The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Atlanta Hawks 122-101 on Sunday night, cementing their place atop the NBA standings. The loudest cheers at Staples Center, though, had nothing to do with the Lakers’ current record of 11-2, nor their long-anticipated future as championship contenders.
Instead, fans saved their most fawning praise for Kobe Bryant, who sat courtside and received raucous applause from the time he took his seat to when he left with several minutes remaining in the game. But Lakers faithful weren’t the only ones who made Sunday’s contest more about the past than anything else.
The basketball world’s selective nostalgia concerning Bryant extends to his playing peers and the media, too, who continue willfully ignoring the incident that should make him a public pariah.
Bryant wasn’t convicted of felony sexual assault in 2004 , and his case never went to trial. Just because the charges against him were dropped, though, doesn’t mean the heinous allegations levied at Bryant by his accuser were proven false.
Not only did he settle with the Eagle, CO hotel receptionist in civil court, but Bryant ultimately admitted the sexual encounter that she described as rape wasn’t consensual at all. Once the charges against him were dismissed, Bryant released an apologetic statement acknowledging that she never consented to sex.
In 2004, the public reckoning on sexual misconduct wasn’t close to its infancy. The #MeToo movement began picking up steam in 2015, while Bryant, during his NBA swan song, was treated to farewell celebrations from opposing teams and fan bases across the country.
Three years into retirement, Kobe Bryant remains a basketball hero.
LeBron James dapped him up during Sunday’s action, and in the postgame locker room called playing in front of him “surreal.” Anthony Davis waxed poetically about Bryant’s legacy with the Lakers, while first-year coach Frank Vogel said Los Angeles was “lucky” to have him in the building.
Major media indulged in the adulation, too.
Bryant has positioned himself as a champion of gender equality. The WNBA regularly touts his fandom and appreciation of the women’s game , and a large majority of the employees at his production company are female.
The NBA prides itself on women’s empowerment, too. The league has broken barriers with female referees and assistant coaches, and since 2015 has partnered with Lean In for promotions and events.
The tethered hypocrisy of Bryant and the NBA when it comes to gender equality has long been apparent. But it reached a new level of obvious and ugly last year, when he revisited the rape allegation for the first time in years.
Instead of expressing regret, Bryant used the incident to burnish the “Black Mamba” persona that helped make him a Lakers legend .
“During the Colorado situation, I said: ‘You know what? I’m just going to be me. I’m just going to be me.’ F— it,” he told The Washington Post. “…Like me or don’t like me for me.”
Bryant doesn’t mean that, of course. Liking him for him alone would mean the ongoing deification of a man who, in today’s understanding of sexual assault, admitted to an encounter only accurately described as rape.
What Bryant really means is that he began publicly comporting himself in a manner set only on his terms, a change he understood would be to his immense, lasting benefit.
Fifteen years after an incident that left his accuser bruised and bloodied, Bryant is still reaping those rewards. Every time he’s back in the spotlight, feted by activist athletes like LeBron James and a “woke” organization like the NBA, it becomes less likely the former Lakers superstar will ever be held publicly accountable for the assault that deserved to derail his career.