One of the main questions that have gone unanswered since basketball icon Kobe Bryant was killed in a tragic helicopter crash was when his funeral would take place. Makeshift memorials have popped up all over the country, underscoring how eager people have been to honor the 41-year-old NBA legend who Magic Johnson dubbed in death as the greatest player in Los Angeles Lakers history.
The timing of his death, which happened on Sunday alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other passengers in that fateful helicopter, was not insignificant as it came about one week before Black History Month, during which — presumably — his funeral would be held. And while Bryant’s role in the Black community has been the topic of heavy scrutiny in his life as well as death, his historical impact on the game of basketball — and beyond — cannot be denied.
As of Saturday afternoon, no details had been announced about plans for Bryant’s funeral. But chances are it will take place in Los Angeles, where Bryant called home for the last 24 years since being drafted into the NBA straight from high school. That fact was just one of the many historical aspects of his amazing basketball career.
Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star, retired as the first player in league history to play at least 20 seasons with a single franchise — a record that doesn’t seem like it will ever be threatened considering the current climate of players who regularly switch teams in search of a bigger payday. He is also the only player in NBA history to have two jerseys retired by the same team.
But his history-making doesn’t end there. The Philadelphia Tribune reminded readers that Bryant retired in 2016 as the Lakers’ all-time leader in regular-season games played, points scored (even more than the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), three-pointers made, steals (and free throws made. He has also made Lakers history by playing in the most playoffs games, scored the most playoffs points and made the most three-pointers and free throws in the playoffs. Aside from that, he was the youngest person in NBA history when he was drafted, another record that has stood the test of time.
Bryant also left the NBA in spectacularly historical fashion: by scoring 60 points in his final game, the most ever in any player’s final NBA game.
The history-making is not restricted to the NBA, either, since he left high school as the all-time leading scorer in Southeastern Pennsylvania history.
Bryant left a historic legacy off the court, as well. In 2018, he became the first Black person to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
Bryant was also credited with playing a major funding role with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to which his Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation charity donated at least $1 million.
And while that was a notable contribution literally to Black history, Bryant left behind a complicated legacy when it came to the Black community that has been glossed over in his death. Some of the responses following his death show that it won’t soon be forgotten.
That includes the fallout from his rape accusation in 2003 that resulted in his subsequent admission to the encounter with a young white woman. The episode left Bryant branded in part as a sellout, something that was documented by Nas on his 2004 song, “These Are Our Heroes” from an album entitled, “Nigger.” The rapper called him everything from “Toby” — a “Roots”-inspired cinematic metaphor that questioned Bryant’s knowledge of his Black self — to a “stupid spoof” who liked “abusin’ white [women].”
While the rape charges were ultimately dropped, they were never forgotten, as shown by the Washington Post reporter who was suspended from her job for tweeting a link to an article about the alleged rape immediately following Bryant’s death. It brought attention to the slippery slope that the media was navigating in covering Bryant’s death and the larger legacy he left behind.
Bryant was also on record once as criticizing a teammate for playing “like a light-skinned dude,” a comment seen as a colorist slight that hinted at how he viewed Black people. He also came across as indifferent and reluctant to assign a racial component to the high-profile shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer who racially profiled the 17-year-old under false pretenses in 2012.
“I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American,” Bryant told the New Yorker in 2014. “That argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well, we’ve progressed as a society, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.”
That response prompted a short-lived boycott of Bryant’s products like the sales of his popular jerseys and sneakers.
Bryant wasn’t nearly as tone-deaf as some of his critics would like for some to believe, though. That was clear after the Los Angeles Times reported that he made sure he and his Lakers teammates wore “I can’t breathe” tee-shirts to memorialize the final words of Eric Garner, the unarmed Black man killed by the NYPD using an illegal chokehold on a viral video in 2014.
Bryant vehemently defended kneeling during an interview with the Undefeated, saying in part that the American flag represents the “ability to speak. The ability to voice your opinion. And everybody is entitled to that. So everybody getting up in arms about it, they’re certainly in their right to do that, as we’re certainly in our right to protest — peacefully, at that.”