Retirement Can’t Kill Kobe’s Army

His ambition was as transparent as his fade away. He bled work ethic. Players that took the court and weren’t as ruthless about performance as Kobe Bryant was- either his teammates or his opposition-ended up prey to his predator. It is Darwinian.  The strong evolve and the strong survive.  And yet, the Kobe who could not order a drink because he was not yet 21 had a preternatural talent for the moment.  And contrasts. He gambled on defense. He took incredibly ridiculous shots no one else would dare take and he made some of them, missed a lot of them. He argued with teammates who were less driven by details and perfectionism. As far as Kobe Bryant was concerned, less was never more, even when it should have been.

He could be two very different people on the very same night. He could be heroic and slash his oppressors on the court, the second coming of Julius Ceasar at the Battle of Alesia. And he could be the villain from which all sports narcissism has its roots.

It is hard to imagine that only Jerry West had an inkling about the truth of Kobe Bryant. It’s hard to imagine because it wasn’t true. Red Auerbach loved the 17 year old and left it to M.L. Carr, who he was grooming, to make the final decision. But Auerbach saw the talent after the first workout, brought him in for a second workout, which was crammed with Celtics employees wanting a glimpse. He reminded Auerbach of Michael Jordan.

“I think this kid is going to be a hell of a player. But it can go either way. He seems to be solid but he’s a high school kid. You’ve got to make a choice based on what you need today. But I think he’s a hell of a player.” (Red Auerbach)

Kobe Bryant announced his NBA dream with a press conference that was as glittery as the city he would one day play for. Camera’s flashed so fast the shutter speed created its own chatter. Kobe sat at a table, grinning, he might have been chewing gum. He looked like a senior in high school or even an 11th grader. It was in that one moment, in that aesthetic framed by television cameras, that this skinny kid from suburban Philadelphia by way of Italy seemed arrogantly unimpressed by what he was doing. No guard had every thought so much of himself to decide he didn’t need more help in college. The writers were put off by Kobe’s confidence and smug grin or that he had the audacity to carelessly perch sunglasses atop his head like this was some casual thing. It indicated his lack of respect for everyone who had done it the “right way”. It was a slap in the face of tradition.

That post-draft summer, the army began to line up at six in the morning to get a ticket to see young Kobe play in the Summer League, not expecting that two decades would attach their hero to their world in extraordinary ways. They had no idea that the human would be the special, and the special would be the iconic.

Barely into his first season, Lakers coach Del Harris, skeptical over playing an 18 year old, had to face the rage of the Kobe believers. Every home Lakers game had the Kobe Kobe Kobe musical serenade piercing through the crowd.

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Kobe entered the NBA when the billion dollar sports media machine was on the cusp of change. ESPN, over a decade old, created a cottage industry of television journalists who had as many egocentricities and judgments as the athletes they covered. It was circular. Skin deep biases feasting upon sound bites and subliminal messages, which pulled subconscious strings.

So you see a kid in a press conference with sunglasses talking about the NBA and you think about how kids are cocky and a little stupid and maybe you might even want him to fail, just to teach him a lesson.

But his army- they would eat dirt if he begged them to- wears tinted glasses. They know only one thing: Kobe has nine lives. He had a broken body that he continually manipulated.

Kobe in Indiana, in game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals, in overtime after Shaq fouled out, won the Lakers the game and they took a 3-1 lead in the series which the Pacers and Reggie Miller could not overcome. That was the beginning of the Kobe Bryant stardom, which has never fallen to earth, even after he was charged with sexual assault, even after the Shaq trade, even after the Smush years, even after being annihilated by the Celtics in 2008. His failures only made his fans even more committed to him.

Chris Paul, when asked how Los Angeles, the city, was going to feel after Kobe retires said, “it’s going to be devastated. He means everything to the city.”

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Everything is relative. Life goes on. The Lakers are not the same organization post-Kobe. Everyone needs to take a breath. The first game back at Staples for Bryant was his jersey retirement. He has turned the page and wants the organization to turn the page to. He wants a new legacy to grow which is hard to expect with such young kids. But he was a young kid once upon a time and look what happened to him.

He won’t answer the Chris Paul comment about what happens to the city of L.A in his absence. The Lakers have gone on even though they have never gotten over their crush that began with a 17 year old. Sure, with a city this large he still has his haters but L.A. is about winning and if you win, if you are driven to win, you are romanced.

The two jerseys, #8 and #24 are immortalized. He walked out on the court, the same and not. Gone was the hair, the youth, the edge, the anger, the drive, the step back, the glare. He was ordinary and yet nothing about the moment was ordinary. Allen Iverson was watching. Elgin Baylor was watching. James Worthy was watching. Bill Russell was watching.  Jerry West, who made it all happen for Kobe and the Lakers, he was watching.

Kobe reminded everyone about his work ethic. His drive. His motivation. And the point of legacy: be the change you want to see in the world.

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His army did crazy things after Kobe announced his retirement in 2015. Some quit their jobs so they could see every game. Kobe played in 66 games his last season, something no one expected from a broken bodied player. I know one person who bought tickets, flew across the country and then kept his fingers crossed Kobe would play. He had to go through a lot of mental exercises to figure out which ticket to buy. Not the second night of a back to back but the next game. It was important to see Kobe in Staples. To see him one last time.

The first time was when he was 18 years old. In a culture without social media and reflexive analysis, fans bonded the old fashion way, which is the most salient piece to understand about Kobe’s army. They are old school. They came on board without Facebook and Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. They heard a kid say he was good enough to play in the league. They watched him perform. They read about his work ethic. They were inspired by his passion and how he didn’t cheat the game. And so the army grew. L.A. Atlanta. D.C. New York. London. Beijing. Rome. Mexico City. Detroit. Paris. They kept signing up.

Kobe was not immortal, regardless of the myth. He was not a robot. He was not a machine. He was a human who had a grand and luxurious career. He defied all the odds except the obvious one of age. He pushed back every narrative of him. The paradox was his lifeblood. Men are supposed to crack and bend and tremble, aren’t they?

Bless the army. They kept him going. They kept him sane. They pushed him to excel. But the precept of the world is death and  loss. Everyone loses their career.

They say the end of a story never matters much, is anticlimactic, but in this case they are very wrong. The end, is everything. It matters when the trumpet sounds.

When you say thank you.

One last time, before his Hall of Fame speech, Kobe acknowledged his army. They pushed him to keep going when he was at the brink of pain, at the precipice of quitting. They motivated him to drive for excellence even when the Lakers were miserable. They inspired him to be greater than even he could envison without much talent around him in 2005-07.

On a Monday night in December, he pounded his heart, he pointed to the crowd, he fought off tears like he used to fight off Paul Pierce.  21 years later, this is all that is left. Thank you.

photo via llananba