On Sunday if you were on Twitter you may have noticed your timeline become overwhelmed with tributes to Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a basketball superstar who died at age 41 alongside his 13 year old daughter in a helicopter crash. Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas, Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner, Carly Patterson, Miss Val, MyKayla Skinner, Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd, Maggie Nichols, Kathy Johnson, Nastia Liukin, and Ragan Smith all noted the passing on Twitter. Madison Kocian called him “one of my biggest idols.” Some uploaded pictures they had taken with Kobe, others wrote out messages like Madison. Those who did neither reweeted the messages of their fellow gymnasts.
Kobe Bryant was something of a gymnastics patron, if not its most famous fan. From time to time he attended various gymnastics meets. Most notably he was in the stands for the 2012 Olympics and attended the 2016 Olympic trials. When interviewed, he would speak of the sport saying:
“For the life of me I cannot figure out how in the world they walk, jump and back flip on the balance beam. Just watching them do it scares … me.”
There are few sports stars who have ever achieved Kobe levels fame. On this blog I have often pointed out how Nadia is one of the few athletes who fans know on a first name basis. Kobe was one of those few examples. He was a global superstar in an era where basketball had grown to become much more than an American sport. It could be argued it is the most successful worldwide sport after soccer.
Bryant’s fame was so enormous that when he randomly showed up to a gymnastics competition, people took note. Television producers would have the cameras turned on Kobe so viewers would know he was there. Editors of prominent websites would find “Kobe appears at gymnastics trials” as relevant enough to have someone write an article about it. When gymnastics had even casual support from Kobe, it helped widen the way the media covered the sport.
Kobe was loved for his athleticism, his work ethic, and his determination. It was those traits that made an entire generation of American children grow up admiring Kobe as the style of athlete to aspire to be. After a dominant athletic career he would later emerge as a mentor to others. Dozens, if not hundreds of prominent athletes would reference Kobe as a key mentor. Among them, his fellow 2008 Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin.
Kobe and his fellow NBA players are so famous, that they typically don’t reside in the Olympic Village at an Olympic Games. Part of the reason is such acclaimed players need more luxurious accommodations. Another part of the reason is they are so famous they would be pestered for autographs all throughout the Olympic Village.
But Kobe never let that get to his head. He was an advocate for not just gymnastics, but supported numerous other Olympic sports in a similar fashion. Often attending their events as well. Ever heard of the “Golden Goggles?” Kobe has. He appeared at one in 2017.
It is rare for an athlete like Kobe whose fame came from outside the Olympic sports to be such an advocate on behalf of them. Yet Kobe was. In the aftermath of American basketball failing to win the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, it was Kobe who stepped in and helped change the American basketball program. Helping the whole American basketball system get in line and realize it needed to take the Olympics seriously. Kobe had even participated in America’s Olympic bid for the 2028 Olympics. When American gymnasts take the podium in front of home crowds eight years from now, they will do so knowing Kobe played a small role in making it happen.
But Kobe was more than just an advocate of Olympic sports and a basketball superstar. Just two years after his retirement Bryant won an Academy Award for his film Dear Basketball. Kobe was just starting to enjoy retirement life at the time of his passing and appeared to have only scratched the surface of what he could accomplish outside of basketball.
An athlete needs to achieve incredible levels of fame to reach a point where both Donald Trump and Barack Obama pay tribute when that athlete passes away. It’s as if Kobe had too much fame, and maybe he did.
With nearly everyone paying tribute to the man from Presidents to prominent athletes to celebrities from all walks of life, it appears to be politically correct to honor Kobe. Forgetting what Think Progress would call “one of the most high-profile rape cases of all time.” It’s hard to incorporate such a topic in the discussion of someone so highly revered, especially in a time of tragedy.
This isn’t to shame those who paid tribute to him or to make an attempt to convince others to stop worshipping him. For me personally, I could never bring myself to write an article where such a topic was whitewashed and completely omitted. The purpose of this article was to explain why the reaction to Kobe’s death from high profile figures was so strong.
This was someone who was a genuine fan of the sport and had worked to create interactions with many of its most high profile figures. For most who know the name “Kobe Bryant” they know the famous figure, the legend they adored. The celebrity they could only hope to meet. For the famous gymnasts mentioned in the opening paragraph, Kobe was more than that.