Married to the Mamba

Fans are always the first to realize and last to admit when a player has started to decline. I remember watching the Lakers in 2008, fresh off of the trade for Pau Gasol that thrust a mediocre team into championship contention again, and texting my friend about how it seemed like Kobe wasn’t himself.

“He wasn’t dunking that much anymore,” I told him, wondering to myself if something was wrong.

For any fan who remembers Kobe’s early years through his prime, it wasn’t the game winning shots, or the 81 point performance that really defined his game - it was him going one-on-one, breaking down a defender, and dunking on the big man in middle, that really made you fall in love as a fan. And like Kobe of 2015, that style of play is a relic of the way basketball used to be played in the late 90’s and early to mid-2000’s — before the influence of analytics and efficiency that makes today’s basketball both beautiful, often exciting and, for me, occasionally bland.

It‘s a little quaint to think that one of the reasons people tuned in to watch those early 2000’s match ups with the T-Mac and Yao Ming Rockets teams was to see if Kobe would dunk on the towering Chinese center. When he finally did, going baseline and somehow moving the ball around Yao’s outstretched hand in mid-air, it became part of No. 8 Kobe’s signature.

But No. 24 Kobe was a different player, taking more jump shots, using more footwork, pump faking. Still dunking, still making highlights but with more trickery than acceleration and bounce. In simpler terms, he had lost a step.

By 2010 his knees were trashed and the pain in his body was becoming obvious. By 2010, for all intents and purposes his dominance was over. Along with it, the championship window closed through 2011 and 2012. Somewhere in there he had a knee procedure and had one of his best seasons in years in 2013 — unfortunately coming in the shadow of a disaster season with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Mike Brown (ugh), and Mike D’Antoni. And then he tore his Achilles and it took til 2015 for me and other Kobe fans to see that it was completely over.

In hindsight, Kobe should have retired then. That season was an incredible individual feat, nearly leading the league in scoring his 17th season and doing it all with his skill and what athleticism he had left. But it’s his life and his career and i’d be lying if I said I didn’t enter this season wondering if he had some version of that game left in him in 2015.

In Sickness and in Health

Its one thing to be a fan of a sport, or a team, or a certain roster and completely another to be committed to a player. You become invested in the name, the personality, the off and on the court stories — the legacy. It’s a dangerous proposition to become invested in a player in much the same way it is to be in a committed relationship. It becomes a two-way exchange that leaves you raw and unprotected. For every great day you have together, you can’t disappear when the bad times come and like the slighted wife, you stand by them, embarrassed, angry, humiliated when they betray you. And if you’ve never been committed to a player, let me tell you from experience, you will be put in that situation - desperately and halfheartedly grasping at straws to justify and defend your man.

But the highs, man, in some ways there’s no better way to watch sports.

To make the obvious comparison, you become married to your favorite player. For better or worse, sickness and in health, 81 points on 28–46 shooting and 4 points on 1–14. Very few players are worthy of this level of commitment. Some franchises haven’t had one good candidate in 20 years. Even fewer are transcendent like Kobe and only a handful of other players have been (Jordan, Magic, Bird, Lebron… Curry?).

For me, Kobe became basketball - a result of me growing up as a teenage Laker fan during the late 90’s into 2000’s, my most formative and influential sports watching years. Admittedly, because of that, I have a basketball blind spot. I could never be completely objective in my assessment of Kobe. (We could draft the next Kobe and I probably wouldn’t be able to admit that they were even as good, much less better than he was.) But at the same time, I know him better than most, certainly than the non-fans, the casual fans, fans in other relationships.

The worst

Kobe the Rapper

Early on he was shoehorned into the basketball culture of the era. Being the son of an NBA player, who lived Italy until high school with upper-middle class, conservative upbringing, he tried to play the part of an American athlete. Putting out a terrible rap album, playing street ball, wearing the jewelry, wearing the amazing and terrible hip hop fashions of that time. He played up his confidence, played up his ego in those early years (especially after the Shaq feud began) and always put on the expected face. Think about some of his contemporaries in that early part of his career after the Jordan era — Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, Vince Carter, — all brash, outspoken, selfish showmen with a lot of skill but even more flash. Kobe was all of those things on the court, but without a ball in his hands, he was none of them.

Contrast this with his counterpart, early-2000’s Shaq, and it was painfully obvious. Shaq was able to occupy that rare space of feared athlete, family friendly joker, life of the party, and leader of a team. Shaq could put out rap albums, star in terrible movies, have a nonsensical video game, be a Laker and be a citizen of the league. Kobe tried to be that too.

Thanks to the never-ending embarrassment factory that is the internet, many will go back and listen to his ill-conceived rap career, but that too was a product of the time-honored tradition of sports stars going outside of the bounds of their expertise — and many, many athletes have taken part, believing they were talented musicians. But Kobe’s songs are particularly embarrassing and cringe-worthy to me. If Ron Artest raps, we can chalk it up to his brand of insanity. If Allen Iverson raps, you know he’s about that life. But when Kobe raps, it seems contrived and humorless in addition to being bad. It felt desperate.

