On Kobe Bryant and taking greatness for granted

Kobe Bryant LeBron James Cleveland
Scott Sargent/WFNY

When Kobe Bryant entered the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers wore uniforms accented in black and electric blue. The seats at The Q were blue. There was no fire-breathing jumbotron. He was guarded by the likes of Chris Mills and the late Bobby Phills, and later it was Wesley Person getting crossed up, leaving poor Cedric Henderson to go flying by, biting on a pump fake in attempt to play help-side defense. Sasha Pavlovic tried. So did Anthony Parker. You could say Alonzo Gee did as well.

Being friendly with few and competitive with all, Bryant speaks of himself as if he was a bridge between two incredible generations within the NBA. He willingly admits to having a character flaw that forbids him from endearing himself to peers—”I just wanted to win the damn thing,” he says. He blames the AAU circuit for today’s warmer, competitive yet friendly environment where elite basketball players know each other from their early teens through various levels of play, becoming closer both on and off of the court. Though he’s still one of the brightest stars in today’s game, Bryant tosses out, rhetorically, a hypothetical of Larry Bird’s team from French Lick, Indiana, playing alongside Magic Johnson’s squad from Lansing, Michigan, before shooting it down like a clay pigeon.

With the 1997 All-Star Weekend, hosted at then Gund Arena, fans remember a young, me-against-the-world Bryant looking to make his mark on the league. A star entering—and winning—the slam dunk contest during a time when stars still competed. They may remember him competing in the Rookie Challenge, dropping a game-high 31 points on just 17 shots, playing alongside teammates Travis Knight and Derek Fisher. Bryant, however, remembers the feelings he experienced when walking through the halls of the arena and into the Western Conference locker room, sharing that space with Gary Payton, and John Stockton—complete with short shorts. He recalls being surrounded by legends of the game as they littered the halls of The Gund in advance of the league-wide celebration of the 50 best players to ever play the game. Though just 18 years of age at the time, not long removed from telling Michael Jordan he felt he could beat the legend in a game of one-on-one, Bryant immediately assimilated himself more with the Mt. Rushmore around him than the would-be chachkies that were his age-based peers.

If you ask Bryant to pick out a specific memory from his times in Cleveland—which were not many despite a 20-year career—February 8, 2009, jumps out. With the losing of the 2008 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics fresh in his mind, Bryant and the Lakers were on a season-long run at redemption and were running into a LeBron James-led Cavaliers squad that had yet to lose a game at home. Winning streaks meant little to Bryant, who gladly played a substantial role in breaking the Celtics’ 19-game winning streak just a few weeks earlier in front of a Christmas Day audience. And here was Bryant, flu-ridden, vomiting in the locker room, needing an IV at halftime, refusing to give way. With the Cavs cutting a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to four with just three minutes remaining and the Quicken Loans Arena crowd ready to explode, it was Bryant who drained a fade away jumper that felt like it hung in the air for minutes before it came crashing through the net.

Bryant neglects to bring up a game in that same arena against that same team just two years later. Then a two-time defending NBA champion, Bryant left Quicken Loans Arena without saying a word to any media members, likely out of fear of potentially saying something he would regret either in pride or in his wallet. Coming off of a 20-point drubbing at the hands of the then Charlotte Bobcats, one that left the shooting guard admittedly frustrated, Bryant needed 25 shots to score 17 points and the rest of his teammates (save for Pau Gasol) played as if the All-Star break had already begun. It is, after all, one thing to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers; it’s another to lose to a Cavaliers team without LeBron James that played Christian Eyenga and Jamario Moon for a combined 48 minutes.

If there’s any indication of Bryant’s subconscious wrestling with his competitive streak, it’s when he discusses other veterans as if they’re still young. When asked about James, Bryant asks “What is this, his 10th year in the league?” When reminded that it’s actually James’ 13th, his eyes widen. “Jesus Christ. Thirteen?” he says. Though just a few years older than Cleveland’s No. 23, Bryant speaks of James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as if they were drafted in the same class as James’ teammate Kyrie Irving who was selected with the first pick seven years later—”I was much older [in 2003] in NBA years,” he says. “To me, LeBron is still young.”—while simultaneously acknowledging that all three are nearing retirement in their own right.

While Bryant continues to give the game everything he can, knowing that it may no longer result in the same level of consistent production as the late aughts, Wade speaks as someone who knows full well what sort of transition happens to NBA players beyond their 30s, a period where basketball IQ provides a slower decline in a period where athleticism opts to deteriorate rapidly. “Out-thinking guys becomes more important than out-jumping guys,” says Wade. “When you can’t get by [defenders] as quickly in the pick and role, you have to be a lot smarter.” But just like Bryant, who has battled injuries and roster turmoil just as much as he has Father Time, Wade confirms the mentality that L.A’s No. 24 has exhibited since the day he stepped foot into the league. “I’d rather play seven years that way than 15 years the way I didn’t want to.”

