“The only thing worse than dying is getting old.”
- John Gregory Dunne (“Vegas,” 1974)
How exactly does one go about growing old gracefully? Having yet to attempt the feat myself, I’d assume the process involves replacing the arrogance and bombast of youth with a quiet confidence, rooted firmly in a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments. In short, as members of our society age, they are asked to pipe down and allow their life’s work to do the talking for them. Y’know, ride slowly into the sunset.
Quaint as the notion is, it was undoubtedly hatched to shroud a much darker intention- putting society’s aged out to pasture, rendered obsolete. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the world of sports, where men and women, “young professionals” in virtually all other walks of life, are deemed “on the downside” and quickly ushered toward stage left.
It is at this point that 33 year-old Kobe Bryant finds his professional life in these, the early days of the 2011-12 season. And after 15+ seasons, 1,322 games (regular and postseason), nearly 49,000 minutes and several thousand extracurricular hours on basketball courts and in weight rooms the world over, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that Kobe might be inclined to recognize his professional mortality and "give an inch."
This illustrates perfectly the divergence in mindset between those that achieve true greatness in the most competitive of endeavors and everyone else. This is why Kobe Bryant will (probably not soon) retire as one of the half-dozen greatest players ever to grace an NBA court, while Vince Carter- every bit his athletic equal- will not. “Reasonable” is not what’s gotten Kobe to this point, and it would in fact be less than reasonable to expect him to embrace it now, when it would serve little purpose beyond expediting his exit from the game he so adores.
No sooner had I published that (in my defense, frustration-fueled) preview that I came to the realization that I’d be proven dead wrong. Hours after their creation, Kobe set about rendering those paragraphs obsolete, torching the visiting Warriors for 17 of his then-season-high 39 points in the third quarter as the Lakers overcame a frustrating first half to capture their fifth win of the young season. Kobe followed up that effort (his third consecutive game of 30+ points) with an efficient 26-point (11-22 FG), nine-assist showing two days later, as the Lakers cruised past the Memphis Grizzlies, 90-82.
Fast forward another two days, to Tuesday night, once again at Staples, as the Lakers squared off against the Suns. The pregame conversation centered on the limitations presented by Kobe’s increasingly catcher’s mitt-like right hand and the Lakers’ need to key in on the Suns’ lack of both depth and quality on the front line. These narratives were quickly transferred to the back burner, as #24 stormed out of the gate, hitting eight of 11 first quarter shots for 17 points and six of seven (for 15 points) in the final stanza (he had a pedestrian 16 in between), en route to his greatest outburst since March 1, 2009 (also against the Suns) and a leaguewide season high of 48 points. Vintage.
I contemplated the error of my ways while watching Kobe Bean flirt with 50. As the game wound down, my focus shifted. Still awed and exuberant, I began to ponder what meaning will be affixed to this game, this season, when the tome of Kobe Bryant’s career is finally written.
It’s no secret that Kobe Bryant’s white whale is the ghost of Michael Jordan. Since before he entered the NBA, Kobe’s monomaniacal obsession has been with the maximization of his immense talent, in pursuit of the title of “greatest ever.” Given his winaholic tendencies, I have no doubt whatsoever that Kobe aches to surpass Jordan’s ring tally, and am equally certain that should he ever do so, regardless of age, will immediately set his sights on Bill Russell’s mark.
But Kobe is a smart guy. While I doubt he’d ever admit it aloud, he’s got to know that simply matching the measurables with a carbon copy skill set will only narrow the perception gap between himself and Jordan, but never flip the script. This is owed to the fact that Michael Jordan (whom I believe earned his place in history, but has nothing on Kobe in terms of pure basketball aptitude) was defined not only by sublime skill as a basketball player and an unimpeachable resume, but by a veneer of perfection- both on and off (this has receded slightly) the floor- that continues to this day to protect his enduring legacy.
Despite eerie similarities in both their games and personalities, Kobe has never had bestowed upon him the idolatry and universal adulation that define Jordan. Some will say (not incorrectly) that this is owed to Jordan’s five league MVPs, six rings (count ‘em!), six Finals MVPs and (most importantly) the undefeated Finals record, clean sweep of Finals MVPs and “holding the pose” in Utah in 1998- none of which Kobe can ever match, regardless of longevity or work ethic.
