skysports: Kobe Bryant was a unique player with an enigmatic personality and his legacy, on and off the court, is a complicated one, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.
In many obituaries written for Kobe Bryant this week, a widely-used word has been “complicated”. As it is told, Kobe’s legacy is complicated. His story is complicated. Kobe himself was complicated.
The risk is that the word is so overused as to become meaningless, yet here, it is undeniably true, both on and off the basketball court.
As a player, if he was not ever the best, he very nearly was. Kobe came into the league right as Michael Jordan was leaving it, took the torch from him by force of will, and at his apex came as close as anyone to being as good as him.
Kobe was a legendary player, but also an iconic brand – the uniqueness of his name (no one called him Bryant; there was no need) and the uniqueness of his game made him a superstar. And the enigma of his personality compounded it all.
Kobe came into the league directly imitating Jordan. From footwork to shot selection, via media image and his conduct as a team-mate, distinct parallels between Kobe and Jordan existed at every turn, with Kobe stopping short only of sticking his tongue out on dunks in the same way.
Yet by the end, Kobe himself became inimitable – the new standards created by the mathematical revolution’s predilections towards floor-spacing and specific shot types have led to greater homogeneity in players that will trickle down through the coaching levels and stamp out individuality, ball-dominance and mid-range exponents in due course.
That is to say, it will stamp out future Kobes.
Even before this new orthodoxy came about, though, his game had contradictions.
Kobe was not a proficient floor-spacer, yet for a long time, he held or jointly held the NBA’s record for most three-pointers made in a game. He steadfastly refused to pass much, but he was so good at it when he wanted to be. He did not play much defense in the second half of his career, yet he still made 12 appearances on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team, the most of any guard in history.
The once-earned reputation carried him on that end long after the myriad injuries that curtailed his effectiveness. And even when he was absolutely and completely done, loafing up and down the court in his final season as a shadow of what he once was, he still reared back and found a 60-point performance in the final game of his 20-year career.
Kobe’s career straddled the early days of the internet right through to the social media-dominated landscape there is today, and this reimagined idea and massively expanded range of modern celebrity served only to further his reputation and cultural impact.
Basketball as a sport and the NBA as a product hold unique places in how much they permeate other parts of culture; by any measure, they are cool, and because of this, they overlap with other cool cultures, which makes the reach of the game’s greatest players and strongest personalities even bigger globally. And Kobe was enormous.
At the same time as his profile grew, he was also more private than most. His time was always to be earned, not given. And earning Kobe’s respect was the ultimate badge of honour.
Outside of the six-month-long season, by and large in the NBA, everyone trains with everyone. Due in large part to the AAU circuit at amateur level, NBA basketball is much more fraternal than many other sports, and when old-school thought demanded they treat each other as bitter rivals, players are openly friends with players on other teams.
That is, except Kobe. He was the untouchable one that other players lived to win approval from, rarely succeeding. Kobe became the yardstick by which others were measured, and measured themselves; unrivalled in self-belief, unsurpassed in work ethic, impossible to mimic. As he slowed down and eventually retired, he came to embrace a role as an advisor and mentor. But before that? He was best left alone.
This made him abrasive. It made him aloof. Infamously so, in fact. Phil Jackson once called him uncoachable and made a joking comparison to Kobe with his own kidney stones. Mike D’Antoni was powerless to control his playing time and could not get him to come out of the game, even for a minute. In-game substitution patterns, the most obvious power a coach normally yields, belonged to Kobe. The situation, and he, were not normal.
It made him somewhat brutal as a team-mate, too. From the noted on-and-off power struggles with Shaquille O’Neal to his famously derisory relationship with Smush Parker, stories of Kobe’s causticity are more plentiful than those of his warmth. The withering putdowns and prickliness – again very Jordanesque – were not confined to the locker room, either; lest we forget more than a decade ago when Kobe was filmed in the street denigrating then-team-mate, Andrew Bynum, as well as the Lakers as a whole.
The owners of that video sought to crowdsource an enormous amount of money before they would release it. And they succeeded. Even back then, the power of What Kobe Says was transformative and magnetic.
As much as his ability, Kobe was beatified within the game because of his legendary work ethic, and the prickly intensity underpinning it. If players matched his work ethic, they earned his respect. If they did not, they earned his open scorn.
