Black Mamba’s death reminds us we are not our own

The tragic death this week of NBA legend Kobe Bryant hit many in this country, including me, extremely hard. From the millennium to the septuagenarian, we grieved in disbelief over what former Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called a “useless death.”  Many of us did not even know that we cared about Kobe.

“We are not our own,” the sister of faith said to us when we asked her why. “We don’t decide when to come or go,” she continued. Her words haunt me, still.

At a time when the so-called most powerful man in the world, our 45th president, has so divided us, Kobe’s has brought us together. From the moment we heard that Kobe had been taken from us, the problems of the world, state, city—our lives, seemed small in comparison.

“We are not our own,” the words stuck to me like dried oatmeal on a spoon.

Image result for kobe bryant and gigi
Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant

Kobe, the icon, the super star, the cultural reference is gone just like that. Poof! Yesterday he was laughing with his children and drinking a glass of red cab with his stick-to-it-with-ness wife, the one who forgives, loves, and walks with dignity. Now he, Gigi (and other seven souls) have left us. The one who accepted his gifts and overachieved; the other who was tender, fragile, and coming into her own have gone over yonder. As a father with two daughters, I particularly feel the pain.

We are not our own. Own. Let the words reach higher meaning.

Mamba was tall, dark, handsome, rich, and famous. He was evolving and winning accolades in movies, books, and business. As much as this mostly clean-nosed, image-conscious, and brand-hawking superstar achieved in basketball (five championship rings and 18 All-Star selections in 20 seasons), he stood to gain more post NBA. The New York Times confirms he started the investment firm Bryant Stibel, invested in Bodyarmor, a sports drink, and founded Granity Studios, a media company—all successful businesses. Reddit co-founder and Serena Williams’ Bo Alexis Ohanian said, “He still believe(d) he had work to do.” Others commented that his work ethic in business matched that which he brought to basketball.

Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson?

Michael Jordan
Magic Johnson
Earvin “Magic” Johnson

The African American community marveled at his fade away jumpers and held out hope that he would become a younger version of a post NBA Magic Johnson, a superstar who heavily invested in the African American community. Blacks prayed he would not become Michael Jordan, an uber-star who refused to be political, proclaiming once that “Republicans buy Air Jordan shoes, too.”

Kobe was not there yet. But he still had time to become more than a stoned-hearted capitalist. Beyond speaking to black youth and telling them that, like him, they could achieve dreams, too; he was not, at the time of his premature exit, sufficiently focused on the needs, economically and politically, of Black America. But we were hopeful. We grieve for him because we sensed the possibilities of him becoming more than he was. Just like when he entered the NBA as a 17-year-old, those around him felt he had the possibility of being more than special. He did.

In 2003, Kobe came close to losing it all when facing charges of sexual assault. This is when he took to calling himself, “Black Mamba,” after a deadly African snake that strikes repeatedly when threatened. Unlike Jordan’s gambling controversy, a sexual assault charge involving a white woman is something that lingers. It is something that, intertwined with an ugly, racist history in America, aka the Scottsboro Boys and Leo Franks, gets innocent black and Jewish men lynched.

No matter who Kobe thought he was prior to this controversy, he knew after white America and his corporate sponsors dropped him like a bad habit that he was just another brother from the upper-hood of Philadelphia. Feeling cornered and threatened with the possibility of losing it all, including his family, he became a Black Mamba. Like an injured animal, Mamba came out swinging with all four feet.

We are not our own

Even though he fought his way back to relative respectability by the end of his career, one only hopes that he never lost the feeling and pain of being alone, afraid, and on his own. That’s a scary feeling, but to be black in America is to experience this anxiety each and everyday. Being black is coping with the reality that no matter what heights you scale, you can be knocked off the top by the lowest achieving white person at any point during the sojourn.

For sure Black Mamba did not die for the elevation of black people. But his life was one of redemption with an unexpected, unhappy, and uncertain ending. His greatest redeeming act would have been to offer himself of service to his people. Maybe his death is a reminder to us that we must do the same.

We are not our own!

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