Shaq’s songs are not great either, but in recent years have seemed to find a place in the history of music and he has the ability to laugh at himself. Like so many times in Kobe’s career, his best work was on the hardwood and whenever he strayed outside of it, as a fan you had to prepare your excuses.

The best dunk ever.

Feeding the Monster

Kobe was always known as a selfish player, even in an era of selfish basketball. He was labeled a ball hog, a bad teammate, a showboat — but his greatest virtue, as a player and as a person, was his determination to improve himself. Every year he improved his game, putting time into practice during the seasons and between them. Not every player who played with Kobe has fond things to say about him, but to a man, they always note his work ethic. It was and continues to be his greatest shield against criticism. His inability and unwillingness to be lazy, to an obsessive level, is why Kobe became an all-time great. It’s why his fans love him.

The greatest secret about Kobe’s career is that he wasn’t always a lock to become a superstar. He garnered the comparisons to Jordan coming out of high school, but so did Grant Hill, Vince Carter, T-Mac and host of other shooting guards. In terms of tired sports cliche’s, comparing a 2 or 3 guard to Jordan was the Mount Rushmore cliche of the turn of the 20th century.

But Kobe wasn’t Lebron James — NBA ready at 18 with seemingly more potential than he could ever really tap into. Kobe was good coming out of the draft, but he didn’t even start during his first few years with the Lakers. He was athletic but wasn’t a freak athlete (like Jordan, Lebron, Shaq, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, 2011 Derrick Rose) or a player with unusual skill for his size ( like Kevin Durant, Magic Johnson, Shaq, Anthony Davis ) and while he had the beginnings of a complete game, his jump shot wasn’t perfect and his handle was good but not great. But by the time the team was NBA Finals ready in 2000, he was already as good as the best at his position. By the end of that dynasty in 2004, he was the best at his position and among the best in the NBA.

His tenacity was his defining virtue and even today when I see the younger generation of top players failing to bring it every night like Kobe did in those years, I just hear the Jalen and Jacoby Jay-z drop, He’s alright but he’s not real.

The Worst of Times

People think that right now is the worst time to be a Laker fan, but for me, its way worse to have a peak, unlikable superstar on a mediocre team than an aging former star on a bottom feeder team. Especially when he went beyond the traditional bounds of un-likability.

Prior to what was to be the last season with Shaq, and the additions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, the news broke that Kobe had been arrested and accused of sexual assault.

I remember my brother telling me, “Did you hear the news? Kobe was arrested.”

I didn’t believe it at first (of course, why would you? Its a bizarre thing to hear, such a brash crime. Black and white. He’s bad for doing this and how could we not have figured him for that kind of person?). My favorite player in my favorite sport, was not just being charged with a crime, but a disgusting and vile one. One that immediately changed how we would see, the once young, lovable Laker upstart.

In the days afterward my brother walked over to me again, “Did you hear the news? Kobe got shot.”

“WHAT!” I yelled, reeling at the thought of what had transpired in just the past few days.

“Just kidding,” he said, laughing — a dark joke we break out every now again to this day.

He eventually beat the rap and settled with the woman out of court, but even as an all-time Kobe Stan, I always have to wonder what really happened. Even now, looking back, I don’t know how to feel about it. It’s more Woody Allen than Cosby, if that makes sense.

What Dave Chappelle said in his stand-up wasn’t a joke — Kobe putting up 40 points a night during the court proceedings was his way of fighting public opinion on live TV — a battle he won it turns out, for what it’s worth.

The Athletic Peak

Peak Kobe was insane. His body had completely changed, he was too fast, too strong for most defenders and had too many moves. The way he would break down a defender off the dribble or take the classic turnaround baseline jumper, or drive down the middle to cram on some unsuspecting center was as beautiful as it was hard to believe.

The way people watch Steph Curry today and have their minds blown, was Kobe in 2004–2007. When Kobe got hot, it seemed like nothing was out of bounds for him. He wasn’t always efficient, but he was deadly effective from every spot on the floor. The best part was that you always knew when Kobe was hot. When he made two shots on back to back possessions, especially from 3, the rest of the team may as well sit on the bench because he’s taking the third one guaranteed. If he made the third one, the other team may as well sit on the bench because he was about to score 45 on you. And as a Laker fan, it seemed like it happened every night.

It’s hard to describe the nightly greatness of Kobe in those days except to say that when a player reaches that level you come to expect it every night. No player during his era peaked as high as he did or maintained that level of play for so long.

*Lebron is that way now, in his 12th season, but his body seems unbreakable in a way that Kobe’s wasn’t.

