With Kobe Bryant's jerseys retired, three big questions about Lakers icon remain

Kobe Bryant existed outside the normal parameters of an NBA superstar. His jersey retirement ceremony is a prime example, as he will see both No. 8 and 24 lifted high into the rafters. Bryant was more of a cult figure for fans, analysts and even his opponents throughout his career. You just don’t see this kind of reaction for every athlete.

But for all the 20 seasons we watched him play, the five championships we watched him win and the 33,643 points we watched him score, big questions about Bryant remain unanswered because his image is one that doesn’t fit neatly in the world of black and white, purple and gold, No. 8 or 24. What he did both on and off the floor sparks debate about what he was and how he will be regarded over time. 

MORE: Sports world salutes Kobe Bryant

The three questions below don’t encapsulate all of Bryant, but they cover enough ground to make them worth exploring.

1. Where does Kobe Bryant rank among the greatest NBA players of all time?

The initial instinct would be to place Bryant in the top 10. How can you leave out the third-highest scorer in NBA history? But consider the names here (in no particular order): Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Moses Malone, Julius Erving and so on. When all is said and done, will players like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have a case over Bryant? Where does Bryant fit?

The larger issue might be how Bryant’s game has aged and how we will evaluate him down the road. For every game-winner or scoring outburst, someone will be quick to point out Bryant’s lack of efficiency (he never shot above 47 percent from the field in his career) and volume shooting (he averaged 20 or more field goal attempts per game in 13 of his 20 seasons). There’s also the matter of whether Bryant was really clutch, and a 6-of-24 effort in his last NBA Finals game doesn’t help his case.

And yet, Bryant was capable of hitting shots that appeared to be impossible. He could get buckets with the best of them, and it’s possible you won’t see an 81-point game or the stretch that he had in January 2006 ever again.

Bryant may have hit the perfect time to enter and leave the game. Had he arrived on the scene later, he would have been even more roundly criticized for long, contested jumpers and low true shooting percentages. It’s what makes current players like Russell Westbrook and DeMar DeRozan so polarizing, as they find their success in a very non-Warriors way. 

It’s probably hard enough to figure out where Bryant lands among the greatest Lakers of all time. Those who remember how Bryant made them feel watching the game will likely put him too high, and the analytics-focused folks will lean too low. 

2. Did Kobe Bryant commit a crime that night in Colorado?

This is a sharp turn from his playing career, and Lakers fans will be quick to dismiss this question, but it is one that should not be ignored.

Bryant was accused of rape after a 19-year-old concierge at a Colorado hotel alleged Bryant sexually assaulted her on June 30, 2003. Bryant admitted to committing adultery but made it clear any sexual activity was consensual. The case has been largely remembered for the $4 million ring some speculated Bryant used as a way to apologize to his wife, Vanessa, though it was reported he had commissioned the ring two weeks before any incident took place. But it should be remembered for the disturbing details of how Bryant’s defense team and the public dealt with the accuser.

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The young woman was painted as someone who was sexually active and unstable, someone looking to find fame. USA Today’s Mark Shaw wrote at the time the case was a “travesty of justice” and “more about a celebrity on trial than a woman accusing someone of raping her.” (Derrick Rose’s defense team used much the same playbook in 2016.) With her identity and questions about her sexual history and mental state out in the open largely because of the intense media coverage, the woman informed the court she was unwilling to testify days before the trial was set to begin in 2004, and all charges against Bryant were dismissed. A civil suit was settled in 2005.

Just as concerning was this portion of Bryant’s apology, which was read in court by his attorney:

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

We may never know what actually happened in that hotel room 14 years ago, but Bryant and the woman deserved a fair trial in a court of law. That simply didn’t happen. A dark cloud hangs over this case, and not addressing the issues here as part of the larger picture of Bryant is at the very least disingenuous.

(For complete breakdowns of Bryant’s rape case from 2003, read these in-depth pieces from ThinkProgress and The Daily Beast.)

3. What is Kobe Bryant’s ultimate legacy?

And this is where it all ends up. How do we remember Bryant? As his jersey retirement ceremony approaches, you may see your social media timelines littered with old highlights, funny GIFs and quotes about “Mamba Mentality.” You might also scroll past the occasional mention of what happened in 2003. 

As his athletic peers have said, he was a competitive, obsessed a—hole. He was a champion, a ruthless competitor, a “Black Mamba,” a man accused of sexual assault. 

Everything that happened over the course of Bryant’s career is caught up in a web and difficult to separate. But perhaps pulling things apart is the wrong move.

Kobe was everything. He was all of it. It’s not simple, but maybe that’s the answer.

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