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Not to be forgotten, Kobe Bryant was a black man

Bryant’s blackness was a source of contention and debate during his career

The death of Kobe Bryant reminded us of who the NBA legend was both as a professional athlete and as a man. He meant many things to many people during his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers and his three years as a storyteller and businessman. But not to be forgotten: Bryant was a black man.

From how he played to how he dressed to what he meant to a large population of black basketball fans, Bryant has always been a black man since he began his professional career. Perhaps that should go without saying. But as the world continues to mourn, it’s something worth remembering. Because Bryant’s blackness has been a source of contention and debate ever since he was a high school phenom in the Philadelphia area.

Bryant’s father, Joe, told The New York Times in 1996 that his son was “not a stereotypical black kid from an urban setting.” Bryant, his father added, had both his parents, two older sisters in college, good grades at a “good suburban school,” and a “kind of sophistication.”

Much was made of the fact that Bryant grew up in suburban Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, rather than the more rugged Philadelphia. Actually, a highway is what separated the two areas. Yet Bryant had the stigma of both living in the suburbs and attending a suburban high school rather than one of the schools in the Philadelphia Public League.

“People said he was out there in the suburbs playing against white boys,” said Anthony Gilbert, a longtime Philadelphia journalist who has known the Bryant family since 1994. But Bryant was also hooping in the city, in West Philadelphia, at the Sonny Hill League amateur tournaments at Temple University, where Rasheed Wallace and Alvin Williams, among others, cut their teeth.

“We would practice and he would say, ‘Tell me I don’t play in a public league. Come on, guard me; tell me I don’t play in a public league,’ ” Gilbert said.

But coming into the post-Michael Jordan NBA in 1996 and coming of age in the early 2000s, Bryant became the antithesis to the league’s new, brash, hip-hop era. He was considered “clean-cut” and “handsome” by marketers and media members (read: white people) compared with other NBA players of the time, most notably the cornrowed and heavily tattooed Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson.

Kobe Bryant (left) greets Allen Iverson (right) before his jersey retirement ceremony on Dec. 18, 2017, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Todd Boyd, a longtime professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2003 that, compared with Iverson, Bryant “defies the perceived ghetto stereotype of most NBA players and that has often caused Bryant to function as the league’s ‘de facto white man.’ ”

The Los Angeles Daily News wrote in December 1997, “He bears none of the tattoos and gold jewelry that so many of his peers wear, ostensibly to accent their individuality.”

Bryant grew out an Afro during his second season with the Lakers, but that hairstyle choice was more a nod to players from the ’60s and ’70s, specifically San Antonio Spurs legend Artis Gilmore, than any radical, raised-fist endorsement of the Black Power movement.

While Bryant dabbled in hip-hop like Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant’s lyrics were more early Black Eyed Peas than N.W.A. And reporters emphasized Bryant’s incorporation of the Italian language into his music to separate him from the other athlete-rappers. (Even though Philadelphia Magazine published the lyrics to one of Bryant’s songs, “Murder to All Emcees,” in 1998 that went like this: “I play the cut calmly … switch my weapon off safety … execution-style, if a n—- won’t turn and face me.”)

Bryant was made out to be different from the other black people around him by either those close to him or those at a distance.

“They [reporters] just didn’t do their due diligence as far as respecting him as an individual and respecting our culture as being something more than monolithic,” said longtime basketball writer Scoop Jackson, who currently works at ESPN. “They have this belief, especially when it deals with basketball, that we are of one kind … one life, one mold. That’s it. It can’t be anything else.

“So they look at us as singular n—-s; all of our backgrounds have to be the same: ‘Y’all all come from the projects. You all are all uneducated.’ ”

While all of this might have helped Bryant’s popularity among white Americans, that adoration was a bit more complicated for African Americans. For some, Bryant wasn’t black enough. He didn’t marry a black woman. His Afro was too nappy. He, like Jordan, didn’t speak out on social issues. He was a sellout. Bryant’s class status separated him from other black superstars early in his career; some NBA players said they couldn’t relate to Bryant because of his upbringing as both a suburban kid and the son of an NBA player, according to a 2012 Washington Post story. Philadelphians accepted Iverson as their own over Bryant despite Iverson growing up 300 miles away in Hampton, Virginia.

Bryant never outwardly acknowledged the questions about his blackness, but it was clear he was aware of his reputation.