Long removed from the days of being a wiry kid from Lower Marion high school, Bryant looks more scholarly despite being just 37 years of age. In basketball years, however, 37 goes perfectly with the professorial turtleneck and blazer combination he wore when addressing the Cleveland media for the final time. Starting his journey alongside NBA legends in their own right, Bryant’s career did in fact bridge two undoubtedly great generations of basketball together, traversing over the lost era that, while entertaining at times, was arguably one of the least talented years the league has seen in the last two decades. While he came out with a bang in the mid-90s, he’s well aware that his essay to the game of basketball comes at a time where his best days are long in the rear view.

“I’m comfortable, personally, with it in the sense that I’ve done everything I possibly could to get ready—and I mean everything,” Bryant said on Wednesday night. “So if I come out and I’m not playing as well as I would like to play, I’m not happy about it, but I know that there is literally nothing else that I could possibly give to change the way I’m performing. I just continue to stay at it. As far as wins and losses go, I just have to look at the challenge a little differently. It’s not about winning championships; it’s teaching and helping the young guys. It’s trying to be healthy enough to go out and play and enjoy this ride as much as I can.”

This weekend Kobe’s ride will take him to Toronto where he will start his final All-Star game for the Western Conference. Stockton and Payton may no longer be there, but Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry will be. The double-double prowess of Karl Malone will have been replaced by the silky smooth scoring abilities of Kevin Durant. And the low-post ownership of Hakeem Olajuwon will have given way to some of the game’s best big men in DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Come mid-April, the vast majority—if not all—of his All-Star teammates will continue on through the NBA postseason; Bryant, conversely, will set sail into retirement with a career that extended for 20 seasons in the league, five NBA championships, one NBA MVP award, and one of the most impressively complicated careers in recent memory. Not complicated in the way he went about his business on and off of the court, dripping with competitiveness and charisma, having the ability to drop 81 points in a single game, but in the way that a career that spanned such an incredible length of time somehow felt like it merely came and went.

Like “Michael” and “Magic,” we’ll always have “Kobe.” But as Bryant walked out of the doors of Quicken Loans Arena for the final time in his illustrious career, having swapped his turtleneck for a sweatsuit, it’s tough to not feel as if a 20-year career could have somehow been taken for granted. The days of him playing in front of half-filled crowds at The Gund seem like an eternity ago, yet these 20 years seem to have flashed by entirely too fast.

  • CB Everett

    For all his big misdeeds (Colorado), his well-publicized dickishness to teammates, the coaches he’s been through, and his general selfish play, I’m genuinely surprised he’s far less criticized than Lebron (and certainly gets less heat).

    Great scorer and competitor, but as a person, not so much. Ah well, I guess everyone of that skill level gets a farewell tour, accompanied by a sanitizing absolution of sins on the way out.

  • Jim Brown, Wilt, LeBron, Sweetness, LT, Bonds, Cobb, Jordan, Shaq, Magic, Tiger, Babe, Mayweather, Tyson…

    An uphill climb for any fan who yearns for the greatest in any form of entertainment to have a scrape-free resume. Sometimes you just have to enjoy athletes for what they mean to their respective games, hope they acknowledge their flaws, and hope they strive to be better in every capacity. In Kobe’s case, he’s 38. Plenty of time to right the off-court wrongs.

  • Pat Leonard

    For me, Kobe is the face of the NBA of the early 2000s… when selfishness was in vogue and prior generations of NBA fans were turned off by the form the game had taken (and to be fair, this probably wasn’t what Kobe had created so much as Michael Jordan, which wasn’t Jordan’s fault but you had a generation of players who were trying to emulate him). This is still an argument that I have with my dad and older brother on a constant basis. They want to believe that the NBA is still a selfish, thuggish league with players gunning for their own stats, and that really isn’t the case anymore. It probably hasn’t been the case since the Pistons won it all in 2004. You can’t win a championship that way and NBA teams adjusted to the inefficiency.

    But back to my original point, I always despised Kobe Bryant. He was a player who played for himself rather than the team and ran off the best teammate he ever had due to that selfishness. You’re right in that he has a lot of time to right his wrongs, but if you want to know why people sneer at his farewell tour, I think that’s the biggest reason. NBA fans like to shower Bill Russell with praise and piss on Wilt Chamberlain, and I think the same thing will probably happen to Kobe Bryant in years to come when compared to his peer Tim Duncan. One guy hoisted the Larry O’Brien several times because of his individual greatness. The other hoisted the Larry O’Brien several times because his greatness made everyone around him great as well.

