clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I am a Kobe Bryant hater, and I will never forget him

Kobe Bryant was much more fun to hate than love.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Bryant announced that he will retire from the NBA at the end of the season, his 20th.

In other news, Kobe would have been a free agent at season's end. He is 37 years old and he is shooting 30 percent from the floor and 20 percent on threes. Players who are 37 years old and shoot that poorly do not get NBA contracts, especially when they insist on taking almost 20 shots per game.

Kobe isn't retiring so much as he is avoiding the "Allen Iverson waived by the Grizzlies" headlines. There's no realm in which Kobe would receive anything but a sympathy contract in 2016 anyway. He says he's leaving the game, but the game has done left him. It's not just now over. It's been over.

The final 66 games of the season will be a celebration of Kobe's legacy, as well it should be. He's a top-25 player all-time and one of the best pure scorers we've ever seen, up there with Jordan, Wilt and West in that category. For a long time he was a top defender, too, and he's always been a talented if reluctant passer.

A lot is made of his basketball IQ; I, for one, remain nonplussed by that facet of his game considering how infrequently he uses the knowledge for anything other than taking a predictable contested shot. What good is immense culinary genius if you live on PB&Js?

But there's no question that if there were a standardized test for basketball intuition, Kobe would peg it. He just never fully applied that knowledge base to his actual game.

Kobe is also deadly smart, period. He's a tycoon, a master of brands and a brilliant caretaker of his own image. Kobe once modeled himself completely on Jordan. It was cute, endearing and not a little creepy. But somewhere along the way, perhaps after that awful incident in Eagle, Kobe's projected self-image went on a different course than that of Jordan.

MJ was ruthless. He was better than everyone, and he made sure everyone knew it. Kobe is ruthless and better than most, too, but he's seemed more interested in showing the world how hard he works to get there. Michael never did, perhaps because he didn't have to work 10 times harder than everyone else just to be the best. MJ was so talented he could work exactly as hard as every contemporary and still destroy them. Kobe has had to live in the gym, commute by helicopter, get blood treatment in Germany and work harder than anyone else to be mentioned at the top of his generation.

Kobe's made that image work for himself. We'll never forget the stories of Kobe in a post-loss shooting session, or the Drake lyric, or the actual Nike ad campaign built solely around Kobe working out. It's a nice message for the kids, because hard work is important.

But consider what it says about Kobe's innate talent: It wasn't enough. Or, at least it wasn't enough to get Kobe to the point where he no longer needed Best Work Ethic Ever as a hook for his greatness.

In truth, it's unlikely Kobe works harder than Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan. You know, the Garnett who runs miles on the beach in Malibu with a weight vest on, or the Duncan who does wind sprints under the Texas sun. Kobe's just marketed the whole thing better. Garnett is comfortable being remembered as a team-first lunatic with a hummingbird's heartbeat. Duncan is happy to be remembered as the living embodiment of a Greek statue with a fistful of jewelry. Kobe wants to be remembered for working harder than anyone alive. I guess we all have our niches.

* * *

Never trust a man who has four times as many All-Star Game MVPs (four) as league MVPs (one).

* * *

Kobe long cultivated another identity, one held in addition to his work ethic self-image. This was that of the closer.

Kobe's personality -- that of a megalomaniac -- held that he should get every final shot, no matter how well-covered he'd been. In his retirement poem, Kobe mentions being a kid shooting a wad of paper into the wastebasket, counting down the final ticks of an imaginary game before the heave. We've all been that kid. Kobe was that adult. He let childhood daydreaming dominate his adult behavior. The shot was always his. Control was always his.

Kobe exists in a bubble of egocentricity. This is not an insult. It has worked for Kobe, to the tune of five titles, an MVP, two Finals MVPs and a Hall of Fame induction to come. But within Kobe, it has always been about Kobe, not the team, despite his status as a great champion. This speaks to how talented and hard-working Kobe is, as described above. It also speaks to luck: the luck of having Shaq on your team, the luck of having a GM who could acquire Pau Gasol and Ron Artest for a couple of songs, the luck of playing most of your life for Phil Jackson, the most successful NBA head coach since Auerbach.

All along the way, it was all about Kobe for Kobe. He pushed Phil away. He pushed Shaq out of town. No one has ever measured up to Kobe's standards.

This informs a survey of his basketball style. Why would he defer to a big oaf who won't be in shape until January and who would rather gnaw on cheesecake than fix his damn free throw stroke? Why would Kobe pass to lesser teammates and smaller talents who work less hard less often, who don't care as much? As with all things, there is no black and white with Kobe.