“He would always tell me,” Gilbert said, ” ‘Hey, make sure you let people know that everything that people see on the court and everything that people hate about the way I play, it’s all the city of Philadelphia. People say whatever they want, but I’m them, and this is what I do.’ ”

Bryant’s perception among segments of black and white people, however, seemed to switch in the summer of 2003. On the night of June 30, at a hotel in Eagle County, Colorado, Bryant allegedly sexually assaulted a 19-year-old white woman who worked at the front desk of the hotel.

Within a month of Bryant’s arrest, Sports Illustrated placed Bryant’s mugshot on its cover with “KOBE BRYANT ACCUSED” in big white text. The implied message – an imposing black man “ACCUSED” of raping a white woman – was clear, no matter Bryant’s inevitable guilt or innocence. Family-oriented companies McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and the maker of Nutella all dropped Bryant as a spokesman. Nike initially distanced itself from Bryant, but he remained a client until his death.

Some black Americans, on the other hand, took the allegation as an opportunity to rally around yet another aggrieved black man supposedly wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Bryant was the heir apparent to Jordan before his trial; after it he became the infamous Black Mamba who no longer shook hands or kissed babies. For some, it’s reasonable to believe Bryant truly became black after being accused of a heinous sex crime against a white woman, and thus Bryant needed to be protected, maybe overprotected.

Former ESPN commentator Skip Bayless, who is white, once said Bryant didn’t have enough “edge” before Colorado; after the case, Bayless said, Bryant had a “sizzle.” (To be clear, the skepticism of Bryant’s “downness” persisted; in 2013, NFL legend Jim Brown said Bryant was “somewhat confused about [black] culture because he was brought up in another country,” and in The Undefeated’s 2017 fan poll, Bryant wasn’t voted among the top 50 greatest black athletes of all time.)

Taking a stance on social issues isn’t a measure of one’s blackness, but in his later years, Bryant appeared more comfortable speaking out on issues that affect African Americans.

After the killing of an unarmed New York black man, Eric Garner, by a white plainclothes police officer, Bryant joined a collection of NBA players in wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during pregame warm-ups. In retirement, he inserted himself into the controversial debate surrounding former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, telling the Hollywood Reporter that he would have knelt during the national anthem had he still been an active NBA player.

After initially slipping up and saying he didn’t have a reaction to the 2012 murder of teenager Trayvon Martin “just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African American,” Bryant corrected himself by meeting with Martin’s parents and later tweeting, “The system enables young black men to be killed behind the mask of law” after Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted for the shooting death of Mike Brown, an 18-year-old black man.

Etan Thomas, who played in the NBA from 2001 to 2011 and is now a published author, poet and activist, told a story of how Emerald Garner, one of the surviving children of Eric Garner, recently praised Bryant and other NBA players for the risk they took in publicly humanizing her father and acknowledging that what happened to him was wrong.

“People minimize the impact that an athlete such as Kobe wearing a T-shirt could have,” Etan Thomas said. “All they have to do is ask someone like Emerald Garner what it meant to her and they would have their answer.”

In recent years, the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation donated more than $1 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

Damion Thomas, NMAAHC’s sports curator, doesn’t believe that Bryant was ever disengaged when it came to social issues; instead he believes Bryant methodically chose his spots to lend his name to.

“There are some athletes who are more noted for their contributions and were more noted for the battles that they fought,” Damion Thomas said. “But then there are also other athletes who sort of play a supporting role for those athletes then and who also do what they can to drive attention to the causes that matter to them.

“I would not say that Kobe shied away from social issues; he was someone who was willing to use his platform when he thought most effective.”

Roland Martin, a political commentator and author who heavily criticized Bryant after the latter’s comments on the Trayvon Martin case in 2014, which led to an impromptu phone call from the basketball star, agrees that Bryant, like many star athletes of today, was cognizant of issues around him, but due to the rigors of his profession didn’t feel educated enough to be the face of activism.

“I think for a lot of people who want athletes to do all of these things without realizing that they also have this other athletic pursuit, which is their job,” Martin said. “And it’s very easy to say, ‘Hey, you should be doing this, this and this.’ [But] a lot of times people don’t think about it in those terms, and they have to give people leeway to come into their own … when it comes to addressing certain issues.”

Bryant had come into his own in many ways. But what had been lost from the time he was coming of age in Philadelphia to the later stages of his NBA career was that his blackness was always there. One can be clean-cut or wear cornrows. One can be from the ‘hood or live a privileged life in the suburbs. One can take a knee or stand.

Bryant, as it became clear over the nearly 25 years he was in the public eye, was all of those things wrapped up into one. No matter one’s definition of it, Kobe Bryant was a black man.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"