For example, after a stellar college career, Adam Morrison found the NBA much harder, too slow to succeed like he once did. He was not the most talented, but he was one of the most driven. And when that fire left Morrison, he retired early and left the game, in accordance with the Mamba Mentality. Kobe worked him hard, but Morrison worked hard back, and Kobe thus took to him.
Give nothing less than your best. Try as hard as I do, or expect to hear about it. In a world full of grey, Kobe took to the black and white. For him, it was all or nothing.
Bryant’s obstinacy – described by former team-mate Darius Morris as the “gift and the curse of being Kobe” – in playing through pain and ailments that would (rightly) have seen other players miss time and the sheer determination to win helped make him the individual player that he was and helped his Lakers teams win so much. Yet that bullheadedness was detrimental to his health also undercut the authority of the coaching staff and divided the room, as few could meet his standards, ones he had the leverage to use as weapons.
Kobe’s sheer bloody-mindedness is well encapsulated in a clip from an interview with Jimmy Kimmel. Finally sitting out with injury, Kobe’s Lakers were in the tank; they finally won a game, and goofed around in the interview. Knowing he would disapprove of such actions over a solitary win in an otherwise-terrible season, Kimmel asked if that would have happened under his watch. Kobe said nothing, and just glared.
Yes, he is playing to the crowd; just like Jordan, Kobe had good comic timing. But that look, and the subconscious frown on his face as he first watched the clip, spoke the truth. No. This isn’t good enough.
Other players sought his approval. They wanted to be good enough. They often failed. But if they worked hard enough, from the Adam Morrison level to the very top, they won it. Indeed, many former superstars push back against any current player joining or surpassing that level, but Kobe embraced them, championed them, and in some cases worked with them.
Kobe had his rules, and they weren’t everyone else’s.
The greatest complications came off the court. The aforementioned comic timing and his good looks made for a consistently-good interviewee, and despite his relative isolationism among players, he was a regular TV chat show booking. But only after a while. Before then came a life-defining moment that has never been and will never be forgotten.
Kobe’s sexual assault trial in 2003 tainted his legacy both then and forever. Bryant was charged with attacking a 19-year-old female employee at a Colorado resort. He had said the two had consensual sex, and the charge was eventually dropped. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court. It turned the upstart superstar and future Jordan into the bad guy.
It will never be clear what happened in that hotel room that day. But by Bryant’s own admission, something happened. It is neither an afterthought nor the first thought when considering Kobe, the player and the man, but it forms part of his complex cultural legacy.
The largely unexplored question after an incident like that is whether atonement is possible. Certainly, Kobe pursued it. A father of four daughters, Kobe became a champion for women, and particularly the WNBA.
Similarly, when Kobe some years later was caught on tape using a homophobic slur from the bench, he paid a heavy financial price, but set about trying to atone, learning about why what he did was wrong and promoting LGBTQ causes.
In an interview with Ramona Shelburne not long after his retirement, reflecting on his life to date, Kobe himself said:
“You have to understand the fact that we’re human. We all say s**t that we shouldn’t say, we all do things we shouldn’t do. We all are angels, we are all devils.”
In trying to atone, he lived out those words. Just as he backed up his substantial demands as a player by outworking everyone else, Kobe’s actions backed up his words. And sometimes, they weren’t right.
Whereas so many former athletes (and NBA players in particular) struggle with life after their playing career, Kobe seemed to find his niche early. Always articulate – and in multiple languages, conducting interviews in Italian and Spanish regularly – Bryant became a storyteller and a sage, writing poems and plays, making a seamless transition into retirement. The cocky youngster with the forgettable self-aggrandising rap album had become the wise old soothsayer who won an Oscar.
Perhaps this was part of the atonement. But it certainly worked. As a player, not only could you love him and hate him at the same time – you were supposed to. Not everyone liked Kobe. But everyone in and around the NBA respected him. And although not everyone knew much or anything about Kobe, everyone knew there was a Kobe.
There still is, in the form of his legacy. Legends do not die. But the master narrator must leave the final few chapters of his own story unfinished. A six-month-old girl will grow up not knowing the man that hundreds of millions felt they knew, and about whom everyone had a story of their own.
Life is complicated, especially Kobe’s; his death is infinitely harder.
Source: Published by skysports