The Imperfect Basketball Super Star Won Back His Reputation Through Performance
1/27/2020 – – Since the news broke yesterday of the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, remembrances of the basketball icon have been mournful and glowing. Celebrities, athletes, fans, heads of state and journalists from around the world have been pouring out their hearts and celebrating the achievements of this extraordinary 41-year-old man taken from his family and us far too soon.
Admiring Kobe Bryant’s life through the lens of a crisis counselor, I believe that in addition to appropriately noting his legendary feats on the basketball court, devotion to his family (he is survived by his wife Vanessa and three other daughters), civic mindedness and entrepreneurial prowess, we should give him credit for another impressive personal achievement: his successful recovery from a devastating reputational crisis that threatened early in his career to dramatically change the trajectory of his life.
During the 2003 offseason, Kobe, who at age 24 had already won three NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, checked into a resort near Vail, Colorado. A sexual encounter with a 19-year-old hotel employee resulted in charges of rape. Kobe, who insisted that the sex was consensual, was facing a possible sentence of life in prison. While the criminal case against him was dropped in 2005 when the accuser refused to testify at trial, Kobe was forced to release a public apology and agreed to a civil settlement that included a payment of an undisclosed amount.
Here’s an excerpt from his apology:
First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colo. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.
It’s safe to say that in 2005 the world, including his wife, was not seeing Kobe Bryant in a very positive light. He lost lucrative endorsement deals with McDonald’s, Nutella and Nike. Imagine if this had happened in today’s “#MeToo” environment? There definitely would have been intense pressure on the Lakers and the NBA to ban Kobe from ever lacing up his sneakers again.
So, what did he do over the last 15 years to earn such wonderful eulogies praising his character and accomplishments? What crisis recovery lessons can we learn from Kobe’s ascent from near felon to fallen hero?
In Chapter 21 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Performance is the Best Path to Recovery”) I focus on the surest, if not only path out of crisis: PERFORMANCE. The best way to recover from reputational challenges as serious as those facing Kobe in 2005 is to rededicate yourself to your work and perform at the highest level possible. Apologies, reform and restitution are important, and it may take some time, but recovery is all about showing people you can still perform.
In Kobe’s case, that meant performing as an athlete (he led the Lakers to NBA Championships in 2009 and 2010 and won Olympic Gold for the USA in 2008 and 2012), a family man (despite some rocky times with his wife, he has devoted much of his time since retiring from the Lakers in 2016 to his daughters — in fact he was headed to coach a basketball game with his daughter’s team when his helicopter crashed) and a serious adult (he became a successful civic leader, business man and prescient investor, producing an inspiring Academy Award-winning animated short of his poem, “Dear Basketball”).
It also helped that Kobe Bryant was — according to the people who knew him best — a fundamentally good (as well as gifted) person at heart. Fame and wild expectations were thrust upon him at a very early age. He jumped from high school to the NBA at age 17. No time to grow up in college. Yes, he was flawed, but we saw him mature as a human being before our eyes. And through it all, he performed.
Individuals and companies can recover from crises. It requires placing a lot of good work between their indiscretions and their ultimate reputations. As we see in the obituaries written about Kobe Bryant, not all will be forgotten. But with good character and performance, much can be forgiven.
Rest in peace, Kobe, Gianna and the others who were taken from their families and us far too soon.