The Incredible, Complex Legacy of Kobe Bryant
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Seeing the bracketed years is the lasting strangeness, the oddly stark finality of one’s life, etched into print with two years separated by a dash:
Kobe Bean Bryant
In what may be the most shocking event in professional basketball history (the only other event which approaches this much widespread heft and emotional impact would be Magic Johnson’s stunning 1991 HIV retirement announcement), one of the greatest--and immensely interesting--players in National Basketball Association history is gone. Compounding the tragedy is the loss of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, also in the helicopter that crashed in California, killing all passengers on board. Fittingly, Bryant and his daughter were en route to one of her basketball games.
When Bryant retired at the end of the 2015-16 season, he closed the door not only on one of the most unique, accomplished and perplexing careers in the history of the National Basketball Association but also on a uniquely pivotal era in the league's history. His second act had begun. During the last three years, Bryant seemed more than up for the task of reinventing himself once again, appearing more joyous even then during his playing days. He spent time creating, connecting, parenting, traveling and generally seeming to enjoy his newfound freedom. He won an (albeit moderately controversial) Oscar, coached his daughter’s basketball team and became a somewhat benevolent ambassador of the game and a true Laker For Life. He had two more daughters after leaving basketball, rendering him the veritable “sixth man” in his own family. By all appearances, he loved it all.
Bryant came into the league straight out of Philadelphia's Lower Merion High School in the 1996 NBA draft, picked by Charlotte before being immediately traded to the Lakers (maybe the shrewdest move ever by former Laker GM Jerry "The Logo" West). Excluding Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, all the best players of the Original 1992 Dream Team were still in the league. The Chicago Bulls were at the start of their second three-peat. Aside from Michael Jordan, the idea of a player's "brand" was still an infant concept. Social media did not exist. People still got their sports information from their televisions or in print. Other than people from the Philadelphia area or diehard hoop junkies, nobody really knew much about Bryant before he got drafted. Had he been drafted in our current era, we would have known about The Mamba from the beginning, of course. But back then, we didn't know. Everything changed in the next two decades. And with it, so too did Bryant.
Before his body committed its final act of betrayal, rendering his Achilles tendon wholly unreliable by professional basketball standards, Bryant had become the cranky elder statesman of the NBA, a past-his-prime hoops gunslinger but still-deadly-on-choice-nights player who says whatever he wants (he inexplicably scored 60 points in his final NBA game). This Bryant was fully removed from the bright, precocious youngster with a bright smile and brash swagger to a middle aged baller playfully lamenting the current generation of players while hinting at his own athletic mortality through funny Twitter posts and interviews.
During his final season, it became painfully apparent the Bryant both reviled and loved over the last two decades was a shell of his former self, reduced to shooting air balls and giving countless pump fakes in an attempt to mask his lost quickness and inability to drive to the basket. Sure, the overall statistical line was oddly decent for someone who hadn't really played full time for three seasons, but the truth was obvious; Bryant was done. The comparisons to Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield were now whispered out in the open rather than behind closed doors. Bryant, finally, appeared to be washed up.
At the end, however, the controversial, often derided great became cautiously loved and admired by those who rooted against him all those years. His fans are perhaps the most rabid and unapologetic of any player in recent memory (insult #24 on Twitter and see how long it takes before his loyal legions go into tweeting attack mode. You won’t have time to get another cup of coffee). Bryant was also the most intellectually curious and uniquely constructed ex-athlete we’ve seen in a long, long time, maybe ever. Bryant spoke fluent Italian (and dabbled in Serbian and French while claiming a desire to learn Arabic someday) and was one of the most authentically global athletes in history, possibly more beloved in China, South America and Europe than he is in his own country (he had millions more followers on the Chinese social media giant Weibo than entire NBA teams).
