Great teams have great benches. So strong was the musical squad assembled for Kobe Bryant’s send-off at Los Angeles’s Staples Center on Monday, that even Hall of Famer Jennifer Lopez didn’t rate any playing time. All the megastar got was a couple of call-and-response notes in the massed sing-along to Beyoncé’s XO, claimed by that singer to be Bryant’s all-time favorite song. Beyoncé called the tune, not JayLo.
Lopez didn’t even get the musical equivalent of a few layups during the warm-up. She had to sit and watch other—inferior!—talents hog the limelight and pad their stats. JayLo’s agony must have been akin to that of the young Bryant when he was forced to come off the bench in his first two seasons with Lakers, the years just prior to the construction of Staples Center, the cathedral in which his hardwood heroics—including Monday’s posthumous ones—were recorded and have now been enshrined. Jerseys and Jumbotron are the relics and icons of our Age.
At least JayLo had someone to hold on to while riding the bench. Her grip around boyfriend Alex Rodriguez’s arm tightened noticeably during Christina Aguilera’s rendition of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria at the close of the ceremony. JayLo clung fervently to those infamous bi- and triceps as if they were steroid-enhanced rosary beads.
As for Aguilera, she stood saintly still during her performance even while her voice shimmied and shook. Aguilera’s funerary showboating ran up the score on bespectacled and beleaguered Franz—and JayLo, too.
Had there been a scorers table, Aguilera might have tried to jump onto it as Bryant had done near that very spot a decade earlier after Game 7 of the NBA Finals when he won his fifth championship at Staples Center. Atop his spontaneous plinth, the demi-god extended his arms with basketball in one hand like Hercules’s club, as if to gather within his mighty wingspan all the confetti and adoration raining down on him.
All Aguilera could do after her star turn was beam and bask. Emcee Jimmy Kimmel then mounted the podium to remind her to stand down, making a lame joke about her singing in Italian. Mr. Kimmel take note: half-Latina Aguilera sang Schubert’s wedding warhorse fully in Latin, as it’s always done. Because Aguilera didn’t vacate the stage expeditiously, she alone got a double ovation. However odd at a memorial service, ovations at Hollywood ceremonies, whether Oscars or obsequies, come with the territory in Tinseltown.
Perhaps Lopez’s antics at the recent Super Bowl in Miami had disqualified her from ascending the altar and lifting a hymn to the departed. On that Sabbath Day earlier in the month, she got vertical and twirled on a stripper’s pole doubling as the antenna of the Empire State Building. Hers were the motions of a slo-mo sex-copter enacted while Bryant’s ongoing period of mourning was still in effect. There were three songstresses Monday morning: besides Beyoncé and Aguilera, Alicia Keyes appeared at the event. All had appeared in variable states of provocative undress on previous Super Sundays. But these vocal and dance athletes have been on the bench for a string of state and civic rituals. It was their time to score some points.
Beyoncé opened the observances with XO and the suitably heavenly Halo. But over the ensuing two hours it was to be classical music, a confirmation of the prematurely departed Laker star’s own classic status.
Before Aguilera’s Ave Maria, an even bigger hit had been heard: Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. It was fitting that the piece should be called on, and not just because of its somber C-sharp minor ruminations. Beethoven, too, was given a huge public funeral, estimated at some 20,000 people, about the number of people who gathered in and around Staples Center, thus a much larger percentage of Vienna’s population in 1827 than Bryant’s rites tallied in LA in 2020.
Like incense, an unsettling synchronicity hung in the air of Staples as Bryant was sainted. One expected the Zeitgeist to appear on the Jumbotron, or at least see an ad for Hegel’s Drive-Thru-World-of-Spirits on Hollywood Boulevard. 2020 marks the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth, and no one could have expected that the most famous piano piece this side of Für Elise would reach its biggest ever global audience thanks to the untimely death of a basketball star.
According to another of the speakers, Bryant’s best friend and one-time agent (now the General Manager of the Lakers), Rob Pelinka, Bryant was always dreaming up romantic gestures for his wife, Vanessa, who stoically, touchingly delivered the morning’s first address. Pelinka related how Bryant once found himself in a hotel suite with a piano and seized the opportunity to learn the opening bars of Beethoven’s sonata by ear so that he could play them for his spouse.
Pelinka then introduced the performer Alicia Keyes—like Beyoncé and Aguilera, a Grammy winner—and the piece she was about to play as the “Moonlit” Sonata. Pelinka’s unwitting grammatical transformation of the nickname was strangely appropriate, as if that musical moon were a klieg light on the movie set that is LA. At least visibility was good.
