KOBE BRYANT: MAGNUM OPUS
by Ashinafie Abebe
Ever since I can remember I have been a basketball fanatic, energized by this awesome sport where the ball never stops moving and neither does the action. It has captured my attention in ways that a 7th inning stretch, endless left turns, and whatever an icing call is simply do not. The sound of sneakers on hardwood, the swishing of the net after buckets, and the dense noise created by the proximity of the crowd to the action is the score of a sport that the best athletes in the world compete, and where winning and losing are often separated by only a dribble or two. The N.B.A., where basketball is played at its zenith, showcases thirty-foot three pointers and free-throw line dunks that are the norm rather than the exception. There have been many changes made to this game that for better or worse have revolutionized basketball into what it is today. The use of analytics, the exponential rise in the emphasis of perimeter play and even the implementation of a mandatory dress code has shifted basketball and its culture in dramatic fashion. However, for the entirety of my basketball watching experience one steady fact has remained true; Kobe Bryant is unflinchingly, unrelentingly, and unashamedly the top dog.
My first basketball memories are ebbing glimpses of Michael Jordan and last of his six titles with the Bulls in 1998. This period of time is encapsulated better by others than what I myself remember. The faded Bulls sweater I got for Christmas, the look of excitement on my fathers face when man seemingly could fly, and the Space Jam basketball my brother and I would argue over every day remind me of this time clearer than what I can recall firsthand. The dusk of Jordan Era would be a first impression to this game, however my formal introduction would come following the retirement of Air Jordan and begin in earnest during a period in which the lack of a clearly defined hierarchy created a vacuum of copycats and wannabees. However , little did I know that a prodigy was incubating, preparing to fill that vacuum and put his stamp on professional basketball for a generation to come.
In the early 2000s any one would have been hard-pressed to find a more feverish Los Angles Lakers fan than myself. It was not only the winning, but the apparent lack of difficulty required that endeared me to this team. The star power that having Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and even role players that could step in given an opportunity lent itself to a child just beginning to learn the game. There was Robert Horry and Derek Fisher always ready to take the big shot, in addition to Brian Shaw and Devean George ready to do the dirty work and grind it out on the defensive end made this squad the team to root for as a child. It seemed that the Lakers always had a chance, this squad and its depth gave credence to the importance, at that time, put upon sharing and it being conducive to success. To boot, Los Angeles also had the greatest coach in the world and at any time through the TV an audible raspy drawl, or an ear-splitting whistle, which as a kid I thought was the most humorous thing in the world, could be heard from Phil Jackson’s direction and something good would happen for the Purple-and-Gold. The Lakers also became my team because they were from the same place I was, and were an extended home team in Minneapolis when my hometown Minnesota Timberwolves were struggling (which at that time they surprisingly were not). This team where titles came as regularly as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, held my imagination and my attention captive as if it was the Larry O’Brien trophy itself.
As a child then this team was my joy and its catalyst was Shaquille O’neal. My immature sensibilities were enthused by his use of defenders as merely crash dummies and the rim as target practice, in addition to his huge domination on the court being matched by zeal off of it intrigued me to no end. His were the moves I tried to practice, whose nicknames I adopted, and whose jersey I wore proudly for years. But I was always aware that, like myself, there was a younger brother in the family waiting in the wings, looking to get out out of his siblings shadow and make his own footprint.