Indeed, this stance is as gray as any. It's refreshing that he holds high standards for those around him and that he reserves a special disgust for the lazy. Kobe has goals, and no doubt his teammates said they had them, too. But not all of them were willing to put in the work. Kobe's gotta carry your load, too? He's right to be pissed about that.

Of course, the vocalized dismemberment that followed when Kobe called out his teammates, particularly Shaq, often led to a sour locker room. It led to Kobe having few friends in the NBA and plenty of beef. It led to a dark age for the Lakers right during Kobe's prime as he forced Shaq out of town.

* * *

Kobe, at age 21, already one of the NBA's most recognizable young stars, playing for the league's most glamorous franchise in the entertainment capital of the world, released a rap single so bad it got him dropped from his label.

* * *

This pose -- distrust of those weaker -- manifests another way: Kobe took almost every critical shot in almost every high-leverage situation. He took so many that he made some. We remembered. He remembered. The rest of the NBA remembered, and every year the rest of the NBA marked him down as the closer they were most afraid of closing.

No mind that there were many better shooters. No mind that LeBron James made the right play, not the egocentric play, from Day 1 in the league. No mind that for every critical Kobe make, there were two forgotten misses. We remembered the heroic buckets and bestowed upon Kobe the crown of best closer in the game.

Kobe even cultivated a specific brand around this fake-ass trait: The Black Mamba. Even if the Lakers would have been better off running the Triangle or any actual basketball play during those moments, even if Kobe really ought to have passed out of yet another double-team, Kobe was convinced that the team should live and die by his hands. He thought that he was the best. And we believed him.

Until stats happened. And kept happening. As statistics about clutch shooting have become more rigorous and more widely available, it's become clear that Kobe is horribly inefficient in high-leverage situations. No matter how you slice it, Kobe is a bad shooter in the clutch. Granted, most shooters do worse in clutch situations, but by no metric is Kobe best or even good in this category. Subjectively, he was long heralded as the king of clutch. Objectively, he's not even close.

Slowly, realization has swept over much of the league. In this year's GM survey, Kobe didn't receive a single vote on the question of who you'd want taking a shot with the game on the line. It's an open question as to how much of that is Kobe getting old vs. reality beating the myth. But at least no one is handing him carte blanche to fire at will any more.

Well, no one except the Lakers.

* * *

Kobe has played six Game 7s in his career. He's shot a combined 44-113 (.389) in those games. MJ shot a combined 37-81 (.457) in three career Game 7s. LeBron has shot a combined 54-114 (.474) in five Game 7s. Chris Paul has shot 41-83 (.494) in five Game 7s.

* * *

Millions of Kobe's diehards and millions more Kobe-neutral basketball fans will remember the Mamba fondly for his exploits on the court. I will not. Too many of those exploits came at the expense of my rooting interest. There are more like me in Sacramento, Oakland, Phoenix, San Antonio, Portland, Seattle and Boston. We will never forgive him for breaking our hearts.

This does not mean he's completely irredeemable. Kobe embraces the venom from we the aggrieved, the knowing nod to our heartbreak. That makes the battle so much more fun. When he shushes a hostile crowd, when he grinds those teeth knowing the camera close-up is coming, when he mean-mugs the guy guarding him -- that's all part of the game. He's in on it. He loves being the villain. The dude dressed up like Voldemort to go trick-or-treating with his daughters, for God's sake.

Kobe has been one of the few players willing to challenge the power of league ownership throughout his career. He's been one of the few who openly discuss the unfairness of the individual player salary cap, and he's never been afraid to dissent from the union line. While he's a tycoon at heart, he does seem to be legitimately interested in instilling positive values in the next generation of humankind. He's an ethical cipher that is trending in the right direction. (Notably, he got busted for dropping a homophobic slur in game action, then quickly became one of the most vocal voices for tolerance and equality.) He's legitimately funny in a quirky way. And in some important ways, his entire narrative has been legitimized. (See: Andrew Bynum. Kobe was right about him.)

I feel that if Kobe managed to see beneath the crushing wave of adoration to the snark and sustained prodding offered up by anti-fans like me, he'd appreciate it. His legacy is in the millions of hearts he's captured and in the millions of hearts he's broken. He knows he's long been a villain to a certain segment of the population. Perhaps this final tour of failure with the Lakers is his parting gift to the haters who fueled those late nights in the gym. Having given Laker Nation 19 years of glory, he's giving his detractors a season of glee as a thank you.

No, that's not in him. And now, neither is basketball. Good riddance, Kobe Bryant. None of us -- fan or not -- will ever forget you.