Faith Matters

The Catholic faith of basketball legend Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash with his daughter on Sunday, was best known for his sporting achievements but he also held his Catholic faith close, says Diarmuid Pepper

Diarmuid Pepper

USA and NBA legend Kobe Bryant pictured during an Olympic warm-up match in 2012. He was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday along with his daughter and seven others. Picture by Dave Thompson/PA Wire

ON Sunday morning, hours before he and his daughter’s incredibly untimely and tragic death, Kobe Bryant did something which was, for him, quite normal.

He attended Sunday Mass. Bishop Timothy Freyer, Auxiliary Bishop of Orange in California, told the media that Bryant was a parishioner in his diocese, and that “Kobe would frequently attend Mass and sit in the back of the church so that his presence would not distract people from focusing on Christ’s Presence”.

Julie Hermes, a spokesperson for the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church that Bryant attended, confirmed the 41-year-old's presence at Mass on the morning of the helicopter crash which took his life, that of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.

She said that Bryant would often sit at the back of the service and leave early to avoid disturbing the other parishioners.

She added: “He was very much loved at the church, and he was very devout, very dedicated to his faith.”

Archbishop of Los Angeles,José H. Gomez described Bryant as a “very good and faithful Catholic” whom he had met many times.

Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time but his Catholic faith is something that not many know about.

What is well-known about Bryant, however, is his involvement in a sexual assault case. Some commentators have said it is important to remember the rape allegation made against him, as well as his many contributions to basketball.

Others say it is much too early to grapple with these difficult questions as regards his legacy. But this dark chapter of Bryant’s life offers us an interesting insight into his personal faith.

According to Bryant, it was his Catholic faith that sustained him during this period. In the summer of 2003, he was arrested in connection to the alleged sexual assault of a hotel employee.

He admitted to the sexual encounter, but said it was consensual. His marriage came close to breaking down, many endorsement deals evaporated, and fans turned on him.

Bryant said that the “turning point” during that period of his life was a converation with a priest.

Speaking to GQ magazine, Bryant said: “The one thing that really helped me during that process was talking to a priest. I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic.

“He looks at me and says, ‘Did you do it?’ And I say, ‘Of course not.’ Then he asks, ‘Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’

“So then he just said, ‘Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point.”

The one thing that really helped me during that process was talking to a priest. I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic

Bryant went on to settle the case out of court and he apologised to the female involved. In a statement, he said: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognise 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.”

A few weeks after the case was settled, Byrant visited a Catholic bookstore in California called the Pauline Books and Media Centre. He was there in search of a special set of Rosary beads for his wife, Vanessa.

According to Sister Rose Pacatte, an elderly woman approached him and said: “Mr Bryant, I just want you to know that I pray for you.”

Perhaps with Catholic Social Teaching in the back of his mind, Bryant went on to co-establish the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation. The foundation helps fund youth homeless shelters and other projects aimed at serving the poor.

Speaking on his decision to establish the foundation, Bryant spoke of a need to do something meaningful and purposeful with his life.

“I don’t want to look back and just say, 'Well, I had a successful career because I won so many championships and scored so many points'," he said.

"There’s something else that you have to do with that. You have to do something that carries a little bit more weight to it, a little more significance, a little more purpose to it."

Recently, Pope Francis reminded us that if we want to follow a truly Christian path, we cannot wash our hands of the suffering of others. When speaking of his decision to establish a family foundation, Bryant echoed the Pope's words: "It’s easy to point the blame at those who are homeless and say, 'Well, you made that bad decision. This is where you are. It’s your fault.' In life, we all make mistakes and to stand back and allow someone to live that way and kind of wash your hands of it, that’s not right.”

As Bryant says, “in life, we all make mistakes”. He certainly made mistakes in his life, but he also took strides to make amends for his errors.

His wife Vanessa now faces a life without her husband and her 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Much like the elderly lady in the Catholic bookstore who prayed for Kobe, we should now pray for Vanessa in this difficult time.

Basketball legend Kobe Bryant kisses his daughter Gianna before an NBA All-Star Game in Toronto in 2016. Bryant and 13-year-old Gianna were killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday along with seven others. Picture by The Canadian Press/Mark Blinch

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