I have never liked Kobe Bryant much. A big part of this feeling is jealousy, from watching the Lakers establish a dynasty in the 2000s. I also don’t like how he sticks his lower jaw out late in close games. I dislike the goofy arm tattoo that he got in the middle of his career. I hate how he jumps into defenders to draw fouls (just like Jordan). How he whines to the refs all the time (though to be fair, most stars do that). He’s not charming like Shaq or Lebron. He grew up privileged, living in Italy while his dad played pro ball there. And what’s with switching jersey numbers mid-career? That’s lame. Isn’t it also bad luck?
But Bryant has won four championships. He is a great player. Paradoxically, this is (for me) the least impressive thing about him, at least if you take “greatness” to be an indivisible whole. Instead, it’s particular aspects of his court genius which are the reason I grudgingly concede how amazing Kobe is. I especially dig his grittiness–not the silly performances of it (e.g. sticking his jaw out and grimacing like a terrier), but the long, fundamental, undeviating history of it, his almost maniacal desire to win. Anyone with that kind of dedication to any calling is admirable, even if they are arrogant pricks.
Dude plays almost every game in the regular season. And he’s played a fuckton of games. Kobe entered the league at 18, and not only have many of his teams gone deep into the playoffs, but he has frequently played international ball. He’s got the legs of a 36-year-old. By the time this year’s playoffs came, Bryant had a fractured finger, a bum knee, and some kind of arm injury (I think). Nevertheless he played a solid series against the legitimately terrifying Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have gorgeous game, and they’re only going to get better), who can run the hell out of anybody, especially a relatively older team like the Lakers.
I figured this was Dien Bien Phu for the Lakers, who are a fine squad, but with a shallow bench that would hobble them against a team like the Suns or the Cavs; thought it was the year the wave rolled back, the empire lost its colonies, the year Lebron and the Cavs became the next dynasty, and so on. And when Kobe threw up that difficult falling jumper from the right baseline at the very end of Game Six, with the Thunder leading by one and about to force Game 7, and it rattled off the rim, I really figured LA was done. They blow a last-shot opportunity like that, and there is no way they have the vigor to win Game 7, even if it is at home in Los Angeles. Then Nick Collison just stood there as Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ fantastic Spanish center, grabbed the rebound and put the ball back. Lakers win. Kobe, you are winding down. This is probably the last great year of your career. It’s almost Jordan-with-the-Wizards territory. But I will not bet great sums of money against you. Got some fight in you yet, don’t you?