Smithsonian Historians Reflect on Kobe Bryant’s Legacy as His Portrait Goes on View
A 2007 photograph of the N.B.A. All-Star offers visitors a chance to pay their respects
When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture opened in September 2016, basketball legend Kobe Bryant urged the public to visit its hallowed halls, tweeting, “There is no greater testament to this country than the stories in this building.”
Bryant, who died along with his daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash Sunday at age 41, was one of the museum’s earliest supporters, donating some $1 million via the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation. This gift, says curator Damion Thomas, “was a statement to the world that this place matters and it’s important.”
Today, the Washington, D.C. institution houses two artifacts related to Bryant: a basketball uniform, jersey and shorts worn by the Los Angeles Lakers star during the 2008 N.B.A. Finals, and a 2002 photograph that finds the rising star lounging on a couch in a Manhattan apartment.
“For us at the NMAAHC, Kobe holds a very special place in our hearts,” says the museum’s interim director, Spencer Crew, in a statement. “In the very critical stages of building the museum, Kobe and Vanessa Bryant became founding donors, giving us the boost that we needed to keep moving forward. Kobe also had the opportunity to visit the museum before its opening. He was so moved by the experience that he later donated his uniform jersey from the 2008 NBA Finals, the year he was named the league MVP.”
Hailed as one of the sport’s greatest players, Bryant took the unusual step of skipping a stint in college basketball. Drafted right out of high school, he spent 20 years in the N.B.A., joining the Lakers in 1996 and retiring at the end of the 2015-16 season. Over the course of his lengthy career, he led the Lakers to five championships, earned 18 All-Star selections, scored 81 points in a single game and won two Olympic gold medals. He was, in the words of the New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas, someone who stood out “even in a league of larger-than-life personalities.”
Adds Thomas, “The word that is perhaps most often used to describe his remarkable career is ‘singular.’”
Photographer Rick Chapman’s 2007 portrait of Bryant embodies this singularity. Then just 29, the shooting guard had “already had this really tremendous impact on basketball,” says Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, senior historian at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where the selenium-toned print is now on view in a special “In Memoriam” display.
“[Chapman] emphasizes [...] this amazing set of tattoos, and also this introspective expression where he’s kind of looking off to the side as though he’s contemplating something in the distance,” adds Shaw.
Driven by a “seemingly endless reservoir of self-confidence,” according to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Bryant was unabashedly ambitious in his intentions of surpassing basketball’s reigning champion, Michael Jordan. As Lewis of the African American History Museum says, referring to Bryant's nickname, this “‘Black Mamba’ mentality [...] became a mantra that people use far beyond the basketball field.” In coupling a desire to be the best with the hard work to back this goal up, adds Lewis, Bryant became a symbol of the seemingly contradictory phenomena of greediness, determination and excellence.
No reflection on Bryant's legacy can be complete without reckoning with his 2003 sexual assault charge. The case was dropped when the victim declined to testify, and Bryant settled a separate civil suit filed by the 19-year-old hotel employee out of court. He later issued a public apology stating, “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.”
As Jemele Hill writes for the Atlantic, Bryant’s post-retirement accomplishments were “more impressive, in a way,” than his in-game stats. “Once the epitome of precocious arrogance,” she explains, “he evolved into being a true champion for others.”
In 2018, Bryant became the first individual to win both a basketball championship and an Academy Award, nabbing an Oscar for the animated short film “Dear Basketball.” Based on a poem he wrote on the eve of his retirement, the short served as Bryant’s “love letter to the sport,” per the Washington Post.
Outside of his cinematic triumphs, Bryant remained a key figure in the basketball world. He championed women’s sports, analyzed current N.B.A. players in a streaming show for ESPN and was poised to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.
Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna shared his love of the sport.
“Kobe was somebody who recognized all of the life lessons that you learned through basketball,” says Lewis. “And so [he used] basketball as a teacher, something that taught him how to be the person he was, [and ...] as a way to share those values with his daughter.”
The father-daughter duo attended a Lakers game together just last month and were on their way to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, where Gianna was scheduled to play an afternoon game coached by Bryant, when their helicopter crashed near Calabasas, California. All nine people onboard died.
As news of the tragedy broke, athletes, fans and celebrities alike took to social media to express their grief.
“My friend, a legend, husband, father, son, brother, Oscar winner and greatest Laker of all-time is gone,” wrote fellow basketball legend (and Bryant’s childhood hero) Magic Johnson on Twitter. “It’s hard to accept.”
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, called Bryant “a legend on the court” and said he was “just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act.”
Shaw, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, echoes these sentiments, telling Smithsonian magazine, “The legacy [Bryant] leaves behind is really one of great athletic achievement, of personal growth and of giving back.”
On a wider scale, says Lewis, Bryant embodies the distinct manner in which African American culture “is reflected in [...] and transforms basketball.”
The curator concludes, “When you think of the players who’ve done that, whose sense of play, style of play, and whose athletic ability sort of represents the larger kind of ideas of African American expressive culture, creativity [and] innovation, I can’t think of many more people that I want to put on display than Kobe Bryant.”
Lily Katzman contributed reporting to this article.