There’s been a lot of much-needed discussion over the last few weeks about the way Black men have mourned the deaths of Kobe and Gigi Bryant. We have outwardly expressed hurt and sadness with honesty and sincerity all in the hope of healing from a pain we haven’t exactly been equipped with understanding. We’ve seen our heroes weep over Bryant. Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and Tracy McGrady are just a few of the Black men we’ve watched cope with the loss of a dear friend in real-time. Our own barbers, pickup teammates and best friends have called and texted about their emotions while searching for ways to get over it all. We’ve lashed out. We’ve been angry. Confused. Incredulous. Everything.
Monday was supposed to be the culmination of those emotions — yet another Staples Center public memorial for a beloved Black figure gone too soon. The event ended with speeches from Michael Jordan and Shaq, whose closing jokes reminded us that it’s also okay for Black men to smile again. And it was those smiles that acted as the therapy we’ve been desperately seeking.
We didn’t really know what to expect when the live streams started. We didn’t get a run of show to give us any hint about what was coming. The memorial opened with a mesmerizing performance by Beyoncé, a tribute by Alicia Keys and a brave, heart-wrenching eulogy by Vanessa Bryant. To be honest, I didn’t watch those parts and had no intention of watching much of the memorial. I just wasn’t mentally prepared to deal with it all. I was practicing self-care and avoiding it all.
But then I saw that Michael Jordan was going to speak and I just felt compelled to hear him — partly out of my fandom of Mike and the stories he might tell about Kobe, but also because I just couldn’t believe this is where we were. It just didn’t seem real that Michael Jordan would be eulogizing Kobe Bryant. That sentence doesn’t seem real. It feels like reality bending onto itself.
Jordan’s speech was his latest great moment under pressure. The GOAT had been known for his ability to rise to any occasion, bringing out his best self when his back was against the wall. On Monday, with the world’s eyes on him, Jordan gave a gracious, honest and loving tribute to his ‘little brother.” The highlight and the most talked-about moment were Jordan making an off-the-cuff joke about how his tears would give birth to a new Jordan crying meme — the viral, often photoshopped picture that came from his 2009 Hall Of Fame speech. The joke was pitch-perfect, expertly timed and lifted the tension from the Staples Center. There was a collective calm that fell over the arena after that joke. Like it was okay to remember what our lives were like when we spent every day joking about Jordan and arguing over Kobe’s status as a great.
About 15 minutes later, Shaq took the stage and solemnly powered through his tribute. The highlight of his speech came from a story about how Kobe wouldn’t pass the ball. Shaq told Kobe once that there is no “I in ‘team’” and Kobe shot back, “but there’s a ‘m-e’ in that motherfucker!’” The joke, again, created more raucous laughter from the crowd.
Hearing the crowd laugh was therapeutic, but it was what the cameras did during Shaq’s and Jordan’s jokes that felt like real healing. When Jordan made his joke, the camera cut to Stephen Curry, who was letting out a true guffaw, hunched over with his shoulders bouncing up and down. When Shaq made his joke, the camera cut to Magic Johnson, who was leaned over in his chair, and Dwyane Wade, whose face was beaming such that his wide shades couldn’t contain it. Both moments felt like a release. It felt like the first time we’d seen Black men laughing in weeks. It felt like we were all laughing together in a way we hadn’t since we heard the news of the tragedy.
There’s just something about the way Black men smile. The way we unburden ourselves from the weight of the day to allow happiness to bombard the world that doesn’t want us to feel these emotions. There’s also something special about those particular Black men shown laughing. Jordan, O’Neal, Wade, Magic and Curry are all renowned for their smiles. In fact, a large part of the business empires those men created were predicated on the magnetism of their smiles. Shaq, the affable giant. Jordan, the perfect laugh that highlighted every commercial from the 90s. Magic whose smile lit up the league and made it an international phenomenon. Wade, the cool, collected friend. Curry, the babyface. They’ve been known to smile in ways that made us love them and what they represented. We hadn’t seen their happiness in a while. Seeing them smile reminded us of how much they have been part of our everyday lives. The laughter and happiness made me feel like smiling could be normal again.
Smiling felt like healing.
A day later, I feel like the communal smiles we experienced at the memorial can be the next phase of our mourning. Sometimes sadness can be quicksand. Getting out can feel impossible. And while it’s been important for us to recognize and feel our sadness with honesty and love, the smiling can be next. We can smile through our heaviness, and encourage other Black men to do the same. That can be one of the beautiful legacies of Kobe Bryant’s memorial.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.