This past weekend marked the 63rd NBA All-Star game. And for only the second time in the past fifteen meetings between the East and West squads, Kobe Bryant was not suited up to play (2010: sore ankle, 2014: knee). But this time around felt much different than the first (even outside of those awkward, sleeved jerseys. #hidethewomenandchildren)
Not only was the all-time All-Star scoring leader not in action, but this weekend marked the only time since ’96 (A year before the Orlando-L.A. Shaq trade and a summer before Kobe’s entry into the league) that a Laker wasn’t in the All-Star game at all.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Sure, Kobe was atop the list of stars not in our orbit for the break, but just because the spotlight isn’t burning and our telescopes were on other flares doesn’t mean he’s crash landed somewhere off the Pacific. He still remains as popular a figure, if not more so (China), than ever.
So what three words come to mind when you think of life-time Laker Kobe Bryant?
All-time great, champion, competitor?
Sure, if you’re a Laker fan. But if you’re not?
Adulterer, egomaniac and uncoachable come to mind.
Take your pick. Add to the list. To call Kobe Bryant a polarizing figure isn’t really fair to other NBA stars recently associated with the term. The most notable of which, we’re all too familiar with; four time NBA MVP LeBron James.
Before LeBron Raymone James came along, Kobe ruled the world of “love me”/”hate me”. Really, deservedly so. Kobe had reportedly isolated teammates, been accused of forcing Shaq out of town, publicly demanded a trade, flip flopped on that trade, had an affair, filed a lawsuit against his parents and been labeled “selfish” by nearly every sports pundit in America.
I’ll let you catch your breath.
LeBron, excluding “The Decision” (Which, regardless of his intentions, raised nearly $2.5 million for charities. Over $400,000 of which went to a non-profit in his hometown of Akron, Ohio) has never done anything tangibly wrong . Well, except appear happy, rather kind-hearted and genuine. Yet, since LeBron’s arrival on the scene, his shadow of criticism has grown larger than a groundhog’s forecasting another twenty three years of winter. Ridiculous? Probably.
But I mean come on, taking his “talents to South Beach” as James termed it. Who says that? Only one other player I can recall.
As far as I’m concerned, Kobe Bryant coined the phrase. When asked following his senior year at Lower Merion High School, Kobe, with large sun glasses plastered to the top of his head, a head visually swelling with pride, stated, “I have decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA.”
But who remembers that? Those who do certainly never bring it up.
So I guess it’s true that the brighter the spotlight, the more we as a society look for the shadows; for the skeletons in your closet. But whether the spotlight is gone or not, we never look for more light; for an athlete’s positive contributions. Whether you’re LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, or Superman, it would appear in this day and age, a public figure can only do wrong.
Or can he?
It’s rather tough for a lot of us to find common ground with a man who claimed after a second round playoff exit in 2010-11 that the past 360 days were a “wasted year of my life.” But it is interesting to evaluate these driven, alpha-male figures like Kobe Bryant as they so often embody qualities that we esteem.
You would be hard pressed to find a father who wouldn’t want their children to call attributes like these their own; intrinsically motivated, confident, committed, unwavering. But men who hold University of Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne’s mantra, “show me a good and gracious loser and I’ll show you a failure” seem destined for eventual misery. Because the people that are the most competitive, the most driven, in my experiences, are also the most incomplete; the most unfulfilled.
Surely an individual fulfilled wouldn’t sleep merely three to four hours each night, show up to the gym in the off-season at 4:30 A.M. and work out for six plus hours a day. He wouldn’t show up at the facilities at 5:00 A.M. as a high school student and stay there until 7:00 P.M. training. He wouldn’t, in his seventeenth season in the league while playing on a mediocre team, study film on the plane while his teammates play poker and watch movies. He wouldn’t scowl at coaches and reprimand teammates when the win column is lacking.
There is something off about all of those things. Despite the bad, there is something awe inspiring about them as well. And there appeared to be something missing off the court for Kobe Bryant and you could see it.
Throughout Kobe’s career, he’s been a standoff-ish, often abrasive player. Frequently responding to reporters following games with short, blunt statements usually featuring profanity. And as far as his teammates go, it’s been widely reported that Bryant always kept them at a distance. All-time great coach Phil Jackson in his book The Last Season took countless jabs at Kobe. Calling him “uncoachable”, stating he attempted to lure General Manager Mitch Kupchak into trading the super star on multiple occasions. Even going as far as writing, “from what I understand, the defining characteristic of Kobe’s childhood was his anger.”
So how does an athlete like Kobe go on when his body begins to fail him? When he’s potentially closer to hanging up his sneakers than trying on a new pair? It would seem there are two options; run from it or face it. Kobe Bryant appears to not only have faced it, but to have taken this moment as an opportunity for personal growth.
Look up recent interviews with number 24. Kobe Bryant has actually, dare I say it, learned how to smile. Historically, I don’t think I’ve seen an interview of Kobe smiling outside of a big win. These days, he’s smiling through injuries.
In addition, Kobe has become an activist. After Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown publicly called Kobe, “somewhat confused about culture” and stated that, “Kobe doesn’t quite fit what’s happening in America”, Kobe used the out-of-left-field criticism of someone he’d never met as a teaching moment. Bryant claimed the comments were a good opportunity to “try to educate one another and try to improve as a society from it.”
Really? Egomaniac Kobe Bryant taking the high road? Who kidnapped the real #24 and where are they hiding him?
Kobe has even been featured lately in the media for standing up for civil rights when his Twitter followers use homophobic terminology in their tweets.
Am I missing something?
Winning to him is as important as ever, but there’s a different aura that surrounds him. On the court, former teammates like Antawn Jamison have lauded him for his work ethic and desire for teammate’s feedback. Pau Gasol’s public and private support of him speaks for itself. And off the court, he no longer looks like the perturbed, foaming-at-the-mouth apex predator, eager to gobble up any passerby that turns in his direction.
I hesitate to say it, but he looks… approachable. Almost Kind.
Kobe publicly has become a figure prominently involved with a multitude of charities (Two of which he started: The Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation and The Kobe Bryant China Fund. And two he is a chairman/official ambassador: After-School All-Stars, and HomeWalk).
But I won’t drown you with philanthropy and charity work. Even the most demonized and evil figures seem to rack up those resume builders.
So instead, just look at him.
He appears to have found himself; he plays for wins, he plays for his legacy.
He lives for his family and for his community.
Call it the humbling of Father Time. Call it the soothing perspective of a father. Call it what you want, but Kobe is not what he once was.
As far as his career goes, Kobe is working to come back from another untimely injury (along with the rest of his team it would seem). But he’s fighting to return and salvage what’s left of the season, or at least give season ticket holders something worth their investment. But why?
Father time is undefeated and it appears Kobe Bryant is the latest legend up against the ropes. There’s little to no hope for a playoff birth, much less a championship and the clock is ticking on those weary legs. So why come back?
Why train six hours a day, travel with a team of relative NBA misfits and kill yourself to get back on the court when you’ve won five championships, you’re already an all-time great and you have a two year contract to fulfill beginning next season?
Because, much like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant is not a man.
Kobe Bryant is a brand.
His brand is maturing and the Black Mamba has evolved to survive in harsher, new conditions. Even ones off of the basketball court.