THE HUTCHINSON REPORT
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
“Our responsibility is more than putting a ball in a basket.”
— Kobe Bryant
It’s hard to believe, but yes, it’s been one year since the death of Kobe Bryant. The pain of that is still very much there.
A year later, my two greatest enduring and life-affirming memories of Kobe Bryant are the same. And they have absolutely nothing to do with basketball.
My first memory is the mild but very pleasant surprise I had watching Bryant at a peace walk in July 2014. He walked and stood shoulder to shoulder with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. The occasion for the peace walk was the first anniversary of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was accused of killing Martin.
Bryant minced no words. He called out the criminal justice system for letting Zimmerman skip away scot free. The Zimmerman atrocity, though, to Bryant was a deeper sign of the terrible malaise in the criminal justice system that routinely demonizes and diminishes Black lives.
I, and other civil rights leaders and activists, can say that until the sky falls in. But a blast at the justice system coming from a superstar athlete in the heart of the African-American community on his home turf in Los Angeles carries real weight.
There’s another enduring memory I have of him. That’s when he ripped off his Laker jacket during pregame warmups at a game against the Sacramento Kings in December 2014. There it was, emblazoned on his black T-shirt, the words “I can’t breathe.” The “I” was Eric Garner, choked to death by a New York undercover cop in July 2014.
Millions saw and heard Garner scream those words as he writhed in the death grip of the officer while penned to the ground.
What was even more memorable about Bryant’s bold statement about racial injustice was that he felt strongly enough about the issue to get his other Laker teammates to don similar black T-shirts with Garner’s last words to the world etched on them.
Those enduring memories of Bryant had even greater meaning for me because they showed a young man who had undergone an almost total epiphany in terms of his growth and awareness of the at times literal life and death struggle for racial justice.
It’s important to say that because it wasn’t long before Bryant spoke out forcefully backing the fight for racial justice that he was lambasted from pillar to post by many Blacks, and that included a sharp reprimand from football great Jim Brown, about his supposed lack of blackness.
Keep in mind that Bryant got lots of raves from others for allegedly going against the alleged politically correct crowd by taking a contrarian position. But clearly, he thought hard about the criticism, and the heinous implications of the judicial travesty. He quickly reversed gear and called the verdict exactly what it was.
“Travon Martin was wronged. That’s my opinion and that’s what I believe the facts showed. The system did not work.”
When you really think about it, though, it really wasn’t terribly hard for Bryant to switch roles from basketball superstar Bryant to racial justice activist Bryant.
Despite his careful and cautious downplay of race during much of his playing career, for another swath of the public he was still a Black sports icon. The price a Black sports icon pays for resting on that high perch can be steep.
One misstep and he or she can become the instant poster child for all that’s allegedly wrong with celebrity, sport and society. Bryant got an early taste of what could happen when there’s even the tiniest slip. That was the charge against him of sexual assault in a small Colorado town in 2003. The case was ultimately dropped. But it was a harsh wake-up call.
Bryant was expected to move in the rarified air above the fray of human problems while raising society’s expectation of what’s good and wholesome. He was handsomely rewarded for fulfilling that fantasy. When players stray from that path think of Colin Kaepernick, whom, by the way, Bryant strongly backed and even embraced at a tennis match.
The other reason for caution by Bryant and others is his fame and fortune. Black superstars cause much media and public hurt when they supposedly betray the collective self-delusion of sports as pure and pristine. That stirs even greater jealousy and resentment.
That’s evident in the constant fan and sportswriter carping about how spoiled, pampered and overpaid men such as Bryant and other Black athletes supposedly are. The first hint of any bad behavior by them ignites a torrent of self-righteous columns and commentary on the supposed arrogant, above-the-law Black athlete.
Bryant well understood the harsh and glaring public and media fishbowl that he was cast in. But in the end, he did the right thing and cast his stardom, celebrity status and revered sports name with the Trayvon Martins of the world and the fight for racial justice.
That is the Kobe Bryant I choose to remember.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.