When I was about ten years old, a classmate gave me a bobblehead of my favorite basketball player.
It was one of those Secret Santa situations, where you never get something you actually wanted. But this was different: I cherished that ceramic all-star. We probably watched hundreds of late-night NBA games together, seated side-by-side, a few feet from the big screen in my southwest suburban living room.
I was past the traditional age for action figures. But ten-inch-tall Kobe was the first superhero that was like me: he didn’t grow up in deep poverty, or in a traditionally black neighborhood. He grew up in Italy, where I imagined he had to feel a little bit like an outsider, like I did in my predominantly white neighborhood.
I refused to take him out of the package.
I watched him (full-size Kobe) win three NBA championships and put up 30 points in a game with ease. On the court, he was aggressive and unrelenting, like basketball was all he had. Off the court, he was unblemished and loved by all fans, regardless of race.
Until he wasn’t.
When I was about 12 years old, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a woman. Guilt or innocence be damned; every negative remark tore at my soul. As rumors mixed with fact on ESPN, all I saw was media once again tearing down a successful black man. My classmates just didn’t recognize the history of lynching black men in the name of protecting white women. To Kill A Mockingbird didn’t give them nightmares. Their mothers hadn't rehashed the stories of Emmett Till or the Central Park Five over and over again, imploring us to be careful.
In my middle-school mind, Kobe was innocent simply because he was my hero—not capable of rape. I was too young to truly grasp the weight of stress and trauma on the victim, the accuser—what it's like to have your character attacked by strangers, or have your personal nightmare described as a distraction from a basketball game.
Rape is wrong. Infidelity is wrong. Yet, the reflex remained to protect him—the superhero still in his plastic packaging. I didn't think about the victim and what happened to her. What mattered was what happened to my favorite all-star.
Thirteen years later, I found myself with friends discussing the Derrick Rose case before the details began to come out, and I struggled to remember what happened to Kobe. My only defense of Rose hinged on how Bryant’s career and name emerged from the dirt. He changed his number to 24 and his endorsements returned. He won an NBA MVP award, two more NBA championships, and two NBA Finals MVPs. My naïve young mind had confused his success with innocence.
I didn’t remember the victim refusing to testify, the settlement, or Kobe admitting the woman didn’t consent to the encounter.
What I do know now is that false rape accusations are incredibly uncommon: while exact stats are hard to come by, researchers agree it's around 2 to 10 percent. On the other hand, about 60 percent of rapes are never reported, and women who do come forward often become the target of victim-blaming, especially if the attacker happens to be a star athlete. One out of every 6 women is a victim of rape or attempted rape, and nine out of every 10 rape victims are women.
A decade of faded glitz from Kobe's career, plus my own maturity and exposure to perspectives on sexual assault in college helped me realize that I was wrong to protect Kobe. We were nothing alike, I realized.
Derrick Rose fans, I know how you feel.
Rose is only three years older than me, but I idolized and wanted to emulate him. I remember the first state championship: Richwood was so shook, they decided to stall the entire overtime only for Rose to literally steal the game. And I remember the second, when he took a back seat and let Tim Flowers enjoy the spotlight.
He wasn’t an outsider, but a kid from the neighborhood. One of those seemingly rare stories of a black man making it from the South Side of Chicago. Kids with no dreams besides hoop dreams could rock the Bulls No. 1 jersey and know for certain they'd be the next one to make it.
But as an adult, you realize athletes aren’t the only successful black men from Chicago to look up to: activists, businessmen, preachers, writers, fathers, and even a president can play that role. If you need a basketball player, there’s Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis, and Dwyane Wade.
Whether Rose is found guilty or not, I refuse to attempt to justify something that can’t be justified. And you shouldn’t either.
I’m not going to pretend I know everything that happened that night, but what we do know is that Rose doesn’t know what consent means, according to his deposition. Without understanding consent, Rose invited two friends to have sex with Jane Doe. The case is rife with toxic masculinity, which tells the next generation of men that women are nothing more than sexual objects for the taking.
I refuse to further victimize women to protect an athlete I’ve never met.
You can keep fanboying, but I’ve taken my toys out of the packaging. But what do I know? I’m just a man with a Kobe doll on his desk.