Since we're profiling every member of Team USA this year, let's all just take a second to think about how insane Kobe Bryant's career has been so far. We began with him speaking Italian in high school interviews, and somehow that turned into this photo gallery 15 years later.
A few years after that All-Star Game, Shaq was in L.A. and Kobe became a title-winning sidekick who was maybe one of the three best players in the league, but still couldn't get any respect. At that point everyone looked at him like this corny, spoiled kid -- trying so so hard to be MJ, then trying just as hard to fit in with his own generation. (It's easy to forget now that he goes everywhere dressed like a high-priced Italian hitman, but there was a time when Kobe recorded horrible rap songs and wore throwbacks just like everybody else.)
After the championships came Colorado, Shakespearean power struggles with Shaq (featuring snitching and trades and horrible rap freestyles), Phil Jackson writing an entire book dedicated to how insane Kobe was during the title runs, then Phil coming back to coach Kobe and Slava Medvedenko, 81 points, the Pau trade, the image makeover and the titles. Each episode is less of a chapter in the story than a whole separate book that needs to be written on its own.
He's the most ridiculous athlete of my generation. As a rookie he looked at Shaq and said, "I'm going to be the Will Smith of the NBA." Later, we got profiles where "his good friend" Hilary Swank describes his motivation and we find out he sleeps four hours a night and studies da Vinci and Daniel Day-Lewis for inspiration. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether Kobe really lives likes this or just says it to enhance his own mystery, but I think either option is equally ridiculous and incredible.
Oh, and there was that time he said Michael Jackson was his mentor:
"It sounds weird, I guess, but it’s true: I was really mentored by the preparation of Michael Jackson. ... He would teach me what he did: How to make a ‘Thriller’ album, a ‘Bad’ album, all the details that went into it. It was all the validation that I needed – to know that I had to focus on my craft and never waver. Because what he did – and how he did it – was psychotic. ... That’s the mentality that I have – it’s not an athletic one. It’s not from [Michael] Jordan. It’s not from other athletes."
Thriller allusions aside, that whole thing was accidentally perfect: Nobody will ever argue that Kobe's mentality isn't psychotic in eight different ways. What's crazy is how well it's worked, how much he's changed over the years and how much our perceptions changed, too.
Anyway ... this series is supposed to profile each Team USA player and their journey to the Olympics, but with Kobe it's pretty much impossible to capture that in anything less than 10,000 words. So let's just go with the Kobe we have now. On that front, Chris Ryan nailed things down at Grantland back in December, with The Lion in Nuclear Winter, talking about Kobe in a post-lockout world.
Basically, the corny kid from 10 years ago is the most entertaining human in the NBA these days. Next to a generation full of image-conscious superstars, Kobe's become the breath of fresh air that greets America with matter-of-fact honesty, colorful profanity and/or scathing sarcasm, often all at once. It's great. As Ryan wrote last year, he's "too tired to be disgruntled but with too much s*** in his rearview mirror not to pass comment on what he sees."
The basketball world isn't his anymore, but he's not gone, either. So what's happened is we've gotten this unofficial ombudsman looming over the basketball world -- hanging around to keep it real on topics ranging from the NBA lockout to Blake Griffin to NBA fashion. And then he gives the league his last best shot on the court, every night.
I saw Kobe play this year and loved every second of it. Up close, you see how he really does carry himself like MJ anywhere he walks on the court. You see the trash talk that always comes with a smart-ass grin, the pull-up jumpers from 20-feet that look impossibly routine, the disgust he has for officials, teammates and anyone else who dares cross him. And you can't help but get caught up in it all, still.
You watch him and know he's someone we'll tell the next generation about, except the next generation's already here, and he's just sticking around because he's too proud and too good to go out that easy. All of which is to say, off the court and in the media, Kobe may seem like kind of a cartoon in 2012. But on the court, even next to guys like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, he's very much the proud lion who's king until he leaves. Players still fear him, and he's as fearless as ever.
After the Lakers' playoff loss this year he said, "I’m not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. This is not one of those things where the Bulls beat the Pistons and the Pistons disappear forever. I’m not going for that s***." It was vintage Kobe ridiculousness, but also maybe matter-of-fact honesty. Now the Lakers have Steve Nash, and this final story of his will somehow last another few years, extending a giant middle finger to logic for just a little longer.
As for the Olympics?
LeBron and Durant are better players now, Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony were born to wreak havoc with international rules, and Chris Paul is the point guard sent from God to come down and make a team full of All-Stars make sense. But even with everyone else, if you asked who I'm most excited about watching on Team USA? It's gotta be Kobe, because f*** the world.