In basketball, men try to avoid decline but once the body goes the mind struggles. Virtue turns into panic. This has been the Kobe Bryant paradox these past few years: the death of memory. He used to be one particular thing. Now he is something quite different. It is what makes him one of the most distinctive athletes of his generation. Less is not more. So he gives all he has even when basketball is cruel. His strength is his will to survive. Exhaustion, the kind that bends bones, is his friend. He fights with his body even as his body begs for help. He fights with his mind because he has seen every kind of coaching adjustment, every trap and zone and double team.
You always lose something, the world is constructed on that precept. Heroes pass each other all of the time. It is what happens in a career, even one that is storied. But some men are basketball lifers. They love the game to distraction. The truth of that love and the truth of all love is reciprocity. The fainters in China who consider Kobe a saint or a gardener, one who harvests what he has planted. The sympathizers who themselves have had up and down lives and wrap themselves in Kobe’s persistence ethic. They do not particularly care about saints or gardens. They are the broken ones. They understand what it means to be punched. To be counted out and left for dead, to have people like ESPN discredit your history and spread dirt on your basketball grave.
Despite an aura of toughness, ESPN ranked Kobe as 25th best. Their ambivalence is not the same as it usually is. Not the selfish talent who scores too much. Or the driven man too hard to like. The numbers indicate something new. No longer is he an indestructible force within his own skin. He has crashed to earth with an uncooperative body. And the one thing he should fear, himself and his descent and his age, he does not. So the math is just a part of it, a way to get a point across. Kobe is not a war machine, he is a man. Sooner or later he will lose his career.
Being one of the hardest working men in the world means just about nothing. An Achilles tear requires a will of iron to endure the pressure that accompanies waiting. Part of recovery is diligence. Part of recovery is patience. Other basketball players have torn their Achilles but none of them share Kobe’s gifted air. His ability, accomplishment, and talent level, his political doctrine of fight to the absolute death, separates him from all the others who have come before him. Dominique Wilkins shredded his Achilles but he was three years younger than Kobe is now, he was 32. So this is new territory with an open set of variables and it can go either way: sideways or full speed ahead.
No one knows what to expect. ESPN can’t help themselves though, they always go a little too far in their presumptions. This is what they want us to believe: If you were starting a team today you would take twenty four current players before you would select Kobe Bryant. In one way it is a vilification. As if before April, Kobe never existed. He is a man without history, in a world without context, in a sport without mercy.
A gifted player is often a lens. Through him you see you. The man you wanted to be but could not be. The rich man. The accomplished man. The heroic man. The point is we need illusions and ESPN has figured out this ego sensitive part of our psychology. They can predict a death, they can tell the future: who is good and who is great and whose career is nearly over. But analytics are not part of basketball, not really. Those doing the math are theorists, skilled with numbers but blind to bravery. This is the problem: basketball has changed very little since its inception. At its base level basketball is a contract, a negotiation between grace and affliction. Give me your body and your fatigue and your stress. It will elevate your being, it will eradicate your confidence. It is all the same to your body but if you give more than you think you have, you receive more that you expected. The objective is to manage the cruelty. The pain of everything. The pain of losing, the pain of blame, the pain of fatigue, the pain of back to back nights, the pain of exploiting your body, the pain of expectations. If you welcome pain, oddly, you survive longer.
These are the subtleties only players know. But players do not make lists about it. What would be the point? They know who the fifth best player is because they have to guard him. They know who the tenth best player is because he dribbled past them to score at the rim. A NBA player once said he could see the entire game in Chris Paul’s eyes. The net effect of Damien Lilliard’s comment was of basketball and sacrifice. He looked and he saw ego and he saw consequence and he saw intention. He was transfixed, of course, crossing this rugged frontier was not what he thought it was, this league of force and intelligence and dedication.
Analysts do not understand this sort of conversion, from human to special to iconic. They do not look into eyes. They don’t consider will. They overlook devotion. Thus they only know half of a player, and often it is not even the best half.
Insane preparation can be an illness, it can divide a man into personalities. Kobe will never be able to explain himself to ESPN and the efficiency nerds nor should he have to because with Kobe, he is what you see he is, he is the artist, the teacher, the fighter, he is a player of the ages. He has been punched in the jaw a hundred times and he has risen as if nothing can separate him from the finish line. His insanity is internal, his brilliance is external and yet the trumpet is beginning to sound. He has turned into a marathon runner. These are the last miles of a mesmerizing race. He takes on pain. He takes on criticism. He feels his body as it drags. He adapts to the wind blowing. The premise of his career is that there is something obscene about not working hard. Look around and you’ll see. Some men crack. Some men quit. Some men fear. But Kobe is still standing in the ring and waiting for the one blow that will surely defeat him. Until then prepare: double team, zone defense, send your best defender. His goal is still the same, to chase you down, to take from you what he believes is his.