The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a Kobe Bryant jersey in its collection. But unlike artifacts from African American athletes including Carl Lewis and Curt Flood, the jersey is in the museum’s storage department. Now, amidst the mourning that has followed Bryant’s death in a helicopter accident, museum officials are deciding whether that should change.
The story of how Bryant’s jersey made its way to the museum dates to 2016, according to Damion Thomas, the museum’s sports curator. An LA native himself, Thomas was already a Lakers fan by the time Bryant visited. The retired star was among the museum’s founding donors, a status that required a $1 million donation. During the visit, Thomas and Bryant spent 45 minutes together talking about the social, cultural and political importance of basketball, and the impact he would leave on the world beyond the court.
“That’s one of my favorite parts of my job,” Thomas says. “I get to talk to people about their historic significance, and … I got to share with Kobe some of my thoughts about that.”
Thomas told Bryant that he was a transformative player in the basketball industry, and how his work ethic inspired those beyond the realm of sports. “Even if they never had a shot to play in the NBA, it was about a mentality and a mindset that people began to … embody and try to match Kobe in whatever sphere they were working in,” Thomas says.
After that conversation, Bryant donated his uniform jersey from the 2008 NBA Finals—the same year he won the NBA league’s MVP award. But the museum, massive though it may be, gets a lot more donations of artifacts than it has space to display. Bryant’s jersey fell into that category.
“We’re trying to figure out the best thing to do and we haven’t really come to a final conclusion just yet,” Thomas says.
It’s too early to say when or where people might get to see the uniform displayed, but for now visitors at the museum can still find an image of Bryant on one of the walls in the sports gallery’s basketball room. The wall, titled “Style Matters,” examines how African American expressive culture plays out through the sport. There, Bryant can be seen soaring through the air for one of his iconic slam dunks, demonstrating his athleticism, tenacity, and ability as an entertainer, Thomas says.
“When I was putting that wall together, thinking about styles of play and expressive culture, I couldn’t imagine doing that wall without putting up a picture of Kobe Bryant,” Thomas says.