Their unity lasted until they had won a trifecta of championships. Having some of the most dominant playoff success the N.B.A. had ever seen led by their talented yet tumultuous duo had placed them among the most dynamic dynasties ever. By the 2004 however, this team has descended into scandal, bickering divas, and underachievement, which turned this once mighty powerhouse into bumbling circus. By that time I had also evolved, I fashioned myself a rebel, no longer a contented optimistic child, in my adolescent years I was looking to buck the system. I believed that the Lakers dynasty was a media darling and I was beginning to look elsewhere for a team that was not a part of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. I discovered the Detroit Pistons and was immediately intrigued. This team was a shock to the senses, from the mask sported by Rip Hamilton, to the steady, if not unspectacular, lead of Chauncey Billups, even the rough outlook of the city of Detroit made this team as anti-Los Angeles as possible. I even grew an Afro to resemble the hairdo sported by their chiseled and tough defensive anchor, Ben Wallace. The Pistons were my choice to win it all, however the Western Conference Finals were particularly hard because the hometown Timberwolves came up just short against the once-mighty Lakers. Detroit’s Finals victory against Los Angeles made me believe that it was good riddance for the squad that was pushing out seemingly everything that made it great and instead becoming a team that was all sizzle and no steak. The loss that year represented a turning shift, one that seemingly shifted leaders of the franchise and made the Lakers have to choose between there two stars, this proverbial fork in the road being necessitated not only by all the changes happening in the organization but that the imprint of the budding phenomenon was beginning to irreparably supersede the direction provided by the established veteran superstar.
Shortly after this time, I was hit hard by the fresh-faced phenom from Akron. Lebron James came on the scene like a hurricane, sweeping up everything in his midst and turning it his own. No longer content with deferring and being totally ego-less, as a preteen I was looking to be recognized for my accomplishments while still being a capable and sharing team player. At that time I was also able to express my new allegiance to the kingdom of James economically as well, using my hard-earned allowance and purchasing my first poster, expensive pair of basketball shoes, and even magazine cover all bearing his likeness. I regarded Kobe as a petulant superstar who couldn’t play nice and was no longer cool, unlike Lebron who was a superstar for the new era, giving assists with the same frequency as buckets, playing team ball while still able to dominate at will, and having your friends with you every step of the way made me want to be like him the way the generation before wanted to be Like Mike.
In the 8th grade my best friend Steven Lee and I would argue every day about who was the better player between Kobe and Lebron. So much so that in the hallways classmates would turn the other way even when the topic of basketball was not being discussed, in fear that the smallest inkling would set off a storm of hoops-related banter. Everything was fair-game for this continual argument; the box score, the win column, even the quality of their respective individual NIKE-sponsored shoes were fodder and used to further the other player. I sided with Lebron, his unselfish game and winning team was being, in my opinion, not properly respected by the Lakers led by the evident empty stat-chasing of their respect superstar. Steven countered with the ridiculous numbers being put up, the sixty-point streak, eighty-one in a single game, sixty-three points in three quarters, the sheer individual dominance shown that had never been seen on such scale previously. None of us were willing to give an inch in this argument, but interestingly, along the way of us debating hotly the merit of these dueling megastars, the Los Angeles Lakers became contenders again.
Unlike previously, when every move was analyzed and every substitution debated, the second time around I had a much more passive interest. I was a teenager and while following the Lakers like the enthralled child I was being no longer possible, a new found admiration was present for Kobe and his unparalleled greatness.Now I was looking at the subtlety present in Bryant’s game that was previously missed; feet work, positioning, and other minute details that made his game elevate past that of the average high-scoring guard. As a jaded teenager looking to see whether they were for real after all of the commotion surrounding their last dynasty, I was focused on whether the distractions could be minimized in order start a new championship core. This time Kobe was the man, the newly labeled Black Mamba simply wanted it more than everyone else, and could express it as much as he saw fit unlike previously, when the emotional leader was the big man in the middle rather than the young high-flying upstart. This go-round however Kobe made sure he was the focal point, whether it was the snarl against the Nuggets or the being voted Finals Most Valuable player, the spotlight was on him and he was going to make sure the spoils were also.
