Kobe Bryant’s Final Stand

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One Night at Staples

Basketball fans who grew up in the 1960s—many in the Baby Boomer generation—may remember Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, an astonishing sporting feat that has never been emulated and likely never will. That performance has acquired a near-mythical status and it instantly transformed Wilt into a transcendent sporting icon. But, for those fans that grew up watching basketball in 90s and the early part of this century (the author included) Kobe Bean Bryant’s offensive outpouring in an otherwise meaningless game in late January 2006 had a similar impact.

Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors that night—second only to Wilt for the single game scoring record—on 28-of-46 shooting. It was a Wilt-like performance for the millennial generation.
 

Jalen Rose, whose thankless task it was to guard Bryant that night has spoken about how the Lakers guard went about his business in near silence—no trash-talking, no taunting. He was surgical, ruthless, brilliant and, most likely, angry. He had good reason to be the latter. Bryant, in his second post-Shaq season, was saddled with a mediocre supporting cast: Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Chris Mihm all suited up with Bryant that night. No wonder he took 46 shots. Bryant dragged the Lakers to 45 wins that season—one of his most underrated accomplishments in a Hall-of-Fame career. He should’ve won the MVP award that season. It probably still irks him.

Bryant did go on to win the MVP award for the 2008 season. It was just one of a long list of career achievements; a list that includes 5 NBA titles, 2 Finals MVPs, 17 All-Star Game appearances and 2 Olympic gold medals. He’s third on the all-time scoring list after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. At the end of this season—his 20th—that legendary playing career will come to an end. Earlier this week Bryant announced, rather poetically, in The Player’s Tribune, that he would be hanging up his high-tops next spring. It’s the end of an era.

A Will to Win

Kobe Bryant began life in Philadelphia, the son of journeyman pro Joe Bryant who played ball across the globe, including Italy where Kobe spent some of his formative years. Bryant finished up high-school back in Philly and attracted some major attention from colleges before deciding to forgo NCAA basketball and declare for the NBA draft. He was just 17. Bryant was drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets—in a draft class which included Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Steve Nash—but the Hornets had already agreed to trade that pick to the Lakers in exchange for center Vlade Divac.

 
 

Bryant became the youngest player to ever suit up in the league, but he spent his rookie season coming off the bench. Gradually, however, he began to establish himself as a talented young guard and by his third season in the league he was starting and playing major minutes. Phil Jackson’s arrival to the Lakers in 1999 turned both the team’s and Bryant’s fortunes around. Up until that point the Lakers were a talented but undisciplined and underachieving team; Jackson molded Bryant, Shaq and company into a winning machine taking full advantage of their unique talents. The Lakers won three straight titles between 2000-2002 and Bryant averaged 25 points per game during that stretch. He was a star.

Things soon went sour, however. Although the three-peat Lakers benefitted from both Bryant’s and Shaq’s brilliance, it was Shaq who took the majority of the plaudits; it was Shaq who won Finals MVP three straight years. As Bryant began to establish himself as a dominant superstar in his own right, it became clear that either he or Shaq, the most dominant big-man of his generation, would have to leave town. After a disastrous 2004 Finals, in which the star-studded Lakers were upset by the unheralded Detroit Pistons, tensions came to a head and Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat.

Critics of Bryant will point to his feud with Shaq as evidence that he was a selfish egotist—someone who couldn’t handle sharing the limelight with another superstar—and there’s some validity to that. But the Bryant-Shaq feud underscores another dynamic at play. Shaq was a basketball player, but he was also a comedian, an actor, a rapper, a businessman—he had a life outside of basketball. Bryant’s sole focus was basketball—he lived it, breathed it. There was no Kobe Bryant outside of basketball, or at least the public wasn’t aware of any other side.

In 2004 Bryant gave an interview to ESPN’s Jim Gray in which he criticized Shaq for being out of shape, which he often was. Kobe was never out of shape—he was the quintessential gym rate—and he would not tolerate teammates who slacked, who didn’t care as much as he did. The Shaq-Kobe partnership was never destined to last.
 
 

That same relentless drive to win at all costs, to drill like a maniac, shooting jump-shots in the gym at 3am after a bad game is what made Bryant great—it honed his skills the same way it honed the skills of his idol Michael Jordan. Bryant possessed the greatest footwork in the game for a reason. It wasn’t innate. It was earned. But that same drive also alienated teammates and gave Bryant the reputation, fairly or unfairly, of being an immensely difficult player to work with. Someone you wanted to avoid being on a team with.

In a GQ interview with Chuck Klosterman from earlier this year Bryant admitted to not having any real friends. Bryant, talking about people similar to himself, stated, “Now, do we have time to build great relationships? Do we have time to build great friendships? No. Do we have time to socialize and hang out aimlessly? No. Do we want that? No. We want to work. I enjoy working”(http://www.gq.com/story/kobe-bryant-nba-allstar).

Those initial post-Shaq years showcased both the appealing and less appealing sides to Bryant’s personality. He dragged his subpar team into the post-season, but he also mostly ignored that same team, dominating the ball and generally looking rather unpleasant to play with—most nights there were glares aplenty for Smush and company. Those teammates were the same ones who watched Bryant pour in 81 on the Raptors; they would’ve watched in awe, but they may not have enjoyed the experience.

Once the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol, in the 2007-08 season, the team began to turn things around. Bryant found the help he desperately needed—and to be fair, desperately wanted by this point—and the team went on to make three straight NBA Finals, winning two of those. It was now Bryant’s team—he was out of Shaq’s shadow. He had won hardware as the unquestionable alpha-dog.
 

Fighting Father Time

Of course, five NBA titles did little to satisfy Bryant’s insatiable hunger to win, but he and his team wouldn’t come close to making another run after their win in 2010. The attempt at putting a ‘super team’ together in 2012 under Mike D’Antoni ended in disaster—and more conflict with another big-man, this time Dwight Howard. It was a very good season personally for Bryant, but it was a season that ended with a ruptured Achilles. That was followed a year later by a torn rotator cuff. Bryant was breaking down. It was the beginning of the end.

No one wants to remember the all-time greats as they were at the end of their careers. We want to remember Steve Nash as he was in his Phoenix heyday, not as a Laker; Shaq as he was in Orlando and Los Angeles, not overweight and injured in Boston; and, going forward, we’d like to remember Kobe Bryant in his prime, driving past defenders, dunking in the lane and shooting his patented baseline jumper over two defenders to win games.

No one wants to remember the 2015 edition of Bryant, a player struggling to hit 30 per cent from the floor—a player who looks like he no longer belongs in the league. Years from now, hopefully no one will.

Many former superstars settle into more passive roles on teams once their explosive skills begin to diminish—both Vince Carter and Grant Hill reinvented themselves in later life as spot-up shooters. But Bryant’s highs were greater than both those greats and what’s more, he’s simply wired differently. Bryant in his 20th season in the league is still playing the game as he’s always played it—relentlessly attacking defenders and shooting from all corners of the court. He has one gear and while the process remains the same, the results have been dramatically, depressingly different. But Bryant is falling on his sword and there’s something admirable about that.
 
 

Everything in Bryant’s being is probably screaming at him to carry on, to fight on through, to win that sixth ring, to chase down Kareem’s all-time points record. He’s fighting his natural instincts, but Bryant’s is making the right decision in retiring. He’ll be on a feel-good, farewell tour for the remainder of the season—and deservedly so—and he’ll finish his career as a top-10 player of all time, a hard-court great.

And you know what? He probably won’t be satisfied with that, but that’s what made him great.

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