This week, Kobe Bryant announced this was his final season. In my opinion, he is in the discussion for the top-5 all-time NBA greats.
His stats, and what he has done in his career are a slam dunk for being a first ballot Hall of Famer. He leaves the Lakers as one of the franchises top-3 players as well, which is saying a lot: the purple and gold represent NBA royalty.
Watching a press conference and seeing how easy it is for Kobe to go from English to Spanish to Italian, it reminded me of something: a topic that is not touched on a lot in the open. Why did some of the black community, and America in general, think he was not “black enough?”
I was a freshman in college when Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut, and in an era of no social media, I had little clue about who this kid was. It didn’t take long to see he was different then the ballers I was watching.
During an era that introduced the Fab Five, Allen Iverson, and Shawn Kemp, he simply stood out. He was polished. Sophisticated. Dressed like he was coming off the pages of a GQ ad. Could have gone to an Ivy based on academic prowess. From his game to his look, he brought a different swag altogether.
For me, a son of African immigrants that didn’t talk like his friends, that struck a very familiar chord. So as his star began to blossom, I wasn’t surprised when the sell-out and soft jokes began. But nothing seemed to bother Kobe. He was so confident and showed no fear, on or off the court. He went right at the NBA greats, and showed no mercy. His aptitude and work ethic was amazing to watch, and gave kids like me encouragement to not let people keep us down.
I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson, but with passing of time, the black community in America as a whole has become more educated and well-rounded. Kobe was not the kid from the block, just as Grant Hill, Steph Curry, Donovan McNabb, and Reggie Jackson weren’t. These are all great people and athletes that have a middle/upper class upbringing. Should they be ashamed that they come from hard-working families that took advantage of the opportunities they had placed in front of them?
Jim Brown once said on the Arsenio Hall show that Bryant was “Somewhat confused about culture, because he was brought up in another country, so he doesn’t quite get what’s going on here in America.” Wait. What? Really?
I’ve had the good fortune in life to have visited many countries. I grew up in the suburbs. Does that mean I can’t relate to black people being wronged or treated unfairly? It was challenging enough that my name was butchered and made fun of daily. I worked hard to fit in so I would not stand out.
We spoke three languages in my home and oftentimes I was afraid to share that with people. Was it my fault that I never had been mistreated by law enforcement, or been knowingly mistreated due to my race? Should I, or any other minority brought up in the burbs, be upset about that? Are we less of our people because of it? In 2015, why is that?
It seems idiotic to me. Street cred is always used to measure an athlete, and in basketball it’s even more important. That’s just how it is. Hard work has different levels. What I mean is that kids who come from very little and fight to make it are looked at as “keeping it real.” Most come from single mother homes, and do whatever they have to for the family to get to the league. I agree you have to respect that. It shows the mentality of a fighter.
You don’t know what a person did or didn’t do to make it to where they are. Michael Jordan was embraced by the black community, and always will be. Yet he grew up in a comfortable two-parent home in Wilmington, North Carolina, with both mother and father loving and supporting him, as well as his siblings.
Bryant is the son of former NBA player Joe Bryant, and learned the game from professionals. He was away from the streets and the life those streets can often lead to. So how dare he play hard and go right at the greats of his era? He wasn’t a regular at the Rucker or Barry Farms. He usually honed his game in private gyms under the watchful eyes of trainers, and a father who knew the fundamentals.
It’s funny how things evolve over time. As a kid coming of age, I loved Allen Iverson and hated Kobe Bryant, because a suburban kid such as myself had been picked on for not being one of the boys. There was no way in hell that I could be a fan of the Mamba.
To take it a step further, I dare say that many black women don’t like Kobe because his wife, Vanessa isn’t black—she’s Mexican—whether they admit it or not. Oh, the horror!
That was weak on my part. On the outside, AI was who I wanted to be: a tough guy from the streets who also could ball out. But the guy who had the similar type of upbringing as me and played the same position as me, well, no way could I embrace him. He was soft; not hood enough.
And I was dead wrong. In retrospect, not many were ever harder or more ruthless than Kobe Bean Bryant, regardless of whether he was raised in an affluent home in Italy, or clawed his way out of the projects.
Not only is one of the all-time greats retiring, but a guy who helped minorities from the burbs such as myself feel comfortable in our own skin. For every “You sound so white” joke, or “You are the whitest black guy I know” comment, there was Kobe. My mother often told me that all I can do is be me, and don’t ever feel bad for having the good fortune of a solid foundation in life, starting with a loving, hardworking family. Kobe was the guy who showed that she was right all along.
His impact on and off the court won’t soon be forgotten.
Thank you Mr. Bryant, for helping a young insecure kid understand that I should never be ashamed of who I am, and where I’m from.
Salute, fratello mio.
Joe Cardoso is the founder of Nuts and Bolts Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Cright