Bryant, more than any other American-born player, knew of the larger world beyond the United States. Spending a huge amount of his time growing up in Italy, Bryant honed his game thousands of miles away from his future high school, binge watching VHS tapes of old NBA games, becoming a virtual NBA historian, especially when it came to anything related to Michael Jordan. He learned a much different game than American kids do today, essentially becoming the first de facto European player born in America. Kobe Bryant managed his global brand, one which will keep his remaining family financially secure for the rest of their lives. Along with Lebron James, Bryant is the only player ever mentioned in comparison to Jordan, and for good reason--his game, mannerisms and approach to basketball as a business eerily mirrors the former Bulls star. Watch his highlight reel sometime and then Jordan's. It's all there. Bryant, of course, was not quite as great as Jordan was, no matter how one tries to torture the numbers or history. He just wasn’t. But he was really close. And there's nothing at all wrong with that, because Bryant was so very, very good, easily one of a small handful of players considered to be the greatest ever to play the game. So great Bird once said if he could play with anyone around after he retired, he would choose Bryant. Hands down. He was widely seen as an unapologetic gunner, a me-first player whose individual brilliance was unquestioned but never embraced. A player who was feared during much of his playing career but never beloved. It is difficult to find a teammate, current or former, who will commit to saying he really enjoyed playing with Bryant, even though he was a driving force on five championship teams (two of which where he was unquestionably the best player). But yet he is the most revered player of this generation. Today’s NBA, strangely, is filled to the rim with Sons of Kobe. Today’s players treat him as a hoops shaman, the all time great player who still actually seemed real. Jordan, after all, is a YouTube highlight compilation for the vast majority of current players.
Bryant remains a wildly popular player among a hardened cadre of basketball fans yet has never earned the widespread, unquestionable hero worship Jordan did. He has played for one team his entire career despite more than one Come To Jesus Moment where it seemed inevitable that he would leave the Lakers and head to some greener pasture (he was all but traded to Detroit in the mid-2000s before the deal was killed at the last moment and he fully expected to become a Los Angeles Clipper before that deal got squashed). He might very well be the best Laker ever (Magic Johnson puts a huge wrinkle in this debate) and is the fourth highest scorer of all time behind Lebron James, Karl Malone and all time scoring king Kareem Abdul- Jabbar. All in all, not bad. Not bad at all.
In the end, we may likely have to settle for this: an abundance of brilliant, truly spectacular moments thankfully preserved because Laker Employee #8/#24 played in the YouTube era. His spectacular 1997 Slam Dunk Contest win during his rookie year. His record-tying four All Star Game MVPs. His wunderkind 2001 performance in the Finals against his kind-of-hometown Sixers. The high lob pass to Shaq in the fourth quarter of Game Seven against Portland in 2000 that capped off an incredible and furious comeback (and saved the season). His lone MVP year in 2007-08. His should-have-been MVP years in 2005-06 & 2006-07 where he took one of the most dud-filled supporting casts and actually competed in the Western Conference. His 81-point game. His two scoring titles. Two Olympic gold medals (2008 & 2012). His playoff runs in 2009 and 2010, championship wins which cemented his reputation as one of the singularly greatest players in NBA history.
Without question, there was brilliance in bunches during Bryant's career. But there was very little joy. Bryant never seemed inspired in his pursuit of greatness. As great as he was, Bryant just made it all look so damn hard. To me, Bryant clearly was a changed man after his rape trial in 2004. That's when it all changed. He became very guarded, smiled less, played more maniacally night in and night out, and started portraying himself as a Bad Man, as if to embody the reputation he figured everyone was creating for him anyway. But he eventually softened a bit, but never again showed the outgoing nature he exhibited in his first few years in the league. Bryant was feared. He was respected. But only in retirement did he become beloved.
