Garbhan Madigan looks at Kobe Bryant’s career as he continues to break NBA records, while winding down towards a cruel ending with the Los Angeles Lakers.
I met ‘Kobe Bryant’ when I was in my basketball infancy. As a child playing basketball games on various game consoles in the early 2000’s, we strove to find out more information so as to decide who would be “our guy”, the hero, the guy whose jersey you got when a relative went on a trip Stateside.
We all knew certain names and the real stars are always known by a single one – Duncan, Webber, Garnett, Dirk (Nowitzki), (Allen) Iverson. However for kids in the early 2000’s, there was only one team to follow – the Los Angeles Lakers and their superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. I was the freak for committing to the San Antonio Spurs (that paid off though!).
The more I watched and played, the more hooked I became on the enigmatic persona that we all know by many names; “24”, “Neo”, “Kobe Wan Kenobi”, “KB24”, “Vino”, “Izzo”, “Employee Number 8” and of course, “The Black Mamba” – Kobe Bryant.
How things can change. On some nights in 2014, it was (and is) painful to observe the Los Angeles Lakers play basketball. Watching the purple and gold play and in particular watching Kobe Bryant play offense, gives the feeling of having jumped into a time machine to the 90’s. Bryant gets the ball on the wing early in a possession, backs down like a post player, and unleashes a preposterous 20-foot turnaround ripped from an ancient league.
The NBA has moved so far away from such a game plan that it is preposterous. In Lakerland however, Kobe is taking the shots everyone else avoids – and is doing it at record levels.
To say it’s been a difficult year for the 36-year-old Bryant would be an understatement. On top of watching helplessly while his once-proud franchise sinks once again into lottery-bound irrelevance, Kobe himself is registering a career-low field-goal percentage of 39 percent. This just doesn’t happen to Kobe, he is a winner and always has been one. Only once in Lakers history since the Buss family took control of the franchise has the purple and gold not made the playoffs – and putting the most competitive player since Jordan in such a desperate situation is toxic.
On Saturday night however, the iconic Laker franchise and their loyal following received some respite. The Mamba was at the heart of it as Bryant’s first triple-double of the season (31 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists) – was unfurled in the midst of the Los Angeles Lakers’ surprising 129-122 overtime win over the red-hot Toronto Raptors on Sunday night.
The single night’s achievement was a remarkable one for a man ruined with fatigue and injury the past two seasons. The triple double overshadowed what else occurred – Kobe Bryant became the first player in the history of the NBA to score over 30,000 points and also have 6,000 assists over the course of a career.
This should shut up a lot of people who have said for years how selfish Kobe is and that he “doesn’t pass.” The annoying reality is that Bryant is a great passer as well as a great scorer, I mean, he averaged 4.8 assists over his 18 year career (over 1200 NBA regular season games) with ten seasons with at least five assists per game according to BasketballReference.com.
That is what makes it so frustrating to watch him hijack L.A. possessions. Bryant passes as a last resort, when the extra defensive attention has made it too difficult for him to get off a makeable shot. Again: he’s great at those passes. He’s a savant at anticipating defensive rotations, rather than reacting to ones that have already happened, and spotting the right player. These passes help. But they’re old NBA passes that come only after an old NBA scoring tactic has failed. They are almost a form of surrender.
This is what Kobe is now – a guy who is going to keep achieving record status. Observers everywhere are looking at Kobe’s contract (easily the worst at the league at two years and $48.5 million for a thirty-six-year-old) asking “why did they let him (Kobe) do this to them?” Vino’s contract saddles the Lakers for two years and while he is still putting up great numbers at times, he has to revert to the nineties basketball (losing basketball) to do it. It’s very obvious to pensive thinkers why the Lakers have sacrificed themselves for Kobe – money.
Firstly, if they are in the bottom five records in the NBA the Lakers get to keep the draft pick they traded to the Suns and you would hope that would parlay into another star player. Secondly, while his deal is a whopper and prevents them signing another superstar in a star driven league, it comes off the cap in two years. That just so happens to be when the salary cap is expected to make a huge leap — perhaps from $66.5 million, the current projection for the 2015-16 season, all the way to the $90 million range. The Lakers could offer two or even three max-level contracts during a summer in which Kevin Durant and a bunch of other stars could hit the market.
Thirdly, the people still cheer for The Black Mamba. Even on the road! They don’t cheer for the Lakers. They cheer for Kobe. The Atlanta crowd last week was chanting his name — “Ko-be! Ko-be!” — after a couple of classic Bryant fadeaways. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe said after the game:
“The L.A. fans in attendance were popping their Kobe jerseys and mean-mugging Atlanta fans, as if Bryant’s baskets gave them strength or validated their fandom — as if the score of the game didn’t matter. It was downright theatrical. It was like they were cheering for a gladiator, not watching two professional teams play a basketball game.”
