth and Walter Payton.

Which means, in the case of Kobe Bean Bryant, we require truthfulness.

Over the 2½ years I devoted to reporting and writing my latest book, “Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” I often found it difficult to warm to Bryant, who in 1996 went straight from high school to the NBA but left much of his maturation back in suburban Philadelphia.

On the one hand, he worked incredibly hard and sought (successfully, it turns out) to master his craft. Yet in the eight-year span I chronicled (1996-2004), Bryant was generally selfish, arrogant, indifferent and — to be blunt — cruel. He treated teammates like discarded pieces of old furniture and had little-to-no use for a veteran’s advice, wisdom, engagement.

Bryant went out of his way to make life hard for those aspiring Lakers most in need of kindness. Year after year, the young All-Star guard seemed to target the powerless undrafted rookies and on-the-fringe journeymen who came to training camp seeking work. “Kobe was such a bully,” Paul Shirley, a 2003 free agent forward from Iowa State, told me. “But in a sadistic way, not a good-natured, normal way.”

The stories are endless. Kobe challenging a rookie to a fight. Kobe mocking a fringe backup’s limited skills. Kobe demeaning another’s worth. And another’s worth. And another’s worth. He could be unambiguously mean, and one need not dig deeper than the 2003 training camp experience of a former Loyola Marymount standout named Pete Cornell, who happened to fall into Bryant’s sight line while drinking a Gatorade.

“Hey rook!” Bryant yelled. “Rook, you know I need a Gatorade! Grab me one!”

Cornell handed a 12-ounce bottle of red Gatorade to Bryant.

“Come on, rook,” Bryant barked. “I need a big bottle!”

Cornell shuffled back to the cooler and dug out a larger red. “Rook,” Bryant shouted, “You must not realize I only drink orange!”

On and on it went — a soul-sucking experience for Cornell (who, it should be mentioned, wasn’t actually a rookie) that ended only when Shaquille O’Neal, the team’s star center, barked from a nearby perch, “Yo, Kobe, chill the (expletive) out!”

We are told these things are not to be discussed. Not now. Not later. Not after a person dies. Never. While my book received positive reviews and feedback, there were plenty of social media outbursts over the perceived negatives. Why, I was asked, must we know all this? Why can’t we just enjoy the good?

And, of course, why do we need to continue to discuss Eagle, Colorado?

It’s the most damaging piece of the Kobe Bryant puzzle — the night of June 30, 2003, when he traveled east for knee surgery and checked into the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera. Once there, Bryant either invited the 19-year-old front desk clerk back to his hotel and raped her, or invited the 19-year-old front desk clerk back to his hotel and merely had sex with her. Whatever the case, the woman reached out to the police, and Bryant was arrested and charged with sexual assault. In researching “Three-Ring Circus,” I interviewed one of the lead detectives, as well as the district attorney — both of whom remain convinced that Bryant was guilty of rape and should have served serious time. (The accuser ultimately dropped the charges and received a confidential settlement from Bryant.) After deep diving into the details of the case, I find it hard to disagree with either of them.

But, weirdly, legacy is tricky, and learning the bad doesn’t always decay the good. Yes, Bryant could be difficult and cruel. Yes, Bryant may well have walked off a guilty man. But the Kobe Bryant who died at 41 was, by all accounts, a tremendous father and husband; a devoted youth basketball coach; a thinker with 1,000 ideas circulating through his mind.

And maybe, just maybe, that doesn’t happen without some of the arrogance and stupidity of his younger years.

Maybe Kobe Bryant needed to grow up before our eyes in order to fully grow up.

Pearlman is the author of “Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty" as well as several other best-selling sports books. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trying to understand Kobe Bryant's complicated legacy a year after his death

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