The sobriquet “Moonlight” for this sonata goes back to an 1823 story by the Beethoven admirer, poet and music critic, Ludwig Rellstab. Here is the scene he sets to Beethoven’s piano celebrated piece: “A lake reposes in the faint shimmer of the moon; the waves lap softly on the dark shore; gloomy wooded mountains rise up and cut off the holy region from the world; swans glide like spirits through the water with whispering rustles, and an Aeolian harp mysteriously sounds laments of yearning lonely love down from those ruins.” The passage’s portent now extends to a mountainside in southern California. (In Staples the harp would have to wait until Aguilera’s Ave Maria.) Keyes’ Romantic surges and shifts were more dramatic than even the impetuous Beethoven might have countenanced.
She played the piece on a piano that was purple—like the face of the new moon before a solar eclipse. Keyes was clad in matching color, her singing voice silent for these musical reflections: contemplation not cantillation was called for at this juncture in the mournful rites. An all-black string quartet made sure the sonata became a safe space by adding a shimmering halo of musical and moral support for Keyes’s Beethovenian encounter. Ludwig Van’s production design was deemed insufficient on its own. (Aguilera’s string quartet was made up exclusively of white players with that heavenly harp thrown in just in case the conjuring of the pearly gates wasn’t clear enough already. Separate but equal obtained among the Staples fiddlers.)
Purple piano and purple planets had aligned. A coast away from the Staples solemnities, Harvey Weinstein got done on two out of three charges—at 66%, a damn sight better than the abysmal free-throw percentage of Bryant’s former Lakers teammate and the last of Monday’s eulogists, Shaquille O’Neal. Weinstein could never soar through the air and thrill crowds, make people love him even for one magical moment.
In drop-stepping away from rape charges back in 2003, Bryant’s defense team had followed the tried-and-true game plan of slut-shaming the accuser and leaking her identity to the press. The nineteen-year-old woman subsequently refused to testify in court and the Colorado prosecutors dropped the charges just before trial, even though the case had looked strong. There had been blood on her undergarments and on his shirt; the woman had bruises on her neck and tears in her vaginal wall. Bryant had admitted that he had not received explicit consent from her. She later brought a civil case against him and received an undisclosed settlement. Though he publicly apologized, Bryant maintained that he had believed the sex consensual.
In the aftermath of the rape charges, Bryant shed the skin of his previous brand (Kobe Bryant) for that of Black Mamba—the lethal, phallic snake that strikes in the movie, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 by Quentin Tarantino, the filmmaker whose work helped make Harvey Weinstein into a Hollywood mogul of power and prestige. The first installment of Kill Bill came out in 2003, the year of Bryant’s alleged assault.
With charges pending MacDonald and Coca Cola cut ties with him, Nike did not. Bryant’s Mamba shoe deal with that company brought him some sixteen million dollars annually.
Even for all his moves, Bryant could not completely shake the past. In 2018, after the advent of the #MeToo movement that Weinstein’s depredations had ushered in, Bryant was dropped from a film festival jury. Aside from that lone referee’s whistle, Hollywood embraced Bryant, even as it turned on Weinstein.
In basketball, as in life and death, there are winners and losers. Weinstein received the first installment of his earthly judgement the same day Bryant was being sanctified in Staples and his constellation spread across the firmament, Beethoven’s music rising up towards the darkened vault from which shone the gold and purple stars 8 and 24.
Beethoven did not connect his famous sonata with “moonlight.” He called the piece Sonata quasi una fantasia—“sonata in the manner of a fantasy.” The phrase bespoke freedom from constraining rules, yet the composer’s admirers heard a profound unity across the work’s three movements. One can also hear dark urges in this music. Beneath its uncanny calm lurks danger, even violence, however hard the maudlin string quartet of Keyes’s rendition worked to diffuse the threat.
Likewise, in Bryant’s life, work, and death one can trace intersecting lines, tragic vectors. Bryant was a self-styled Romantic of the hopeless variety. Dear Basketball, the short-animated film that Bryant wrote, won an Oscar in 2019, the retired star taking full advantage of his Hollywood homecourt advantage. The movie was shown again at Monday’s ceremony. To his own voice-over a cartoon version of Bryant is artfully portrayed accomplishing one of his greatest athletic feats. He flies through the air, spins, and completes a reverse dunk. It’s a rapturous, godlike act, the very embodiment of imagination and skill, desire and gratification—of fantasy and fulfillment. Icarus without wings, Bryant seems to defy gravity, launched as if to fly on forever. But after attaining his seemingly impossible goal of putting the rock in the hole he crashes back to earth.
Bryant’s legacy escapes those forces. For that to happen he had to have teammates who would sing his praises—in, on, and off court.