Kobe Bean Bryant is a throwback to the “Attitude Era” of the NBA. He refuses to be the one who sacrifices for others as in his twenties he was the one putting a Lakers franchise on his back (sorry Shaq, you left!) and won them championships. Nor will he admit he is not still the best out there. He is the alpha dog and is not for turning.
Kobe made clear in an interview with Sports Illustrated before the season began that he equates joy with hard work, as if it must be earned. In Kobe’s world, anything that comes easy is, by its very nature, not worth treasuring. He sees his role on the Lakers in the final third of his career as, in essence, a**hole in chief.
“You can’t afford to placate people. You can’t afford to do that. You’re a leader. You’re not here to be a social butterfly. You’re here to get them to the Promised Land. A lot of people shy away from that because a lot of people want to be liked by everybody. I want to be liked too. But I know that years from now they’ll appreciate how I pushed them to get us to that end result.
“It’s never easy, man. This s*it is hard. So when players look in the distance and see us winning championships and see us celebrating and having a good time, they think, ‘Oh, this is what leadership is, this is how you win, everyone gets along, we’re all buddy-buddy, we all hang out, blah, blah.”
This is the harsh reality of the modern day NBA, everything is about the fame and money of both the players and the franchise. Kobe has no guilt about taking a ludicrous deal from the Lakers as outlined because he is the millionaire who is being asked by billionaires (owners) to take a paycut and sacrifice for his team if he really wanted to win with other superstars.
He is “Kobe.Inc” and will bring a show. The Lakers are a show — a flashback to a different time in the NBA, complete with elements of drama, comedy, and absurdism. Before anyone says that doesn’t matter – how many better teams than the Lakers are going to have as many live televised games this year – the answer is very few.
Kobe Bryant has made the Lakers billions of dollars and simply does not realise that he sealed his own fate. He never wanted to leave Tinseltown, but his contract ensures he can’t be traded. The sixth ring is now out of reach for a player who has indicated retirement is on the horizon after his insane contract. Now the Lakers are going to play out the next two seasons where every game will still sell out based on #24 being on the floor.
So, we now will witness the “Kobe Bryant seeks individual records” tour, coming to an arena near you. Here you can buy the gear of one of the best five players to ever play the game and watch some YouTube clips of one of the greatest competitors ever and all the while the Lakers continue to make money.
Kobe thought he could contend with this squad (his confidence never fails to be sky high) but the Lakers did not. They are giving him forty eight million dollars because they will make more than that from Bryant jersey sales alone. His incessant goal of seeking perfection, all with the one Laker franchise in an attempt to match Michael Jordan’s six championships will be his downfall.
At the time of writing, Kobe is just over 100 points behind MJ for third ever in points scored in the NBA. Watch the media go wild, as we all will (Kobe is a God in China) when he most likely catches Kareem Abdul Jabbar in just about 6,000 points time. The greatest scorer of all time is sealed with that goal, as long as we ignore that Kobe will have missed more shots than anyone else in NBA history also – a product of KobeVision and the isolation wing basketball of the 90’s.
The Lakers are mercenaries. Bryant has been playing with them for eighteen seasons, over half his life, but now, they are bleeding him for all the money he is worth in his chase for the “greatest scorer ever” title so they can claim the next free agent superstar, just as they have with Shaq and others over the years.
In fact, despite Kobe sacrificing life and limb for the franchise, they still secretly want to fail and fall in the bottom five in the NBA so they retain their first round draft pick.
There are certain things that can never be taken away from Kobe Bryant, the fame, the 81 point game against the Toronto Raptors, five championships, two Finals MVP awards, a league MVP award, 16 All-Star nods (soon to be seventeen and he has the record for most All-Star MVPs with four), 15 All-NBA team selections (only two third team!), two consecutive scoring titles, a Defensive Player of the Year award, 12 All-Defensive team selections, and many iconic performances and memories.
However; “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Kobe never wanted to be the hero because frankly he didn’t care. All that the Mamba wanted and still wants is perfection in his craft in the game he loves – the enigmatic superstar.
It’s a sad final image of Kobe Bryant that is arriving upon us. It will not be the superhero movie ending, six championships in a career married in merit to Michael Jordan. But rather than that of a gun-slinging basketball bandit both doomed and too stubborn to do anything but what he’s always done.
Let’s not forget, as father time claims another scalp, just how great an all-around player Kobe Bean Bryant was – even if we sometimes couldn’t be bothered to notice.
Garbh Madigan, Pundit Arena.