Against such a backdrop, it was only a matter of time before Kobe- recognizing that he’s facing a stacked deck, that rationality has no place in this debate- gave up the ghost in favor of carving out an insurmountable legacy of his own. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that more than any others, these are the defining seasons of Kobe Bryant’s career. Make no mistake, the 28,000+ points, five rings, two Finals MVPs, the 2007-08 MVP, 13 All-Star selections, four All-Star MVPs, 11 All-NBA First or Second Team nods, 12 All-Defensive First or Second Team nods, 109 40-point games, 24 50-pointers, 35 per game in 2005-06, outscoring the Mavericks through three that December, “81,” becoming the first NBAer to hit 12 3-pointers in a game, nine straight 40s in 2003, four straight 50s in 2007… the achievements, the moments, their significance is obvious. However, in addition to their obvious significance, they serve another purpose.
He needed all of that for all of this to matter. What we are seeing is the evolution of Kobe Bryant, from “Air to the throne” into “the most basketball player of all time.” To attempt to become superhuman, he first had to become Jordanesque.
Michael Jordan is greatness personified. Allen Iverson (for this generation) is toughness personified. Kobe Bryant represents the greatest-ever convergence of these phenomena. You think it’s a coincidence that Larry Bird named Kobe as his favorite current player?
Between the lingering uncertainty surrounding the Lakers’ future, a pending nine-figure divorce, the apparent emergence of Andrew Bynum as the next Laker superstar, calls for Bynum to supplant Kobe on the food chain, the arrival of a new coach (with a new system), a shocking lack of depth on the current roster, whispers about his professional mortality and a collection of injuries that would threaten some careers (not cause discomfort en route to 88 points in 26 hours), it’s debatable whether any player in history, let alone one of the half dozen greatest of all time, has simultaneously fought more battles on a greater number of fronts.
Mental and physical toughness and competitive spirit are one thing. What burns within Kobe in is a genuine desire- to matter, to compete regardless of arena and endeavor, without regard for personal safety. Kobe Bryant wants it. He wants… something. It’s debatable whether any player (Bill Russell comes to mind) has applied an otherworldly skill set to such great effect, while not only enduring all manner of adversity, but exploring it, testing every boundary, seemingly seeking out the point of physical failure.
Putting aside subjective, emotional matters (yeah, I know that ship sailed. Humor me), we have Kobe’s patently absurd obsession with playing, extremely well at that, with injury (not nicks, mind you- real shit), summed up perfectly by Neil from Got ‘Em Coach (@gotem_coach on Twitter):
“We’re at the point in Bryant’s career where any non-catastrophic injury is written off as a relative non-factor - never to keep him from missing playing time - and all of his catastrophic injuries are written off as non-catastrophic.”
And he’s dead-on. There is Kobe’s arthritic right knee, frayed ligaments and all, on which he underwent platelet-rich plasma injections in Germany last summer and has undergone three surgeries since 2003. Since December of 2009, Kobe has taken the floor with an avulsion fracture (in which a piece of bone is pull off by a tendon) of the index finger on his shooting hand, which, according to Kobe “has become bone-on-bone and healed itself.” That sounds pleasant. Amid all of this, he suffered the “scariest ankle sprain of my career” last March in Dallas, on which he (naturally) continued to play, and subsequently reaggravated in Game 4 of last season’s opening round playoff series against the New Orleans Hornets. As Emeka Okafor can attest, the ill effects were minimal.
Finally, and most notably at the moment, we have the wrist. In an exhibition game against the Clippers on December 21, Kobe took a spill after attacked the basket against DeAndre Jordan. He tore the lunotriquetral ligament (a connective tissue linking a pair of bones in the wrist) in his shooting wrist. Had the bones displaced, the resulting surgery and rehab stint would have landed Kobe on the shelf for up to four months. Instead, he took the less than four days off and proceeded to drop 28 (on 11-of-23 FG and 6-of-7 FT), with seven rebounds, six assists and a pair of steals on one of the league’s best defensive squads, has since scored 25+ in nine of 11 games and leads the NBA in scoring, at a just a hair over 30 per game.
Reflecting on the arc of his career, as perhaps the most maligned and polarizing superstar the NBA has seen- called out by teammates, coaches and opponents, reviled by all but his most ardent supporters- and the constant (and constantly ignored) reminders of his physical limitations, I am reminded of an interview from a few years ago in Sacramento, in which Kobe stated that if he were to be any superhero he’d be Batman.
The antihero as superhero.