Your death and the death of your daughter have brought a rush of conflicting emotions that have plagued me for the past two days. As a female athlete who grew up watching you play, I am grateful for the opportunities that you have given to my generation of male and female athletes alike. You welcomed your daughter into your basketball world and you cultivated her growth, not only as an athlete but as a woman. Not only did you support your daughter in her sport, but you supported other women in the sport. For the exposure that you gave the Women’s National Basketball Association and for the women that you supported in their athletic endeavors, you deserve recognition. As an athlete of color, I feel pride in knowing how much someone with brown skin can do for the game. Still, I struggle with your death the most because of my identity as a woman in athletics.
In your public statement surrounding the sexual assault case brought against you in 2003, you acknowledged that you and the woman you raped perceived the same experience very differently. As a woman who stands by other women, who believes other women, the fact that your face and your name have completely overtaken my social media makes me nearly sick to my stomach. The day following your death, Felicia Somnez, a writer for the Washington Post, was suspended immediately after she tweeted a link to an article that reported on the case filed against you in 2003. Sonmez was suspended from her position as a respected reporter for shedding light on a dark part of your story. I struggle with the fact that your shining legacy as a competitor—who has undoubtedly come to define the game of basketball around the world—can completely overshadow the mistakes you have made. I struggle with the fact that an athletic legacy as dominant as yours has the power to silence women especially when, in the recent past, you have made a public effort to give them a platform and a voice.
In the past few years, it is clear that you have made an effort to grow from this mistake. You have made an effort to support the women around you, members of the family you share by blood as well as members of the family you share by the sport you play. I am someone who values giving second chances. I have been given many myself and for those, I am eternally grateful. In the cases that I have been given a single chance and made a mistake, I have made an effort to learn from it in order to make the most of the chances I am offered in the future. I feel very strongly that you have made an effort to learn from your mistakes. Even so, I wish with my whole heart that the legacy that you leave incorporates all the parts of your story: the mistakes you have made alongside the growth you achieved as a player, as a man and as a father in this lifetime.
To Vanessa, to your daughters and to the families of those who died in Sunday’s crash, I send my eternal love. To Gianna and to the other families on the helicopter, may you rest in peace. To my fellow athletes, I recognize and respect the legacy of a player who refused to quit. To my fellow athletes of color, I recognize and appreciate the legacy of a black man succeeding in a country and a time where so many black men fall through the cracks. To my fellow women and to all survivors, please know that your voice is always valid and your voice is always heard. This tragic event, more than ever, highlights the reasons for which the combined identities that live within every athlete cannot be separated. I have learned from this experience that these tensions never go away, and that’s okay. There is something to learn from each part of your journey, Kobe—the full story just has to be told.
Paula Petit-Molina is a member of the class of 2020.