He wanted to be great. When he was no longer great he wanted it to be over. He did not count on everything in the middle, that there would be beauty and failure and grace. Or that 20 years would be the length of his time here. Simply put, Kobe Bryant has had one of the great basketball careers. Of course, this comes with a price; sacrifice is an only child. There were lost years without summers and freedom, and his body has suffered through everything. His brand of toil has its hordes of admirers and its detractors too. It has been that way for him since he entered the league.
Men are supposed to have nerve. The way Kobe has done it, by staring down his enemy, makes him one of the exalted. And even this is not Kobe Bryant’s most compelling accomplishment. Neither is the 81 point game, the 5 titles, the injuries he repressed with his will. Those are singular acts of beating the world with one hand tied behind his back. But what he did for the Lakers en masse cannot be duplicated. He transformed an organization into his very own image. Everyone that follows is now punished. Dwight Howard could not be Kobe, therefore he could not stay. Sometimes in life the myth overcomes the man. In the case of Kobe Bryant the myth is the man.
There is a reason an astronaut walked on the moon. He walked on the moon because they said he couldn’t. And so it was in 1996 when a teenager signed a contract that defied logic. He was the first guard to enter the NBA without benefit of college. No one believed it could be done and that began his fearlessness. Kobe was willing to give his blood, he was sure of himself. Eighteen years later it is backwards, no longer the doubt of young, but the doubt of the old and injured. Kobe signed another contract that defied imagination. Two years, 48 million, the highest paid player in the NBA. Still, after all this time, he is willing to give his blood and for good reason. He is a business magnate and he is a basketball player and often those two worlds meet each other face to face.
When Kobe signed a 48 million dollar contract on Monday there was the predictable hang wringing and over simplification and shock and awe. Traditional sports media operate on a broken model of the black athlete, a plantation theology. Players must endure and then players must be selfless and give away what they themselves earn. But Kobe of the dual identity, player and corporation, has a different view through the lens. He is one thing in the United States and he is another thing all over the world so he is beloved twice and he is indebted twice.
If this last contract of Kobe Bryant inspires generalities and clichés it is only because it is Kobe and it is the Lakers. The rest of the NBA has a standard, a set of rules that apply. The Lakers have a set of rules that don’t apply. They are the rich kids in the class that drive to school in the new Mercedes Benz. They always seem to get what they want even when they don’t. They spin it towards the positive. Thus they are always judged more harshly only because they are predisposed to believe a lie: basketball is for the ruling class. They spend their money when they want to spend their money. The Lakers wanted to make Kobe the highest paid player in the NBA until he retires. And that is what they did. They wanted his jersey to hang from Staples Center, analogous to Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, players who only played for the Lakers. And that is what will happen. They wanted to define their behavior as a moral imperative. So they said they were being loyal.
There are more popular athletes in the world, athletes that have a bigger following than Kobe Bryant. But none have been able to amass the glory of the cult as he has. It is beyond devotion. His fans find relief in his struggle and then his triumph. They consider him sacred because he has been able to come back from the dead again and again. It has created this feeling he has a public soul. Frankly, Kobe is able to endure torture, bleed and then resurrect himself as if his strength can be comprehended. Of everything he has gone through there has been little shame and even that is too simplistic to put into context why people faint at his feet, why they cry, why they are waiting desperately for his return to the court because his return- some think of as evidence justice exists- will bring mercy and grace. And while all of this is true, Kobe is still compulsive and obsessive and self absorbed depending on who he is fighting against- and sometimes he is fighting against himself, and sometimes he is fighting against history.
Last April the Lakers played the Portland Trailblazers. It was the 77th game of the season. The Lakers were in the Rose Garden where they notoriously fail. The Portland fans despise the Lakers and Kobe in particular. Thirteen years ago he ruined their dream. In game 7 of the Western Conference Finals he led the Lakers in points, rebounds, assists and blocks and eliminated the Blazers and went on to the win the NBA title. The Blazers had to rebuild and start over. Kobe has never been forgiven. So on April 10th he was booed and heckled. He played every minute of the game. He had 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks, 3 steals, 1 turnover. He shot 51%, made 18-18 free throws. The Lakers won by 7. It was one of the great regular season performances by a NBA player, much less an eighteen year veteran who was 34 years old.
The expectations of what he will be following an Achilles injury runs the gamut, from a great post player, to a hybrid passer scorer, to the Black Mamba legend he has crystallized and profited from. In a couple of weeks when he makes his appearance the truth will show. But for now he is enduring his crazy workouts at odd hours and putting up shots and general defying his body to break down one more time and generally pissing people off because he self identifies as a businessman and a basketball player. He would never take less money than what he is worth. This is just one more Kobe thing, one more reinvention of a career in which nothing went as planned. Not the air balls in Utah. Not the fights with Shaq. Not the courthouse in Colorado by day and the 35 point games at night. Not the pass in game 7 of the NBA Finals that sealed the fifth title.
And so it is for Kobe Bryant whose end is in sight. He sees himself not as Goliath, but as David. He needs the slingshot in order to be great. He needs to be creative and outthink his opponent and of course, outwork him. But that is not what people will remember in the end. They won’t remember the 48 million dollars in his last two years, they won’t remember the time he said “I am chasing perfection”, they won’t remember the nuclear attack upon his own organization when he asked to be traded, they won’t remember which of the hundreds of games he brought his team back in the fourth quarter. No, those things fade away over time, run together as one. The memory will be of how he made everyone believe a different narrative. What mattered in this sport was a person’s guts. How desperate he was to give everything and win and give everything and lose.
Year after year, game after game, Kobe fought past the point of exhaustion. He did so and at the same time he did this crazy Kobe Bryant thing. He let go of a part of his life knowing what he was giving up. He did it for his career. He traded pain for glory, and pain for pain, and pain for loss. It was not accidental, he did it on purpose. He paid attention to his career and in turn his legacy, and in the end the Lakers did the very same thing, paid attention to him. Everything that happens next Kobe will have to pay for, one more time. It is very American, his ethic of work and sacrifice, and work and achievement. These are his choices, he made them when he was seventeen. The Lakers believe Kobe has one last resurrection left in this last chapter of his transcendent career. And frankly, naturally, so does he.