I first met Kobe Bryant in his office. I managed a feeble “Hey, I’m a big fan” as he left to pick up a daughter from somewhere. I had much better planned, but it seemed not to matter. A few days later, I was invited back to teach him about ancient history.
My great memory of our next meeting, amid all the blur of seeing a hero made flesh, is Kobe slamming the desk in anger at himself. I, a graduate student, was teaching him the economics of Rome, and someone in the room had asked me what was the most expensive commodity in the Roman Empire. As I looked up from my crude and crowded whiteboard map of the Mediterranean, Kobe yelled out “silk!” “That’s a good answer,” I responded, “but in fact, according to Diocletian’s Price Edict, the most expensive commodity was purple dye.” “Purple,” Kobe muttered. “The imperial color: I should have known!” That was when he slammed the desk.
There was nothing I could do to reassure him. It was unacceptable for him to fail, even in a field about which he reasonably shouldn’t have known anything. Kobe knew a lot, especially for someone with little formal education beyond early high school. He grew up in Italy, read Latin, and was a ravenously curious person. The six-foot-six guard from Lower Merion High School had never gone to college, obviously, but he was still dedicated to self-improvement, and the filling in of gaps in his education. Hence, I felt, the Roman history. But Kobe wasn’t a normal student. Although he’d invited me to teach him, he felt that he should have already known about the purple dye.
Over the course of several meetings in 2017 and 2018, I taught Kobe and his crew a smattering of ancient history. I had known about him for many years—since he first came to the Lakers. Among my earliest memories of shame comes from his first or second season: I thought that since his teammate Shaquille O’Neill was clearly somehow Irish, Kobe, too, must be Irish, and so I referred to him (in front of friends, and friends’ parents) as Kobe O’Bryant. I was maybe 8; the memory still stings.
As life took me further from LA, my relationship with Kobe became embedded within layers of memory and distance: Game 7 of the 2010 championship series, in Brandon’s backyard; watching him return to the court, Achilles torn, to hit two one-legged free throws from a bar in New York; texting furiously as he scored 60 points, in his final game, from a lonely desk in my Cambridge apartment as a housemate studied Greek in the living room.
Kobe came to know me because of a blog post I had written. The post considered his career in the context of the philosophy of Lucius Annaeus Seneca and his essay “On the Shortness of Life.” In the piece, I wondered about dedication to a craft, and the relationship between excellence and happiness. I felt that Kobe was not happy, that something about the total collapse of himself into his craft had left the other parts of his life missing something essential. As Kobe put it, in a line that made it into the Lakers’ official memorial, “I wanted to be one of the greatest basketball players to ever play, and anything else that was outside of that lane, I didn’t have time for.” I’m from LA; I knew people who knew Kobe, and somehow the post made its way to him. “Interesting read,” was his verdict. “#MuseOn.” Something about the intersection of dedication, greatness, and misery struck a chord.
As Kobe began to shift from basketball superstar into the many other realms he wanted to explore and create, I was summoned to his compound in Orange County. My lectures were on topics like the ancient economy, or government structures in the ancient world, topics that I think he both found interesting on their own and that he wanted to learn about so that the worlds he was building—like the Wizenard series of fantasy novels—would have a patina of reality.
One aspect of antiquity that particularly intrigued Kobe was my discussion of the way civic identity and athletics intersected in the hero cult of the Greeks. In Greece, I explained, heroes were not ordinary people honored occasionally by the local news, but rather a distant race in the mythic past who struggled through lives of toil and tragedy. The Greeks worshipped heroes through religious rituals like sacrifice and aesthetic events like plays but also through the dramatic reimagination of their combat as athletics. Achilles chose to fight and die on the beaches of Troy, in search of eternal glory; an Olympian runner might not risk his life, but he, too, channeled the spirit of the swift-footed Achilles, and his races brought spectators within proximity of an analogous kind of greatness. Athletic competition created more ordinary, human-sized heroes, and gave the Greeks a way to confront the questions of the heroic past: fate, loss, tragedy—what we want, and what we’d be willing to sacrifice for it.
I don’t remember much of our discussion from that day, but for me Kobe served this same function. He let us think about what it meant to sacrifice everything—other people, certainly, happiness, perhaps—in a drive to be excellent. The martial excellence of the ancients—virtus, in Latin, closer to virility than Christian virtue—required a certain discipline, what the Greeks called epimelesthai seautou, the care of the self. Kobe presented a vision of what we all might be if we were willing to make the sacrifices we were unwilling to make on the altar of excellence.
This may be why Kobe’s death has provided American men with an opportunity to grieve, in public, in phone calls, and in the comments of Reddit posts. It’s why people who tuned into TNT could hear a tear-choked Jerry West compare Kobe’s death to that of his brother, killed in the Korean War, and hear Reggie Miller say that it was OK for grown men to cry. It’s also why attempts to shut down discussion about the rape allegations against Kobe, either by his defenders or his opponents, are so misguided. Heroes are heroes because they have tragic flaws built into their character, and those tragic flaws give us the opportunity to discuss the questions that matter to us and to society—in this case, questions of violence, masculinity, atonement, and (potentially) forgiveness.
The hardest thing I ever tried to teach Kobe was about the structure of history. I forget what it was, exactly, that we were talking about. My memory, which historians learn not to trust, suggests the discussion hinged on something about Plutarch and Livy. Whatever it was brought us to the question of historiography—who writes history and why. At first Kobe, like many new students, just wanted to know what happened. But that’s not how historians think: we look for meta-history, stories about the stories we tell. Some time in that meeting one of his staff people needed his input. They were working on “The Golden Democracy,” a short film about the Golden State Warriors’ incredible passing. Kobe told the staffer to find a clip for the short that involved something quite specific, but which basically boiled down to the way Golden State exploited the Spurs’ defense to sow dissension among the defenders.
“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t realize you’d watched the game.” (Kobe had told me he wasn’t watching). “I’m not,” he replied, “but I played this game for twenty years and I know that that happened.” I was chastened. Meanwhile what I had been trying to get across to Kobe was the idea that historians also have ideas about our craft, ideas that move beyond the mere collection of facts toward structural understandings of how events play out. We see the world through historical processes that unfold due to structures of political and economic geography, class struggle and identity formation, and ideological and environmental change. What we want to do is find meaning, to understand not just what happened in Rome but why it happened, and why Plutarch and Livy wrote about it in the way that they did. Someone who spends their time studying history understands that things don’t just happen, just as someone who spends a life playing basketball knows there are structures that underly the game, that make every blown switch and open drive as predictable as a counter-revolution. That was when Kobe got it.