Magic, Bird and Jordan undoubtedly all had the same killer instinct that Bryant possesses, but they let people in, gave them a seat at the table, smiled once in awhile, let everyone know that they too understood how fun and mesmerizing this all was, that it was indeed just as real and just as great for them as it was for everyone else. Even people that didn't follow basketball kind of liked them. Sure, they were killers. They had huge egos and were not without their own controversies, both on and off the court. But they understood the value of performance and giving good theater when it was needed. Jordan shrugging his shoulders during an astonishing shooting clinic in the 1992 Finals against Portland. Bird pumping his fist after a big play or laughing while verbally daring opposing coaches to find a guy who could guard him. Magic hugging Kareem after a last second season-opening win his rookie year or letting the crowd wash over him as he won MVP honors at the 1992 All Star Game. They all knew. It was a game. It was supposed to be fun, even when it wasn't.
If you YouTube (yes, I used it as a verb. Cut me a break) Kobe overseas, you will find a much different guy, one who was much less guarded and much more playful out in public than the one we saw here in the U.S. He waded in and out of crowds. He accepted full court, one on one challenges from Chinese teenagers (he even lost to one of them), contests he approached as if he is playing against MJ in some mythical Game Seven. You can see it, his carefree bounce eventually subsiding as he bore down, got serious, made some shots and eventually puts the satisfied upstart youngster away to make way for the next opponent. It is something to see, but Americans didn't often see that Kobe here, either because he didn't want to make the effort or didn't think it would work.
We have created a very hyper vigilant, cynical and even vile sports culture in the United States. In some ways, Bryant reflects this culture, playing with a perpetual chip on his shoulder for most of his career, a self-imposed outsider even though he was better than most everyone else much of the time. Bryant was one of the most complex and transitional players in NBA history. He came into the league while Jordan and the Bulls had two more titles left in the tank and Tim Duncan was still at Wake Forest. Most of the 1992 Dream Team was still in the league. He was there for the 1999 lockout. The league is a much different place than it was back in 1996 and in many ways, for the better. There is more parity (not always good) and the play has opened up much more to the team-oriented, spread the floor, drive, kick out and shoot style popular for years in Europe. Bryant represents the bridge between wildly different eras and might be the last truly great individual, unique talent we will see for some time.
These days, the mysteries of the game almost seems solved, as bruising post play has yielded to a statistically more prudent barrage of three pointers from deep territory coupled with “pace and space” strategies every time up and down the floor. Coaches are more managers now and players models of admirable efficiency. Bryant was different. He came as close to displaying an artistic, individual genius on the court as anyone since Jordan, and in many ways, he was very different from Jordan no matter how doggedly he tried to mimic him. And these differences were what made Byrant his own hoops savant, one for which the mold will certainly not preserved. There will never be another player like Bryant. It’s not possible because he was so unprecedented and unique. Examining his career is akin to looking back on the body of work by a fine artist, one whose highs and lows, various eras and phases, greatness and shortcomings can all be viewed like a bygone sketchbook or museum gallery. There is no part of Bryant’s career we can’t access. This makes him different from any player before or after him.
You will not find one player in today's league who will question Bryant's greatness or his legacy. Current player Paul George perhaps said it best in calling Kobe "his generation's Jordan". They all get it, and rightfully so. They eat at the table he set for them. They are all, to a man, Sons of Kobe. Bryant bridged the old era to the one they all enjoy today. Money is better, the players have power, the league is stronger, more teams can compete, and despite some missteps along the way (the Clippers-Sterling mess, the Donaghy officiating scandal, an occasional labor dispute), the state of the NBA is good. Ask Lebron, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry or Anthony Davis. They are all benefitting from the last generation. Bryant helped make that happen. The Buss family owns the Lakers but really, Bryant ran the team his entire career. Anyone connected with the organization knows this. Whenever it came down to someone else or Bryant, the choice was always to keep Kobe. Now, he is past tense. In the end, however, fans and supporters will likely choose to keep Kobe every time. In many ways, Bryant is more than a Laker For Life. He is everyone’s favorite player now, gone way too soon but someone we’ve seen grow up and now, leave us for good.