STORY | Lauren Stockmon Brown ART | Kamau Ware (original portraits of Kobe Bryant by Neil Bedford)
When I was 8 years old, I dressed my dog, Max in purple and golden basketball shorts.
Together, we ran through the dining room in our matching uniforms. At times, Max would try to bite through the clothing I decided would be our Sunday morning attire. So, as soon as he took a break from fighting the discomfort, I jumped at the chance to pull the jersey over his fur and drag his left then right paw through the holes of our gym shorts. Finally, we were strapped into our jerseys and ready to take on our next adventure.
Every so often, my Mom would try and convince me to wear jeans, corduroys or any kind of acceptable fabric to school. Naturally, I refused. So, she designated Mondays and Thursdays as the only days I could wear sweats or “those raggedy gym clothes.” Lo and behold, that worn in Lakers uniform coddled my queerness and masked the feminine figure I slowly learned I was expected to show off. Fridays served as the fourth basketball practice of the week. Saturdays were game days, and on Sundays, I reveled in the chance to dress in my favorite Lakers uniform (#24) with my best friend, Max. At the time, my lucky number was “24” because it was the “patent” stitching worn on the backs of my two preferred basketball legends, Kobe Bryant and my older brother, Harrison.
My love for Max and what I now call my “former” love for basketball are more similar than I’ve allowed myself to accept. Max was the first death I was forced to make sense of and basketball was a time for the past. The loss of each brought a familiar feeling that stung, and yet with time, feelings fade and the memories grew numb. Now, I spend most of my time correcting strangers who ask me what sport I play or gauk at my height and feel confident in their choice to label me as an athlete who plays basketball. “No,” I say. “I’m a former athlete” or I roll my eyes and say, “Yeah, I used to play.” In reality, I quit after two years of playing collegiate basketball for the betterment of my mental health and spent the next 6 months of retirement making sense of my panic attacks and explaining to strangers and loved ones why I didn’t need to play a sport anymore.
I allowed myself to finally let go and move on.
I found comfort in forgetting how the gym was the only place I truly felt seen as a Black queer woman. I forgot how sweat was the key ingredient to my favorite facial foundation. I forgot how the faint scent of BO stained my practice jersey and represented everything I trained to become and more. I forgot about the connection shared between my teammates who became sisters and how it was unlike anything else. Honestly, it was easier to move on from an identity that I convinced myself, I never even needed in the first place than to face heartache for a game that was my younger self’s version of “dress-up.”
Over the course of these last two years, I have grown increasingly curious about the aspects of my life that I never took the time to previously understand. My newfound interests included a short-lived passion for Bible study, extended hours with my professors working to expand my craft when writing, and a position as part of the Black Gotham Experience (BGX). This became my space for growth and questioning because as I previously mentioned, I’m determined to “get to know” myself a little better. In this case, I’ve become fascinated by the creation of the Black Gotham Experience as an entrepreneurial discovery I never knew I wanted to be a part of. I took my first BGX walking tour in the fall of 2017 and seeked out my first college internship as a production assistant for BGX in the spring. I found safety in the community’s use of creativity, imagination and empathy to uncover the historical significance of seemingly devastating topics like slavery. After my spout of depression, it was comforting to know that sadness isn’t always a bad thing.
Three years later, I started my second Monday of work as a content producer and writer. That morning was spent grieving the day before- January 26th 2020- the loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. Throughout the day, members of the Black Gotham Experience community dipped in and out of the studio and expressed their grief as CNN, the New York Times and ESPN poured into our media feeds and attempted to make sense of a father who died and his 13 year-old daughter who passed beside him. I remember feeling that numbness creep back in, again. Feelings of sadness for the loss of two people I never knew, and I thought maybe just maybe, I could forget about this one too.
Then, Jason Roasario, the creator of the The Lives of Men walked into the studio.Warmly, he explained his ongoing mission that encourages specifically men of color to stay in touch with the vulnerable feelings that they’re usually encouraged to hide. Jason, inspired by the loss of Gianna and Kobe proposed a “Group Therapy” session at our studio on Thursday evening. Instantly, I thought that with an interdisciplinary background in gender studies, Black history and political theory that this would be my first story. Little did I know how delicate one must be when writing about tragedy and the “sensory feelings” we were never built to understand, like death.
After an evening meeting with my professor, I walked into Thursday’s event a few moments later and the lights were low, the studio was crowded, and of course, it felt somber. There were mostly men of color in attendance, a few women who came with their husbands or stood tall on their own. There was a baby boy being rocked in his father’s lap, and I wondered if he felt as lost as the rest of us.
The sound of Jason’s voice felt as though he was giving us a group-hug each time he encouraged collective sharing or questioning. He stuck to his tagline, “Vulnerability is your greatest superpower,” and I was hopeful because the death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant resulted in genuine moments of caring between men. Men being men – and men, women, and anything in-between, because the lack of understanding the “why” behind death is relatable to anyone who has felt lost. The audience called Kobe a “legend,” “great,” and “transformative.” One man even said, “I saw so much in him that I wanted to see in myself.” Kobe and Gianna had, Mamba Mentality. This drive to be more than what anyone else thought they could or could not be. A sense of grit that was expansive and contagious because it encourages groups like, The Lives of Men to celebrate moments of trying.
When walking home from the event, I slowly realized that Gianna and Kobe will be remembered not only for their successes, but mostly for their acts of trying. Their consistency in dreaming and their choice to create a movement for women’s sports that my teammates and I worked to design for ourselves is now a “Global Thought.” A national consideration that stems from heroes like, Kobe, Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird, Serena Williams and Gianna Bryant.
As a woman, I do not feel the same pressure to perform my masculinity in the ways that men are expected to. Though, I do have a human urge to run from vulnerability and I am not the biggest fan of exposing myself in a way that feels threatening. I feel safer in numbness and crave security through hiding. However, I’m getting to know myself a bit better. I’m working on celebrating my vulnerable moments while remembering that my Mamba Mentality stems from my experience growing up as a female athlete who was always encouraged to try.