Last Sunday as I was walking to the back of the auditorium having just finished preaching, my friend Brad showed me his cellphone with the headline, “Kobe Bryant dead in a helicopter accident.” My first response was “This can’t be true!” But very quickly, as the congregation exited the building, it became clear that a tragic helicopter accident had claimed nine lives, including that of LA Laker superstar Kobe Bryant and his thirteen year old daughter Gianna. Many have been stunned and grieved by these deaths and we offer our prayers and sympathies to all who suffered these losses.
This past week, television, radio, and internet outlets have all been discussing the life of Kobe. As a lifelong Laker fan, it has been cathartic to remember the highs and lows of Kobe’s remarkable career. I’ve appreciated that in its coverage, the media did not ignore Kobe’s dark episode in 2003, when he was charged with sexual assault with a 19-year-old employee of a Colorado resort who accused him of rape. Kobe claimed the incident was consensual. Eventually the criminal charges were dropped and the matter was settled in an undisclosed civil settlement.
To be honest, I had my doubts about the sincerity of Kobe’s media apology in 2003. Via Entertainment Tonight, Kobe made this public confession, with Vanessa at his side: “I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making the mistake of adultery. I love my wife with all my heart. She’s my backbone.” It was effective damage control, straight out of Public Relations 101. And I was skeptical.
What softened my view are the next seventeen years in which Kobe and Vanessa have done the hard work of improving their marriage. It hasn’t been smooth sailing. In 2011, Vanessa filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.” However, by 2013 the divorce was called off. Since then, the couple have added two more daughters to their family. They have also shared in a variety of philanthropic projects, particularly since Kobe’s retirement from the NBA in 2016.
All this is to say that I appreciate Kobe, not because he was a perfect human, because he was far from it. And while I certainly stand in awe of his basketball accomplishments, I am equally impressed by his fighting for and keeping his marriage alive. As Kobe said, speaking of his 19 year marriage, “That’s all the beauty of it: having the persistence and determination to work through things — very, very tough things — and we’ve been able to do that.” As Carrie and I celebrate our 32nd anniversary this weekend, I offer my respect and encouragement to all who commit to the labor of love that is marriage. May God bless each of you as you work at keeping your vows, loving one another through your imperfections and failures, and putting each other first.