All kings, whether tyrant or saint, are commissioned a portrait at the end of their reign. How then, do we render Kobe Bryant?
If we should paint a definitive picture of Kobe as his career comes to a close, then in it, he should be alone. Of course, there are different types of solitude, each as unique as the loner himself. Kobe should be alone in the way that he has always been: in the spotlight, in the midst of a crowd, oppressed by a wave of defenders' outstretched hands while his teammates watch. He should be posed under the five banners from his five championships.
He should be in solitude, as he was in Italy during his early years: "In that situation, you wind up being in isolation a lot, so you have a lot of time to think," he said, via ESPN LA. "I gravitated to basketball even more because of the lack of common ground that I had with friends over there. So, I wound up playing the game a lot by myself, imagining and dreaming and envisioning."
So, now that all the imagining, dreaming and envisioning have become reality and regressed into past tense, Kobe's remoteness is key to any depiction of him, the exemplar of the reclusive genius. His madness is excused because of the quality of his work, so he is bludgeoned with new criticisms of the same sociopathy once his quality wanes. Central to that aloofness, he castigates himself more than anyone else could since he creates foremost to please himself, not the outside world.
"So, I wound up playing the game a lot by myself," should be followed by, "and for myself."
King Kobe's portrait shouldn't be a sad painting at all, because he isn't sad. He chose the path that he followed. He desired to be loved at first before realizing that he would have to accept the villain's role and then reveled in it. If he really has few friends on his team, in the media and in the general world, it is all because these friends were unimportant to his ultimate goal. He should be defiant in his singularity.
Kobe should be in a signature pose: on the right baseline, fading away with his right foot kicked out and the ball going over the reaching arm of a defender. The separation between the defender's hand and the ball needs to be infinitesimal. Behind that initial defender should be another who is a bit further away, one that was rushing to double team Kobe right before the shot.
This is Kobe at his best. Kobe before the last three years. Before injury and old age diminished his brilliance to the point that if the image was painted of his current form, that shot is more likely to be an airball or to be blocked.
But here we can think back to better times. Seconds before, he's backing the defender down. He dribbles the ball with his left hand while driving the right shoulder into the chest of his adversary. Maybe he even extends the right arm a bit on the second or third push. Then, with enough space, he shimmies to the right. The defender bites and affords a bit of room. He puts both hands on the ball, spins counter-clockwise, jumps and fades away with his left hand on the side and his right one right underneath the ball. And now we're frozen here, at the shot.
The statistics tell us that 48 percent of the time in his career, Kobe's shots taken from inside the arc go in. But Kobe has been consistent in his insistence on taking the most difficult of shots from anywhere on the court. He has to show that he can do what others can't, that his genius is at its peak when things are at their hardest. It's not effortless or inviting, it's a grind. It's playing with knees that nearly scrape bone on bone. It's waking up at 3 a.m. each day to take countless shots or practice footwork alone. It's having talent and still overachieving with it.
The last few years have seen that genius tested, strained and deteriorated. His precious, logic-defying shot has failed. This year, his overall shooting percentage stands at 33 percent, down even from the 37 percent he managed over 35 games in the 2014-15 season before tearing his rotator cuff.
In other seasons we could anticipate the scowl that comes after a make, the one aimed at no one in particular but everyone at the same time. At the defender, the doubters, the writers, his own teammates who held their hands out for the ball as he went to work and at himself, because he's constantly proving everything all over to himself. This year, when he does flash his signature look, it seems more as if he's grimacing in pain at the effort needed just for the shot. And many times, he's too tired to even snarl. He's just relieved to make the basket.
In the icon of Kobe, there should be a coach -- the choice is clear on this one, Phil Jackson -- standing in his own signature way, unbothered, with a slight smile on his face. A smile that signifies that he maybe knew how this play would unfold, that Kobe would take matters into his own hands regardless of the play called. He has to smile because you can only instruct geniuses so much. He must also be smiling at the familiarity of the move. He's seen it before, not from this one, but from another similar, one greater. The same footwork and mechanics, the same arrogance.
But you wouldn't paint Kobe as he is now, surrounded by forgettable teammates, a coach -- Byron Scott, Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike Brown -- who we could only dream of forgetting. In the narrative of Kobe Bryant, Roy Hibbert, Nick Young, Lou Williams and the rest are non-existent. Even if the young core of Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson blossom into world-beaters, in this story, in this picture, they barely register a thought. Few will remember this Kobe in his advanced age, and with that erasure will go those who played beside him.
It's important to know which variant form of Kobe is in the image. For the meager old man who we mostly disregard, it's easy to forget that Kobe has changed much over the years. He wasn't always the villain. At one point, as a electric guard full of crossovers and electrifying dunks, he was almost the hero. But the half-fro No. 8 Kobe Bryant isn't the one we immortalize.
That young player hadn't embraced himself yet and was still seeking for love and acceptance from the outside world. The frozen image is of 24 who, after years of reaching out for fans and coming up empty-handed through his own fault, embraced his role as the dream killer for the rest of the NBA. He truly came into his own and realized his full powers when he discarded the humanities and took his throne as the ultimate heel.
He has to have the tape around his fingers on his right hand. The braces for both knees that work to limit the pain of severe cartilage damage are showing right below his shorts. The observer can sense the pain he's hinting at like the smile of the Mona Lisa: the scars from the operations on those knees and the Achilles, the tensed muscles in the jaw as he clenches his teeth. He's focused. And yet and still, the distant eyes that see beyond the defender, past the shot, away from this individual game -- the eyes remembering how all of it was when he envisioned it as a kid.
Kobe couldn't have also imagined the ending being this painful. That he would describe himself as being worse than the 93rd-best player in the NBA, as ESPN ranked him. The little boy who drowned in his solitude in basketball because he couldn't relate to anyone has passed the apex of a dream career. In its twilight, even the game seems to have left him.
He's alone, as Kobe Bryant seems to always be. But now, after defying the world and his body for so long, the burden has worn him thin. "If something doesn't change, this is it for me." The something is ambiguous but we can assume that any change at this point will only be a change for the worse. Time keeps moving forward and his powers are waning further as it goes.
Yet, it's in his nature to fight. And we can see him this season, same as ever, lost in his solitude, still trying to shoot himself back to a semblance of the player that he once was.
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SB Nation presents: The time Kobe asked a 10-year-old for advice