The 2021-22 NBA regular season wraps up next week, with just a handful of games for each franchise to play before the play-in tournament…
It was hard to make sense of the way that Kobe Bryant moved.
It was effortless but calculated, liquid and purposeful. He flowed more than he ran, in a sort of ballet without any defined steps.
He mostly just looked magnificent. Whatever we make of the outcomes the look was unarguably tremendous, with everything about ‘Kobe’ on the court – the man, the myth, the cold-blooded reptilian assassin who does commercials too – so magnetic and energising, inciting such a palpable desire within to replicate what you were seeing.
On an empty court at night you could never pretend to be LeBron, but you could pretend to be Kobe. All in one motion slithering to a spot, quickly faking left shoulder, fading right, then shooting a line-drive as you admired your shot, feeling briefly like an icon.
The appeal goes deeper. Idols resonate most in the quieter moments. Bryant was an especially perfect silent friend – a maniac singularly obsessed, which made him so much easier to connect with, if only as an idea.
It’s tough to imagine fame – it’s easier to relate to someone who just desperately wants something they will probably never have.
For Bryant that was basketball immortality. As a pure player he never got there – relegated to the second row of basketball history. A champion and a legend, but a clear rung below James and Michael Jordan.
He will never be forgotten, though, and will endure in a way that maybe not even James will. Between the way he moved and the way he obsessed, and the fact that he played on the biggest stage and conquered it, he was the defining player of his generation, even if he wasn’t the best.
But how he is remembered can’t be that simple or clean. Bryant is a champion but no hero.
His basketball issues – the undermining of teammates, the selfish descents into hero-ball, the petty affronts – were the smallest complication.
What happened in Colorado in 2003 can’t be overshadowed by basketball or brushed aside now, even by a devastating tragedy. Everything about the incident in Colorado is deeply disturbing – from the facts of the case to the troubling concessions Bryant made in his public apology to the 19-year-old girl who accused him of rape.
In thinking of Bryant from afar, it’s difficult to grapple with and separate this horrible episode from the rest of Bryant’s life, and all the things he achieved and the inspiration he was to others.
The implication from Bryant’s oft-quoted line that we’re all angels and all devils is clear: he had done great things and he had done terrible things.
To appreciate the great things was easy, which is probably why, for better or worse, they’ve greatly outweighed the terrible things in popular discourse.
Even at his selfish worst, Bryant was spectacular on the court. Mainly, he was fearless – a performer guided unnervingly by an eerie and absolute confidence. When Shaquille O’Neal fouled out in overtime of Game 4 of the 2000 finals, the next possession Bryant drained a long jumper and grinned and smirked as he pranced back down the court – with zero doubt, as though he’d been waiting so long for the moment to take all the pressure, completely unfazed by it.
More than any player in the past 20 years, he executed teams and took real pleasure in it. The Game 6 clincher in the 2010 conference finals against Phoenix captured a lot of the perfect Bryant beats. The impossible drained shots, double-teamed off-balance fade-away long twos with the legs kicking out like scissors.
The immediate, crowd-numbing answers to the home team’s run. The sealing shot to end a season. Bryant always seemed more like himself on the road – more comfortable inflicting pain than creating elation.
He was terrifying. He destroyed ideas about how things were supposed to go. When a margin felt comfortable he would annihilate it and make you remember that ‘Kobe’ could be a bigger idea than ‘should’.
In Game 5 of the 2010 finals in Boston he hit seven shots in a row in the third quarter – a collage of the same ridiculous shots he made against Phoenix, that no one else had the brazenness to take or the brilliance to make. Fittingly, in a way, though, Bryant scored 19 points in that quarter and the Lakers ended it down the same margin that they started it.
Bryant was compelling because he was unsolvable. In basketball, his best traits couldn’t exist without his worst traits. He was so intense, maniacal, single-minded and insensitive in his craft that he seemed destined for isolation, but in his later years he became one of the most beloved figures in the sport.
The selfishness was minimised and the curiosity – in knowledge and other people – took over.
His public persona was often forced and a little awkward – he was always crafting and perpetuating the mythology of himself. He said a lot of weird things about leadership and Beethoven.
But he said plenty of captivating things too, things that resonated in an oddly profound way.
He was Jordan to many. But he was never as perfect as Jordan and that made him more interesting. In basketball, he was always searching – sometimes messily, sometimes brilliantly. He was never content and never satisfied.
He had every physical gift and succeeded on the biggest stage, beloved by millions, yet his reality never seemed entirely enviable – to have everything and still be frustrated, because everything has one speck of dirt on it, and that speck is all you can think about. That tortured, unrelenting dissatisfaction made Bryant engrossing.
We are left with everything and not much. So much of Bryant will endure and be re-watched and reconsidered.
And through it all, we’ll probably be no closer to figuring out how to think about him in death than we were life.