Gayle King became the target of intense and widespread backlash this week after her interview with former WNBA star Lisa Leslie went viral. The subject: Kobe Bryant and his legacy.
The legendary basketball player sat down with King on CBS This Morning for a wide-ranging interview, speaking at length about their close friendship and the emotions he evoked as a player. So far, so good.
But the interview got tense as King shifted to the topic of Bryant’s sexual assault charge. From CBS This Morning:
It’s been said that his legacy is complicated because of a sexual assault charge, which was dismissed in 2003, 2004. Is it complicated for you as a woman, as a WNBA player?
It’s not complicated for me at all. Even if there’s a few times that we’ve been at a club at the same time, Kobe’s not the kind of guy—never been, like, you know, ‘Lis, go get that girl, or tell her or send her this.’ I have other NBA friends that are like that. Kobe was never like that. I just never, have ever seen him being the kind of person that would do something to violate a woman or be aggressive in that way. That’s just not the person that I know.
But Lisa, you wouldn’t see it, though. As his friend, you wouldn’t see it.
And that’s possible. I just don’t believe that. And I’m not saying things didn’t happen. I just don’t believe that things didn’t happen with force.
If you scrolled through Twitter and took the reactions to the interview as Gospel™ (which you should refrain from doing), what you’d come away with is widespread disdain for King even asking the question.
The reasons varied: some bemoaned the timing, noting that Leslie was still grieving the sudden loss of her friend. Others suggested King was trying to control the narrative and complimented Leslie for smoothly pivoting away from the rape case. Love and Hip Hop’s Masika Kalysha accused King of weaponizing Leslie’s womanhood. Many accused King, who previously received kudos for her deft handling of R. Kelly during an interview last year, of being singularly focused on destroying black men’s legacies (to make this argument, folks lumped King and longtime best friend Oprah together). Many more said it was simply too soon to bring up the case, or that the media should have discussed it in when he was alive (they did, and I suspect the folks who find it improper today didn’t approve of it when Bryant was alive, either).
After the torrent of vitriol hit King, she went online to clarify that the interview was, in fact, about far more than the rape case. King also expressed anger that the clip CBS circulated online focused exclusively on that one exchange.
“During the course of the interview I asked follow-up questions because I wanted to make sure her position and perspective were very clear,” the reporter said. “And in the end when she said, it’s time to leave it alone...I thought that was powerful.”
In parsing this story, it’s important to be clear about what Leslie told King. Leslie said she didn’t believe Bryant raped a 19-year old hotel employee in Colorado. And she said she didn’t believe it because she had never known him to be violent or aggressive toward women. Because he didn’t seem to be running out on his wife when they were in the club together. Leslie also claimed (incorrectly) that the case went to trial.
Leslie explicitly wants the case to be forgotten.
“The case was dismissed because the victim in the case refused to testify,” King pointed out.
“And I think that that’s how we should leave it,” Leslie said. Dismissed.
As Bryant’s friend, Leslie has the right to her memories and recollections of the man. What is worth pushing back on is the notion that Leslie has the authority to dictate how Bryant should and should not be remembered. No one person, no one article, no one interview can do that.
The honest assessment of Bryant’s history involves a rape charge not simply because this act of violence may have happened (and someone very famous and beloved may have done it), but because it had a real impact on real lives.
Bryant’s defense did malign the alleged victim on the grounds of her mental health issues—an act that more of us now understand to be deeply unethical. Bryant’s defense did try to paint her suicide attempt as a grab for attention. Bryant’s defense did allege that because the accuser had consensual sex with other men it meant that she could not have been raped. The victim’s name was leaked to the press—an absolute breach of journalism ethics that all but guaranteed her life would be hell.
And after the powerful, sustained smear campaign against her, Bryant’s accuser refused to testify. She dropped the charges in exchange for an apology for the rape, which Bryant gave. They eventually settled a civil case out of court.
It would be deeply dishonest to say it has no bearing on Bryant’s legacy because the case had a direct impact on the very things people love the most about him: his persona and how he played the game. In the wake of the rape accusations, Bryant lost endorsements, the trust of his wife and, for a moment, the narrative. That loss, as professor Amira Rose Davis lays out in a recent article in The New Republic, preceded and made necessary the birth of “Black Mamba”:
Black Mamba—as a name, as a symbol, as a mentality—was created by Bryant as a direct response to the sexual assault case. It spoke to his ferocity on the court. To his refusal to be “passive” any longer. He also hoped it would serve to “separate the personal stuff” still attached to the name Kobe Bryant. “The whole process for me was trying to figure out how to cope with this,” Bryant told The Washington Post in 2018. “I wasn’t going to be passive and let this thing just swallow me up.”
Not only did the case have a profound effect on Bryant himself, it influenced how defense attorneys treated rape survivors in court, because lawyers always pay attention to successful strategies. It shaped survivors’ calculus on whether to go public or seek justice for the violence they endured. Bryant’s case was ultimately a reminder that in the best scenarios, the world may not be kind or compassionate to your story. And in the worst cases—it may even try to destroy you.
So it is fair for King to ask of a woman who knew Bryant well: How does she reconcile the allegations with the man she cared about and his impact on a game she loved? Leslie would have been well within her rights to say the time didn’t feel right to answer the question. But if you’re going to ask Leslie this question, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be asked of Bryant’s NBA pals as well—friends who have been vocal about social justice or the power of their platforms.
If that equal opportunity reckoning feels gauche, that’s worth examining. The uncomfortable fact is that womanhood or race or fame doesn’t automatically confer upon you special insights into justice or abuse or power, nor does it grant you instant wisdom on how to address difficult, structural problems.
Ultimately, how we choose to look at Bryant (and it is a choice) is both an open and personal question. But if the goal is compassion, a world that is kinder to survivors and more critical of the structures that compound their trauma, it will be a collective effort. It will require hard questions and sitting with the answers that make us uneasy. It can only happen if understanding is the goal, and not redemption—the latter simply doesn’t feel like ours to give.
Regardless of her answer, Lisa Leslie does not get to absolve Bryant’s rape case. Gayle King doesn’t have the power to litigate it, nor can any other journalist. The only person who has the authority to say whether Bryant vindicated himself for that night in Colorado is the alleged victim.
The rest of us just have what we choose to remember.