  • CB Everett

    I get some of the ills in there (rape, wife beating, racism, steroids, more rape, more wife beating, etc), but tossing Lebron in that company? Yikes…what similar transgression is he guilty of?

    Anyway, beyond that, I hear you point. Most, if not all, sports heroes are flawed creatures. I agree. But I guess that means we either lower our standards or don’t worship them. I just can’t cheer on a rapist into retirement.

  • maxfnmloans

    not for nothing, but Shaq had blood all over is hands when he left LA.

    Also, Kobe is all of those things you described, but at least he gave a crap. You know that whenever Kobe goes on the court, you’re going to see him try, as hard as he can for 48 minutes. Sadly for the NBA, during that 10 year period you described between 1996 and 2006, there were lots of “stars” you couldnt say the same about (Carter, McGrady et al). I may not like Kobe, but I respect him as a competitor.

  • The coach-killing, teammate alienating narrative has been all over this year. His off-court legacy is pristine, but for some reason, folks look for reasons to tarnish legacies.

  • Pat Leonard

    I’m not trying to say Kobe isn’t one of the best players in the history of the NBA. He clearly is. But I’m just saying why I’m not going to celebrate him and cheer him on in his farewell tour. I always hated Derek Jeter because he was a Yankee, but I respect him as a human being along with his accomplishments so I was fine with his farewell tour. But being ultra competitive isn’t enough for me to celebrate the legacy of Kobe. And I’ll add this, I wouldn’t celebrate the legacy of Rick Barry or Wilt Chamberlain for the same reason.

  • MrCleaveland

    I wonder how Kobe’s teammates feel if they’re out there bustin’ hump trying to win while he’s hogging the ball and shooting 5 for 18 regularly. He stayed too long, and he doesn’t deserve the playing time he’s getting. He’s making a mockery of competition to feed his ego. If I were a teammate, I wouldn’t like it.

  • maxfnmloans

    I hear ya. I just think Shaq’s kinda gotten a free pass on that breakup over the years. Shaq’s hilarious…gregarious, people like him, so it all gets laid on Kobe. I dont think thats fair. All of Kobe’s issues as a basketball player can be attributed to a homicidal competitiveness. he didnt hog the ball because he wanted shoe deals and commericals and to hang out with Jay Z or Drake, or to become a Global Icon. he did it because he wanted rings. I can respect that. No need to cheer him on a farewell tour. I understand why others may have a different opinion.

  • Steve

    “You know that whenever Kobe goes on the court, you’re going to see him try, as hard as he can for 48 minutes.”

    Except that game 7 in Phoenix.

  • maxfnmloans

    you’re right, and he’s even admitted he regrets that decision. Thanks for reminding me that there are no absolutes on the internet because invariably someone will remember that one time out of 1200. I was attempting to make a larger point.

  • Steve

    But that’s the thing though. With guys like Kobe, we speak in absolutes so often, when frankly, we have no freaking idea. None of us actually know how many nights Kobe took off mentally, or was upset at the coach or a teammate, and didn’t actually give his best.

    We don’t know what a less-than-100% effort from Kobe looks like, because we don’t know what it looks like from anyone. It’s not just a night he decided to not shoot at all, but it could be a night where he jacked up almost any time he got a touch, because he’s not interested in running the offense that night.

    Kobe, as a competitor, found it important to put himself getting credit for the success over winning countless times. Not just when he ran someone out of town, but when he put up a 9/22 night. So, yeah, he’s a sociopath, and he certainly competes hard to establish his place in the pantheon, but when it comes to winning? Maybe not so much.

  • BerwynBomber

    Never liked Kobe but learned to respect him as he aged. He was arguably one of the best regular-season closers of all-time. But he was at times given too much credit/overrated over the course of his career and NO NBA superstar ever held himself in higher regard. Seriously, giving yourself your own nickname?

    Anyway, top-20 all-time and deserves his farewell props but his self-promotion won’t be missed.

  • BerwynBomber

    Good one. Yeah, still one of the most selfish displays of qutting I have ever seen by a player of his pedigree. Funny that LBJ gets baked for that one Boston series but Kobe quitting in that game against Phoenix wasn’t even debatable (whereas LBJ’s against Boston is).

  • BerwynBomber

    And Jordan and Payton? What did they ever do? Jordan, at worst, gambled and cheated on his wife. Those transgressions are a FAR, FAR cry from beating or raping a woman.