At that time it seemed as if he was playing basketball against not just the other team, but against time itself. Staunchly set against any slippage or stagnation, any feeling of such that was detected in the organization was met with swift annihilation. Trade demands for teammates and even himself were not off the table if there was any notion that the current state of affairs is accepted and no improvements were being sought. The trade that netted Pau Gasol while getting rid of Kwame Brown made them title contenders but the favorites where the newly-mighty Celtics made powerful through the off-season additions of both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett (a trade that was executed, surprise, by former Celtic Kevin McHale) made the next three Finals extremely dramatic with the Lakers falling in the first go-round, injuries preventing a consecutive match up in a Lakers win, and the Lakers repeating after prevailing in a 7-game series. This time as a fan of the game, the Finals was enjoyed as pure drama with the contemporary teams constantly being compared with the achievements of their historic predecessors. Whether in victory or in defeat the catalyst in the fight shown by the Lakers was always Kobe. Whether it was hitting game winners against the Celtics or coming up clutch against the Phoenix Suns so many times that Alvin Gentry threw his hands up more than an NFL referee, respect should be given the Mamba, as his hard work and will enabled him to come through time and time again.
Following the championship runs, things inevitably changed. I moved on to college, leaving where I had grown up for new places. For the Lakers, Phil leaving again, the creation of the Miami Heat super team, and father time took Los Angeles off the top of the totem pole and slowly changed the contenders to a rebuilding team looking to assemble young talent in an effort to reload on star power in a place where that has never been a problem.
Here we are today 20 years after the kid from Lower Merion declared that he was ready for the pros and college was not the place for him. Time does not wait for anyone, athletes included. An average NBA career is less than six years and ever-decreasing. It should be applauded that anyone has remained at the top of their game for two decades, much less a global ambassador that took the sport to heights while toting enough rings to fill a fist and enough injuries to fill a medical journal. A full two decades have passed since the cocksure teenager with glasses perched as if resembling a crown, told the world that he was ready to be anointed as a professional, not merely content to play in the collegiate ranks. In the last two decades I have grown from toddler to a teenager and now to an adult and although it is the end of an era this also feels like the beginning of a new chapter.
Five years from now when Bryant is going in the Basketball Hall of Fame his highlight-reel plays with be unearthed, his moments reexamined, and history will be relived. But to merely pay attention to athletic achievements is to sell short perhaps the his most redeeming quality; the will to not stop and keep going for success is something that he has shown time and time again. As important to the legacy as scoring more than eighty points in a game is, it’s debatable whether him not giving an inch when Matt Barnes pantomimed throwing the ball in his face is as relevant to his story. As humorous as Chris Rock is, the fact that there was a chance to finish the climb up a mountain most never get close to starting, rendered his jokes useless and humor inaudible to someone who had a sole focus of adding another ring to the cabinet. To merely suggest that Bryant is a basketball player is ludicrous, a NIKE campaign shows this when surrounding him by luminaries from numerous fields he doesn’t seem out of place, it doesn’t feel forced that Richard Branson or Kanye West could conceivably ask not only a great athlete but a great competitor on how to get better. Showing pirouettes against the Knicks or behind-the-back reverse slam dunks feel cheap without the context of endless hours of practice, the determination to always want more, and a now-official mantra that while friends hang out, banners hang forever. It feels safe to say that merely feeding stats does not due justice to a player that when suffering a torn Achilles heel did not turn to the bench but instead to the free-throw line to shoot two. As a child the flash of the Lakers attracted me, as a teenager I was focused on the cool-factor of recently minted superstars, but now as an adult I have learned to appreciate the process. As time as progressed appreciation for the details has increased, the dunks and flash being replaced by feet work and fundamentals. As his career wound down I began to analyze that rapid transformation that had taken place and it surprisingly paralleled what I was feeling. From being a sidekick to figuring things out for myself while finding an equilibrium, it feels similar to his story line in more ways than one.
What is sometimes omitted when discussing the legacies of athletes is the intangibles. A lot can can run, jump, or throw, but is there heart, the desire, or want? A hard truth is that not all athletes, even some of the most popular, are not primarily motivated by winning. Especially in pro sports attention, brand, or contract can easily become the singular desire from which success is measured. To simply expect absolute rejection of the chances to maximize earnings and expect only sole focus on sport is foolish but there has never been more examples of success-lacking superstars than there are today. These days determination comes second to direct messages, focus is a distant second to followers, and fashion has ascended over winning. I don’t think it fair to put all contemporary players in a box and say none care about winning, Damien Lillard, Isiah Thomas, and Draymond Green showcase that a never-say-die attitude and the will to not quit still exist in basketball today, but Bryant remains the single purest example to the testament of prioritizing winning above all else.
