Peterson: The whole Kobe story
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? And where does it fit in the story of your life?
That’s basically the quandary journalists, commentators, late-night hosts and so many more grappled with this week in the aftermath of Sunday’s shocking news that retired NBA legend Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the seven other passengers onboard also were killed in a tragedy that instantly became the biggest news of the week, easily surpassing the bombshell revelations from John Bolton’s forthcoming book and updates on the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
A quick Google trends search ends any argument to the contrary.
But in the rush to eulogize Bryant, to capture his basketball brilliance, his legendary work ethic, his philanthropy, his devotion to his four daughters, his myriad successful creative ventures and his impact on a generation who grew up watching him, there was a nagging question.
What about that one thing? You know, that thing — the allegation from a 19-year-old woman in the summer of 2003 accusing the NBA superstar of rape.
It’s certainly a question that editors and reporters struggled with at the Vail Daily, given Bryant’s troubled legacy in Eagle County. It’s here, in our idyllic mountain valley, where Bryant, at 24, made the biggest mistake of his life, the one that nearly cost him his brilliant NBA career and his marriage — and did cost him millions of dollars.
Over the span of 14 long months, the Eagle County Justice Center became the center of the sensational media universe while Bryant’s high-powered defense team and the local district attorney waged a legal fight that some referred to as “The Pretrial of the Century.”
The charge was dismissed in Sept. 2004 after the accuser, who had been exposed and dragged through the mud by the tabloids after her name was repeatedly leaked, refused to testify.
Bryant issued a public apology to his accuser in which he stated, in part: “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.” He reached an undisclosed settlement with the woman more than a year later.
Given the tragic way that Bryant died, those editorial decisions about where to include — or not — the ugliest part of his public life became more scrutinized.
To be sure, most Kobe fans didn’t want to hear a single thing about it — and voiced their displeasure with hateful attacks directed at anyone who dared even bring it up.
Look no further than Felicia Sonmez, the Washington Post reporter who was suspended, then reinstated after she tweeted a link to a deeply reported 2016 Daily Beast piece that reexamined the evidence in the case in vivid detail.
An avalanche of vicious criticism and threats came crashing down on Sonmez.
At the Vail Daily, a similar backlash followed for leading Monday’s paper with a story that rehashed Bryant’s legal odyssey in Eagle County, sandwiched in the middle of a long Associated Press story about his life and legacy. The Eagle County portion of the story didn’t even come until the 15th paragraph — on the jump page, no less — but that, and the story’s secondary headline mentioning the case, was too much for some.
One reader, calling from a number outside Colorado, left two voicemails upbraiding the decision to bring up old allegations, before signing off with: “You have no souls, and I hope you rot in hell.”
More readers took issue with a story in Wednesday’s paper written by Randy Wyrick, who covered the case from start to finish, reflecting on those surreal 14 months.
The story, on Facebook, generated 117 comments, including “your paper works great for cage liner” and “very poor distasteful timing. Shame on you.”
But plenty of commenters applauded the decision to look back at the case, and to tell the whole story of Bryant’s very public life and not drift into straight hagiography.
“Not shameful at all, Vail Daily. Thank you,” wrote one reader. “The whole story needs to be heard and understood. Just because he was a great basketball player does not make him a hero. While alive he was accused of rape. The actual story of that sexual assault incident is very disturbing. Kobe’s actions were very disturbing. What happened to that woman was very disturbing.”
Yes, what did happen was very disturbing. That’s undeniable to anyone who has ever taken a serious look at the evidence that prosecutors planned to use against Bryant at trial.
What Bryant did after making the worst decision of his life was also telling. He never ran afoul of the law again, rescued his marriage and, by all accounts, devoted himself to his four daughters. He also never stopped being must-see TV on a basketball court, winning two more NBA titles, scoring 81 points in a single game — and 60 in his finale. And he hadn’t slowed down in retirement, winning an Oscar for a short film based on an essay he wrote and pouring himself into his Mamba Sports Foundation and its youth academy.
Those parts of his life story are essential in the telling of who Kobe Bryant was. Avoiding them would be just as dishonest as avoiding the worst chapter in his life.
Anything less would be bad journalism, inconvenient or not.
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org