There’s this thing that happens when a person dies, especially when that person is famous and the death is unexpected.
Those who are left behind to mourn tend to gloss over the bad decisions and focus on the good deeds, the heroic traits and the uncommonly charitable gestures.
This was very much the case on Sunday. Hours after a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others slammed into the hills above Calabasas, killing all on board, celebrities clamored to pay tribute to him during the Grammy Awards at Staples Center.
John Legend, YG, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin and others hastily modified their performance dedicated to Nipsey Hussle, the Grammy-winning rapper and Lakers fan who was killed last year outside his store in South L.A., to include Kobe.
As the chords from the gospel-inspired song “Higher” faded, DJ Khaled, ever the hype man, shouted and pointed at a massive screen above the stage.
“Long live Nip! Long live Kobe!” he declared to rousing applause. “The marathon continues!”
The larger-than-life images of Kobe and Nipsey hovered over the crowd like angels in the clouds — Kobe looking confident in a Lakers uniform and Nipsey looking serene with his hair braided in his trademark cornrows.
The truth is neither man was an angel. Neither was a saint.
Nipsey, who was gunned down on a sunny Sunday afternoon in March, was no stranger to gun violence or to police. Born and raised during some of the roughest years of South L.A., he was a Rollin’ 60s Crip, hustling and actively gangbanging in his youth.
Kobe, who spent most of his childhood in Italy and didn’t move to Los Angeles until he became a Laker when he was 17, almost ruined his career and his marriage with an act of adultery that led to an allegation of sexual assault.
Looking back at that time in 2003, I can’t help but think that Kobe’s case would’ve been received very differently by the public in this #MeToo era, especially with his attorneys going after his accuser the way that they did. We #BelieveWomen now and cancel people on Twitter — and in life — who don’t. We’re a little less forgiving, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
Nevertheless, almost two decades later, it’s clear that Kobe’s mistakes didn’t define his life and they won’t define his legacy. The same can be said for Nipsey.
A lot of black men aren’t that lucky. One mistake can mean being denied employment, subsidized housing or even the right to vote. And with systemic racism continuing to rot the criminal justice system, it can mean being labeled as a gang member, even when doing nothing wrong.
I have to believe both Kobe and Nipsey understood that, through a rare combination of timing, money, fame, luck and sheer force of will, they were exceptions to the rule.
And to their credit, neither hid from that.
They worked to overcome their mistakes, and they used what they learned to motivate others. They showed other people that no one has to be forever defined by a bad decision, that while you can never erase what you have done, personal growth is a thing and that it is within each of us to redefine ourselves. All it takes is focus, commitment and hard work.
For Kobe, this was the “Mamba Mentality.”
It came about after he was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman in Colorado. In his 2015 documentary, “Muse,” he explained that he created the alter ego “Black Mamba” to separate the stresses of his personal life from those of his professional life.
“I went from a person who was at the top of his game, had everything coming, to a year later, having absolutely no idea where life is going or if you are even going to be a part of life as we all know it,” Kobe said in the film.
After the criminal charges were dismissed and the civil case was settled out of court, “Mamba Mentality” seemed to evolve a bit. It was still about developing the intense focus needed to win basketball games, but it was also about trying to be the best version of himself and working at it every single day.
“You’re not worried about what people may say. You’re not worried about disappointing others,” Kobe told SB Nation in 2017. “You’re not worried about any of that, you’re just focused on being in the moment. That’s what Mamba Mentality truly is.”
For Nipsey, that was “The Marathon.”
After some run-ins with the law and a trip to his father’s homeland of Eritrea, Nipsey started living by the mantra, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” He stopped actively gangbanging and taking short-term risks for minimal gains.
Instead, he devoted himself to making strategic decisions to achieve long-term goals, including establishing creative and financial control over his music and reinvesting in his neighborhood to build wealth and fight the forces of gentrification. He pushed everyone he met and everyone who listened to his music to change their thinking in the same way, like in these lyrics from “Bigger Than Life”:
In order for me to grow, I had to let go of some habits;
And it’s easy to say I’m on now cause you see it and it happens;
But before it ever did, I had to believe and get it cracking.
To be human is to be imperfect. This is especially true when you are a black human in America — even here in liberal Los Angeles — because so many of the odds in life are stacked against you.
We don’t need perfect victims to idolize. We need imperfect human beings who show us how to do the hard work of becoming better versions of ourselves.
Both Nipsey and Kobe spent the bulk of their adult lives doing just that. They showed us how not to let our inevitable mistakes define who we are and how to become better people, no matter our circumstances.
Many Angelenos admire them for this very reason. But those who think of Kobe and Nipsey as mere angels or saints are selling both men short.
It’s an injustice to who they were. To their grind. And to the imperfect city that they loved, the city of L.A.