In the early years of Kobe Bryant’s career, when his presence was symptomatic of sports schizophrenia, he was loved in some parts of the country and despised in others, his ambition set him apart from the cohort of players that took the court and tried to stop him. Kobe had a preternatural talent of drawing people to him just to watch. But he had deficiencies that often were overlooked by his horde of admirers. In a sport that often lacked context and mercy, 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 as if he was Julius Ceasar at the Battle of Alesia. And he could be the villain from which all sports narcissism has its roots. Depending on your point of view of him and who you were, if you were a writer who made a living covering him or part of his army who religiously defends everything about him, there is a truth all can agree: Kobe Bryant was never a generic face in the crowd, never someone you would point to and yawn. And then say, “oh yeah…him, what did he do?”
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 appeared 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 to 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 then the iconic. All they wanted was a glimpse of something unseen. These were citizens of a city that were used to the duality of romance and myth. Somehow it leaked out that Lakers General Manager Jerry West thought so highly of Kobe, he said he was going to be one of the greatest players in NBA history.
Kobe’s individual workout became an urban legend that knit his supporters to one another, one man, one woman, one child, attached by the Kobe glue until they assembled an army of millions. They had to see for themselves.They had to get a peek of who he was. The lunacy. The masochism. The ambition. The fearlessness.
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. Religious myths start like this, something as simple as a group of people desperate for something to happen they believe in with the same reverence as death and resurrection.
1996 was also revolutionary. Kobe entered the NBA when the billion dollar sports media machine was undergoing a subtle change. If preferences had always driven the industry- fans hate, fans love- it was hard to differentiate who was suddenly talking: journalist or fan? ESPN was over a decade old and it had created a cottage industry of television journalists who became stars and had as many egocentricities and judgments as the athletes they covered. It was circular. Skin deep biases feasting upon experiences 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. Of course anyone who has ever read the length and width of analysis on Kobe Bryant over the years knows this to be true. Especially his army.
But his army- they would eat dirt if he begged them to- wears tinted glasses. They know only one thing: Kobe is the greatest basketball player ever to walk the earth. He has nine lives. He had a broken body that he continually manipulated which translates into I singular. I can overcome my life too.
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. Defeats, trade demands, injuries- while they affect other players, Kobe’s jersey remained the top selling, even when he wasn’t in the playoffs, even when he only played 30 games.
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.”
In 1998, Kobe began his annual Asian trek despite the closed economic and social culture. Clinics and meeting with kids and teaching skills drew him across the globe. Drawn to the intensity and work ethic of the Chinese people, he returned in 1999, the only NBA player to plant a flag on the Chinese soil. He returned in 2000, the only NBA player to block out summer time there. In 2002, when Yao Ming was the #1 pick, the world of economics, particularly of the NBA, opened China to a larger marketplace but Kobe Bryant had already been a mainstay for four years.
In China, they remember. In China, they anoint. Kobe is a religious figure that brings the faithful to tears. They scream. They faint. They chant. They mob open air arenas for a glimpse of their basketball god.
The army has done crazy things since Kobe announced his retirement. Some have quit their jobs to see every game. Kobe has played in 66 of them, 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.
But the last time, forevermore, is tonight against the Jazz. Utah is all but out the playoffs. Most of the Jazz were kindergartners or first graders when Kobe made his debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 3, 1996. (He played six minutes but didn’t score). Joe Ingles and Trevor Booker, the oldest of the Jazz players, were 9 years old when Kobe made his debut. There is the Kobe lore of those damned airballs to end his rookie season while Utah celebrated and thought cocky kid. But to be fair about it, even though his epic failure incentivized him, he was going up against a Karl Malone, John Stockton team. He was going to fail, regardless. He was 18 years old.
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 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. He never cheated 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.
They will know after the game tonight, even if they don’t want to accept it, Kobe Bryant is not immortal. He is not a robot. He is not a machine. He is 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.
Kobe was never an illusion to the storied history of humankind. He was both theory and strength, grace and fatigue, excellence and pain. What you saw was what there was. And what there was has one last game. Perhaps thirty more jumps. A lot of runs down the court, some passes and probably a few tears.
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.
photo via llananba