Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes
of the earth will wail.
We knew this was coming. It was written, and now it shall be done. The general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, Mitch Kupchak, predicted this a year ago. With a quasi-poem in the Players’ Tribune, Kobe Bean Bryant, arguably the most intense and focused human being ever to walk this planet, let alone play this sport, announced his retirement from the NBA, effective at the conclusion of this season. In light of his throwback, 31-point performance, including a game-sealing shot, let’s take a moment to celebrate one of the greatest, and most divisive, players ever.
First of all, a few of the indisputable facts, as of this writing: the son of an NBA player, Kobe Bryant has logged twenty seasons, all with the same team (an NBA record), after being the first guard ever drafted to the NBA straight out of high school; he was named after an item on a Pennsylvanian restaurant menu; he is a 17-time All-Star, almost certain to be 18 this year; he took the R&B star Brandy to his senior prom, simply because he could; he is a five-time NBA champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the 1997 Slam Dunk champion; he reputedly speaks five languages fluently (English, Italian, Spanish, French and Serbian); and, of course, he scored 81 points on Jalen Rose in 2006 during a season which would yield the highest usage rate ever for him.
I know your affliction and your poverty,
even though you are rich.
…Do not fear what you are about to suffer.
A classic argument that people roll out with regard to any player of a certain stature concerns his or her historical place within the game. The arguments for him essentially comprise the previous paragraph. The arguments against him are the provender of both earnest detractors and trolls merely looking to get a rise out of Kobe’s faithful. Despite that light, it only seems fair to spend a paragraph listing those perceived shortcomings.
His usage rate this season remains absurd into NBA senility, which, at 30.5%, is just a percentage point short of his career average, and seems in no way to be retreating. His All-Star selections are certainly inflated, having been elected in during a season in which he played only six games (2013-’14) and another when he played only 35 total (last season). In a similar vein, All-Star MVPs are the kind of thing you can pick up if you’re either a) trying hard enough on defense, which is to say, at all, or b) running full-steam through the other team, which is guaranteed not to be trying on defense. With Tyra Banks singing the hook, he once released a rap single, “K.O.B.E.,” and intended to release a full-length LP before Sony dropped him from their label¹.
Along with a reputation for coach-killing and bullying teammates he perceives as not working hard enough, Bryant probably set fire to his own shot at matching or surpassing the ever-elusive six championship mark by running Shaquille O’Neal out of Los Angeles, which, along with a sexual assault case in 2004, provided a divide in his career, turning him from Bean to the Black Mamba.
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance.
I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers;
you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not,
and have found them to be false.
Even though isolation offenses existed long before Al Gore got us addicted to blue light, “hero ball” has become a meme of the Internet age². No player epitomized hero ball at the time of its inception and initial rise than Kobe. Until his first major injury, in April 2013, Kobe had only failed to make the playoffs once in his career, during the 2004-’05 season. Where Smush Parker looked and saw the prints of only one set of size-14 Nikes, that’s where Kobe carried the saddest-sack Lakers team anyone had ever seen (up to that point) to the playoffs in 2006. They even pushed the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns to seven games in the opening round. A year later, Kobe claimed his first and only Most Valuable Player Award, again dragging a subpar squad to postseason play.
As noted in FreeDarko’s brilliant Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, however, Kobe was perhaps the most human among NBA superhumans at that time. Turmoil does that to a man. For all his shortcomings as a player, Kobe lacked an ulterior motive and only ever seemed to want to win. That’s why he wanted the most out of his teammates, why he lambasted a heavy Shaq and, later, Dwight Howard for being lazy, why he takes ninety shots a game. He simply wants the best for his team, and for so long, that meant a heavy dose of Kobe Bryant.
Look, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut.
I know you have but little power,
and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
This season has been dreadful, the worst of Kobe’s career and one that is about to become a full-on corporate death, so let’s ignore it for a second. Due to a bevy of factors, not the least of which being revisionism, historical context is a difficult concept in which to place anyone, let alone a player like Kobe³. He mimicked the style of MJ while simultaneously wanting to create his own Personal Legend, and he seems to have done that. In a post-MJ, pre-LeBron, pre-analytics world, we have the Kobe era, its own stepping stone between the smash-mouth basketball of the nineties and the nimble motion of today.
It isn’t fair to compare Bryant to LeBron Jamesº; the latter had the benefit not only of watching Kobe and taking from his pseudo-Michael impressions but also being placed into an era that has maximized his all-encompassing physicality and basketball IQ, only one of which Vino had himself in equal measure. Kobe’s prime came at the very earliest awakenings of the analytics revolution, and he remained a top-tier player through 2013 likely because of it.
The closest comparison might be Allen Iverson, who will always suffer rather unfortunately due to his public perception and distinct lack of a championship. Even Kobe crawled out from under the Colorado investigation and was able to redeem himself in the public eye. The shooting guard is a casualty of positionless basketball, as coaches increasingly expect guards and forwards alike to be able to pass, shoot, dribble and navigate the floor with equal ease, eliminating distinct, set positions. In this way, Kobe is among the last of a wilting breed. He was the perfect player for his time, and one of the greatest of all-time.
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat in it;
the earth and the heaven fled from his presence,
and no place was found for them.
¹Among its most immortal lines, Kobe claims to live for “basketball, beats and broads,” spits that “all dimes ain’t money” and pines for someone “who can ignore the spotlight life of Grandma.”
²Its best current examples include Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Its worst current example is, ironically, Kobe Bryant, though Lance Stephenson and J.R. Smith take unnecessary risks into their own hands at times as well.
³Though not a perfect statistic, Kobe is 20th all-time in NBA history in Player Efficiency Rating, as good a measure as any to break out at the next Kobe vs. Whomever bar fight. Like a second semester senior’s GPA, no effect at this point, positive or negative, is likely to do any major damage to his career PER.
ºNor is it fair to compare Kobe, or anyone, to Tim Duncan, who is so indisputably the greatest player of his generation that he may end up being the greatest player of the generation after him as well. The five rings, the multiple MVPs, the unparalleled bill of health, the nightly double-doubles, the perpetual fifty-win seasons – these belong to Duncan, who is alone at the top since arriving in the NBA in 1997.