Mamba, Out

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I didn’t sleep much more than half an hour this past Saturday night; after a not-altogether late but nevertheless busy night, as happens to people who are increasingly willing to talk about it, I was awake most of Sunday morning, thinking of dreadful things, people I’ve wronged, anxiety I’ve caused and the places I can go to where I know that, no matter what, I will be safe. It just so happened that, on the evening prior, current Los Angeles Laker LeBron James passed arguably the quintessential Los Angeles Laker, Kobe Bryant, to move into third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Kobe Bryant never stopped. He was the basketball embodiment of Clipse’s “Grindin’,” and, as ESPN’s Bomani Jones pointed out on Monday, a distillation of what would become the NBA’s #RANGZ culture. The gifs prove it; the track record is undeniable. That, of course, isn’t the whole story, but we have now missed out on what would paint a complete picture of Kobe, who passed away Sunday morning along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna, at the age of 41.

Shaq-and-Kobe was importantly dominant, a later Millennial’s first exposure to Warriors inevitability[1]. They set an expectation: that things were never as good as they appeared in the present, and that things were never as great as they appeared. They would eventually reconcile following a massively public feud featuring traded hip-hop bars, and it always seemed like that recognition of things having gone awry would have taught players that cooperation amongst each other was always better than retreating under professionally good circumstances would have appeared.

I shouldn’t feel any special, particular pull toward Kobe, particularly as his forced draft night trade probably definitively sank the first pro basketball team about which I ever remembered caring, the Charlotte Hornets. As the proprietor of a blogsite which once half-jokingly suggested that the Lakers ought to retire every number in the 0-99 range in honor of Kobe, I am at least partially at fault for lionizing him; having said that, it is, at the very least, worth acknowledging that no one is going to feel the same about this, and that the objective tragedy is that nine people were lost, all of whom had value to those who loved them.

Jones astutely said that the most Jordanesque thing about Kobe was his fearlessness. His 0-fers against the Stockton/Malone Jazz in the ’97 playoffs, all airballs, speak to that fearlessness. That he never backed down when Shaq, the most dominant center of his generation and a player that knew even he could be situationally irrelevant, was doubled speaks volumes for a player who gained a reputation – and even a statistic! – for not sharing the ball as we all expected it to be shared[2]. The guy went out with a 60-point game on 50 shots!

To me, and to many others, that fearlessness was what Kobe bestowed upon us. I grew up carrying a lot of false, extremely shaky cock-sureness that begat bravado which then became a microscopic mustard seed of actual confidence. There are bled-over generations of people who continue to make basketball shooting motions, toward their trash cans or otherwise, who will defer to shouting, speaking or whispering “Kobe…!” when they rid their palms of the flotsam within. It is an expression of joy as much as it is an expression of will. Kobe’s enduring basketball legacy, to office culture until the robots replace us, is that if you shoot enough, and believe enough, the trash will get where it needs to go.

I have often gravitated toward people who are of two coils: one, they pound the red earth until they cannot express themselves anymore, to their utter discontent, and two, they expressly do not give a damn what anybody else thinks, so long as others recognize they are striving toward their end goals. The current generation of NBA players has plenty of these, including LeBron James, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook[3].

I am still trying to sort through some of the actual bits I retained, but it was mesmerizing to watch such a would-be villain alternatively succeed and fail with such bravado that it became a manifestation of responsibility; Kobe grew into feeling like he needed to do some of the things he did in order to fulfill what he was to so many, including many of the players after him.

Kobe’s immeasurable influence extended not only to the current, or even the coming, generation of NBA players, but also to women’s basketball; for at least the last half-decade, there has been no greater advocate for the WNBA or the collegiate women’s ranks than the former Bean, whose own daughter, Gianna, expressed a strong interest in eventually playing for Gino Auriemma at UConn.

In the week before Kobe’s passing, he remarked that there were three WNBA players that could play in the NBA right now. It re-established a gatekeeping mentality for women’s basketball, that the only measures of success were those that men had already established, and it was a cringe-worthy thought, but it seemed like it came from a trustworthy place. God knows nobody studied the game of basketball in this millennium like Kobe Bryant.