He was unguardable. You could make him shoot more to get his points, but he always got them. Nobody ever smothered him out of his game because it was so complete. You don’t realize how good Kobe was in his prime until you watch a typical all-stars react when they are forced out of their sweet spot. Then you start to see cracks, like oh, Blake Griffin cant really get his own shot, Westbrook doesn’t have a counter to someone getting in front of him, Harden needs the whistle, Durant isn’t aggressive enough, Lebron doesn’t have a great post game.

Of course not all players need a complete one-on-one game to be effective, some, like Lebron, use their passing skill, court vision and intelligence improve the players around them, or like Steph Curry, are unguardable in other ways, or like Kobe’s closest contemporary, Tim Duncan, they have a coach and a system and a willingness to sacrifice in order to keep winning. But Kobe’s effectiveness was his unmatched repertoire of moves and at his peak, it also met up with near-elite athleticism.

Unfortunately it didn’t matter because those teams were not great — but Kobe was.

The Black Mamba

By 2007 it was clear that a team of Kobe, Lamar Odom and a bunch of random basketball players, wasn’t going to win another championship, even with Phil at the helm. They had a few fun playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, with some signature Kobe moments but it was obvious that they would be nothing but a first round playoff team unless some big changes were made. But when Kobe declared that he wanted to be traded, it hurt. The idea that he would bandy about the ultimatum over the city and franchise that made him great, at the height of his powers, seemed unthinkable. It would be the first inkling of my world without Kobe — something that I've gotten used to the past few years.

He blamed everyone else for his problems, played as though the other guys on his team were accidentally in the NBA and made everyone think, should we have sided with Shaq? The talk of him leaving eventually ended — supposedly Phil Jackson knocked some sense into him — but if it hadn’t have been for the Lakers greatest coup since trading for Kobe, trading trash (well trading Marc Gasol who isn’t trash now) to get Pau Gasol, it could have been the end.

Kobe, I think, needed a new identity having so completely tarnished his No. 8 boy wonder, Jordan heir-apparent reputation that it cost him his peak, an MVP trophy, and the respect of fans. So he suddenly became No. 24. Coming at that time, right at the end of his physical peak and at the beginning of his second championship run, it ended up dividing his career. It was the beginning of him leaving behind the old, childish, awkward but gifted player and moved toward somebody who didn’t just pay lip service to winning a championship but played like it too.

After losing to Boston in the Finals that year, Kobe played 2009 like he left a ring on the table, which he did. The Celtics absolutely decimated the Lakers in the close-out game of that series. They were tougher defensively and mentally tougher than any team at that time, by far — just ask Lebron James. Which made 2010 that much sweeter.

I don’t need to tell the story of the next two seasons except to say that looking back that was the best time to be married to the Mamba. Culminating in the grind-out win of game 7 of the 2010 Finals in a game that was both the ugliest game i’ve ever watched and one of Kobe’s worst offensive playoff performances. But it was without a doubt my favorite game of all time.

When he was asked about the win after the game he said “I just got one more than Shaq.” But Kobe was never in competition with Shaq. He was only basking in what was to be his best win in a career-long battle with himself.

In some ways, that last great era of Kobe and the Lakers still carries me to this day — watching a befuddled, fake team helmed by the overcooked version of Kobe. He jacks up shots that often embarassingly airball, ignores his young teammates and plays more selfishly than he ever did in his early career. As so many men do when they reach middle age, he has reverted to an unbecoming man-child with little self-awareness. This last season is Kobe’s mid-life crisis Corvette convertible with vanity license plate that reads Vino24.

One of my least favorite sports cliches is the “Father Time is undefeated” platitude. It makes almost no sense how the Father Time folktale managed to re-enter society’s collective consciousness in the past few years but I also hate how much it treats the players it describes with kid gloves. Kobe Bryant in 2015 is not being defeated by Father Time, so much as he is choosing to ignore reality. He’s a shooting guard who has played 20-ish years in the league and until recently he did it without major injury.

Unlike his larger contemporaries in Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowtizki, he doesn’t have the advantage of height to aid him in shooting over defenders, and unlike the few shooting guard stragglers from his era still bouncing around the league, he refused to turn into 15–20 min a night corner 3 point shooter. I give current Kobe little sympathy because he deserves none. He chose to be what he is today, the same way he chose to be what he was in the past. It maybe could have been different, but it isn’t.

With a full career behind him and retirement now a bright light waiting for him at the end of the tunnel, he is about as invested in the 2015–16 Lakers as I am in my job the day before Christmas Eve. My relationship with Kobe as a fan, was always going to end like this. A chaotic, tempestuous 20 years where we grew together but now, tired of fighting and resolved to only stay together until the kids graduate, we draw up our divorce papers.

In life, a person is lucky to feel passion for someone else that borders on insanity — a relationship built on intense magnetism that grows into fondness and familiarity. Maybe the true love of your life, but not the one that was meant to last.

Kobe Bryant is basketball to me and while i’ll always enjoy watching the sport and seeing new players and teams become the greats of their eras, for me, there is and could never be another other player like him.