He knows what is expected of him, what people want. They want what the world is lacking. Heroism that borders on lunacy. Sadism dressed up as something ordinary. Kobe is married to the narrative of himself as extraordinary and immortal, something not particularly human. His legend and his body is often referred to as robotic, as if he has the characteristics and the inner workings of a machine. In fact he perpetuates this mythology as much as possible which is why yesterday he continued his limbo dance in his one man play. He was animated and sarcastic as he responded to his ranking by ESPN. He was self deprecating when speaking of his recovery. He was honest up to a point and then he walked himself all the way back, continuing his mystery tour.
No one gets everything they want, that is about as equal as things get in life. Kobe knows he is not going to play on opening night even as he desires it. The Clippers always bring out his most willful and determined side, his time to beat little brother down, and the newest banner gate whatever it is controversy, fuels his desperation to show the NBA landscape that Los Angeles is about the Lakers. Always has been. Always will be. But Kobe cannot play on opening night because his body won’t let him. His body is currently in one of those between stages that deliver little comfort: not torture but not death either. Still, if nothing else basketball is about running and jumping and sliding. He cannot sprint. He cannot jump. He cannot push himself through offensive and defensive drills. The recovery from an Achilles injury is painstakingly slow so it is not much of a surprise that Kobe is not quite ready, that he is still probably two or three weeks away. To say that is of no particular use to him and his legend as the toughest man in sports. The man who can do what no other man possibly can.
As a culture we often pay attention to the wrong thing, we get distracted from the real issue at hand. Kobe gets a lot of attention for the footwork fundamentals he learned in Europe. He is identified with self discipline and aggression and an inner drive that propels him to achieve the unthinkable. His mastery of his body is unnatural. He plays with a broken finger. He plays with back spasms. He plays with an injured shoulder. He plays a game seven of the NBA Finals with a broken knee and grabs fifteen rebounds. He plays with a broken nose. The Kobe Bryant narrative revolves around his scoring, his selfishness, his willfulness, his dedication, his fearlessness. But really, what no one talks about his brain.
The cerebrum is the part of the brain that controls thought and impulse control and memory and movement and sensory perception. It is the largest area of the brain, it is the brain’s ocean. Kobe’s mastery of this part of the brain sets him apart from his contemporaries which is not to misjudge their abilities. Some of them are clearly functioning on a high intellectual level and in their post basketball careers will serve the world in incredible capacities. But it is how Kobe uses his brain to achieve his primary goal of setting himself apart so he appears different if not greater. That is the illusion and is a unique talent of his. He has deceived people into thinking there are two types of careers: the career of the great man and the career of the courageous man.
At the start of a story you introduce the characters. In the middle you create conflict. The end is all about the hero saving mankind, ending the war or winning the war or just creating peace. To keep a story alive you expand the middle, you never get to the end. Because once it reaches the end the story no longer matters. So Kobe could have said a couple of weeks ago his most likely return would be in mid November, early December. But if he is nothing else, he is a great marketer of himself. He understands the basic theory of advertising: don’t give away everything. Throw out crumbs and then watch the vultures fight one another in order to eat.
Kobe is not one of those athletes that generates sympathy. You don’t really feel sorry for him. Yet when his Achilles ruptured, even those who have spent their career tearing down all of his achievements were uncomfortable and took a step back. They did not want him to lose his career, just to be judged for all of those things that he does wrong. They wanted his defeat on center stage so they could cheer. Now it is uncomfortable the position they are in. They want him to return and yet when he returns, and Kobe knows this, all eyes will be on what he can and cannot do, who he can and cannot be; the critics are no longer in charge of the story. His heroism is. His guts is. His tenacity is. He will be the only person of his age and talent level to have scaled this sort of mountain. Kobe knows this. He relishes the moment and he drives the suspense.
The Chinese adore what Kobe represents, the man who will not acknowledge his own death, who will not succumb to any sort of suffering, who will not name what his happening to his body, who will not accept how close he is to the end. There is bravery in knowing you are about to be eaten alive and yet you still are getting in the lion’s cage anyway as if failure does not matter to you. You risk death because you understand resurrection. Rarely if ever does Kobe willingly fall on his sword.
There is irony in all of this, in his injury, in his brain, in his desperation to prove he will always be Kobe. He came into the league as a seventeen year old wanting to share the stage with Michael Jordan, to line up his championship trophies next to M.J’s, and to be equal if not better than the star that the sun revolved around. Of all the others that came after Jordan, Kobe shares the most characteristics. He is the most ruthless, the most driven, the most feared. He embraced the Jordan mystique like no one else did and it was not about choosing his same number and tossing up chalk. He attempted to maim the Jordan lore, to stab it in the heart. But the truth is it is late. Kobe may never match M.J. in titles. That said, he has already surpassed him in mythology. The broken man who puts himself back together again, who has nine lives, who will never ever quit, who does what no one has ever done before. It is the final piece of evidence of his uniqueness in a world in which most people are conventional and ordinary and are consumed by the political correctness of their lives.
Kobe has not changed since early summer. Then critics engaged in trade talk, Dwight Howard engaged in amnesty talk. Kobe won’t die a natural basketball death the way others would if they were in his same predicament and would simply lose confidence. He is convinced his form will return, his shot will return, his footwork will return, his explosiveness will return. And in a way what he did yesterday was in effect put everyone on notice. If you want his final act to end in demise and destruction and humiliation and collapse you have to be stronger than him. You have to have nerve. You have to gather courage and guts and push him over the cliff. It is the only way he is going to reach the bottom.