There is a particular breed of Kobe/Laker fan that definitely exists, and that I definitely never felt comfortable joining – it’s about to dive into difficult territory, and you can probably anticipate why. As a 12- to 13-year-old, his sexual assault case was the first time I can cognitively remember[4] that I questioned a lot of what was happening. Power dynamics in middle school and the “why would someone as famous as that need to do something like that?” defenses were easy to accept then, but now it feels like another level of constraint within a legal system that didn’t bother to go any further than a payoff and an NDA.

Kobe’s failure to reconcile publicly with his sexual assault, beyond the public statement he issued in which he acknowledged the act but fell just short of admitting guilt, is his lasting error; that he saved his marriage, had a remarkable second half to his career and became a, perhaps THE, champion of women’s basketball is an astounding plus for one of the acknowledged greatest players ever and is certainly admirable, but everyone, his Colorado victim included, is now deprived of a true redemption.

No one can feel entitled to a comeuppance with regard to anyone else’s feelings about Kobe himself passing away, having never fully dealt with what he did. An NDA kept his victim and him from discussing anything publicly after the trials, both criminal and civil; I can only hope, despite the adulation from people – including me – for his basketballing efforts, that the victim, and those like her, can find peace, and that no one tells her or anyone else how they are supposed to feel in this time.

He committed atrocious acts that exemplify the power that someone in his position received. Kobe’s death is not a chance for anyone to instill their personal feelings on him upon anyone else; that much needs to be clear in the wake of this.

Whether Kobe’s appreciation of women’s basketball extended from an inherent need to spread the game, his troubling and unresolved past or his absolute need to embody the “as the father of a daughter” stereotype, it seemed genuine. He bought all the way into the growth of the women’s game and was, for better and for worse, a massive ambassador for it.

It makes all of this so much more demoralizing, so much more devastating. Of course, there are plenty of people who didn’t know him, or Gianna, mourning them; that is what people do when they idolize a famous person. Of course, there is a family now missing two, as well as other families missing members on the same helicopter[5] who will not be as memorialized as a wildly loved and simultaneously reviled professional basketball player was.

Simultaneously, Kobe did not deserve every accolade he has received, and yet he deserved more. It is amazing that a player of his appetite could never get enough, that he kept scrounging at the table. He wanted everything, and only when he realized he could not have it did he revisit himself – sometimes, to the detriment of his teammates, as when he refused to shoot at all. At other times, his Mamba Mentality negatively affected lives.

His influence purely as a basketball player, however, was why we ever knew about him in the first place, and the biggest part of why we will remember him. The players we love today each take a part of their game from him – DeRozan’s subtlely astounding footwork, Harden’s real-time calculations, Westbrook’s never-ever-ever-say-die mindset and work ethic[6], LeBron’s unwillingness to even whisper “die” – and they will be the ones carrying Kobe’s torch to the next generation of players.

Kobe is the bridge between Jordan and LeBron, between Jordan and pace-and-space and, by virtue of both, between Jordan and Harden. The tree of his influence has many branches, not all of them good, but all of them rooted. Kobe Bryant has passed away at the age of 41, leaving behind his wife Vanessa, three daughters and a legion of people inspired, either to be like him or to apologize for emulating him earlier than he was able to figure out the rest of his own path in retirement.

*     *     *

[1] It seems important to note that I remember the second Bulls threepeat as something that just happened; because of the nature of my parents, I figured Michael Jordan was just going to be somebody against whom every other team would try and fail, not unlike early video game bosses but without the proper code.

[2] Kirk Goldsberry coming up big with the Kobe Assist, a missed shot that is so good at bouncing (wherever) that it becomes an easy basket for a teammate.

[3] Harden, DeRozan and Westbrook are southern California natives; each manifests Kobe’s playing style in different ways, each to their own benefits and detriments, but also to undeniable success in their respective ways.

[4] In its entirety, I should note; other cases stick out, but they lean more to the Jerry Springer realm than that of the professional level of a sport I was actually playing at the time.

[5] While we’re here: ban helicopters, at least on a private level. I understand why Kobe and others of certain tax brackets would want to beat traffic, particularly in Los Angeles, but there have been too many avoidable accidents for this to keep going. Maybe this serves as a wake-up call.

[6] As well as, yes, his propensity for taking ill-advised (but confident!) shots at the worst of times – “Kobe!”

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