Few athletes have made it as apparent that winning is the main focus as Kobe Bryant has. From the constant overachieving in practice that left veterans miffed to needling teammates until they either grow or broke, there are few boundaries Kobe has not crossed in pursuit of success on the court. Whether feuding with Shaq for being out of shape or with Mitch Kupchak for being out of touch a single thread connecting a majority of the problems is wanting to push as hard as possible in the journey to achieve victory. When Dwight Howard came to the Lakers the mindset was supposed to a championship and not merely impressions and softness. Arguments with Phil were seemed centered around the fact that the triangle offense was a great philosophy but when in possession of the best player on the floor a certain amount of isolation would help gain an advantage. Even last year a practice spate with Kupchak that went viral showcased that even then with gunning for rings a thing of the past and seemingly the only thing being played for is ping-pong balls, the urge to be the best, and the desire to win more than 21 games lingered. Winning was also readily apparent on the self-titled Lil Wayne anthem in in soundbite, Kobe proclaims that to be the best is the reason to play, and anyone proclaiming to be the best above all must win. How many superstars echo similar sentiment today?
To be human is to err, and athletes are not any different. From the beginning of his career there have been missteps and faulty calculations that have put him in predicaments that could have been avoided. From his announcement looking cockier than most people thought a teenager should be, to breaking his wrist in a Venice Beach pickup game that the newly minted millionaire should probably not have been playing in, there have been errors in the math before the he stepped foot on an NBA court. To brush past the spates with teammates(namely Shaq but also including Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, Karl Malone, and Dwight Howard) and coach Phil Jackson who famously labeled the superstar as uncoachable is to whitewash unnecessarily the legacy of a player who went from media darling to most hated to global icon as doggedly and as thoroughly as the transformation from boy wonder to inefficent superstar to sage champion. The humanity is in the journey for the basketball player who lost many of his sponsors as a result of a sexual assault accusation and then proceeded not only to change his number, but his attitude in general. If one shoe company drops him, he get another one and did it better than the first, if a drink company says they no longer wanted him to endorse their products, he made his own drink to stand by.
Here we are at the conclusion, the final chapter of the N.B.A. Career of Kobe Bryant. An esteemed career that was marked with both perseverance and setbacks which in turn, totaled up into one of the most distinguished careers seen in sports much less professional basketball. Countless accolades and signature moments sprinkle the last twenty years making a period of time that consists of five presidential terms, two official takings of the census, or the last 7300 days seem as if it passed quicker than the blink of an eye. I myself have continued to change as well, coming of age from an optimistic child to a jaded teenager to an adult looking to pass on knowledge to the next generation. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Tupac Shakur to Young Thug, culture and society as a whole has shifted exponentially and yet a comforting consistency remained with Kobe wearing the Lakers uniform, which made no change feel too radical, no shift in the game too deviant as to alarm the old timers, but with the retirement this last of the old guard has now rode off into the sunset. To remember the Black Mamba era is special, to be able to say I grew up in it in the future I hope will carry the cache as previous generations telling you where they where when Jordan delivered his special moments. Coming up in this era gave me a prime example of competition and never quitting, which translates to much more than basketball. So thanks Kobe, thank you for not quitting when things went wrong with Shaq, thanks for being the leader that a league grown soft is not ready to deal with any more, thanks for showing that at the end of the day banners are what matters most. Salutations for continuing to push, to grind, to never stop even when conventional wisdom or even coaches told you. Thanks for being being the Mamba, for better or worse, and not taking back any of it. Hopefully this fire lit by one of the toughest competitors even seen by this game of basketball burn bright long after the ball stops bouncing.Mamba out.
P.S. Can the Target Center please have its gravity back now? Thanks.
Edited following 60-point final game.