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Life and basketball in the time of Kobe Bryant

Growing up in the Kobe era defined an adolescence.

LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant waved goodbye on Wednesday night after managing to be both a rallying point and a lightning rod for 20 years, inspiring hordes of fans with his rings and turning off naysayers with a style of play that sometimes felt selfish. While those narratives seemed to develop from the very beginning of his career, it was his clunky basketball evolution and the accompanying details that have often felt most relatable to me.

He represented for those of us who transformed from polite people-pleasing kids to awkward renegades to acid-tongued adults not entirely defined by the Internet. He didn’t diffuse everything with humor like Shaq, and his personality wasn’t so strong that it led a stylistic movement like Iverson. He wasn’t hood like Starbury, a fire-breathing dragon like KG or militaristic like Ray Allen. He was just the guy caught in the middle, isolated within himself in front of everyone.

I was 13 when Kobe entered the league. I’m 32 as he leaves. I couldn’t stop hooping when he arrived. Now, I’m afraid to trip and sprain my entire self. No other iconic athlete will exist and evolve so prominently in the background, as I – and those of my generation – undergo so much personal change. And it’s not even close. When you grow up with someone seemingly forever in the shadows, their effect is everlasting.

Starting out a blank slate

When Kobe Bryant was drafted in ’96, I don’t think I had imitated him while dribbling and shooting a basketball, which is remarkable in hindsight because I had already imitated everybody from college successes like James Forrest and Tyus Edney to pro trash talkers like Gary Payton and John Starks. I don’t recall logging on to Netscape Navigator in search of an in-depth scouting report on Kobe Bryant. The kid from Lower Merion High School was mostly an idea.

All I had in the beginning was his Upper Deck rookie card. A lot of power rested in the photographer’s timing and Upper Deck’s image selection. In retrospect, the smile is hard to parse. With a sheepish look that also seemed shrouded in mystery, Oakleys resting on top of his head like a post-prom fashion statement, I thought of Kobe as cool and happy, generally the antithesis of my early teenage years.

The reason I think I saw happiness in him boils down to what dreams are made of: a guy just old enough to have been my babysitter had made it to the league out of high school, as a guard. If he could do it, surely my delusional, growth-stunted self could win the puberty lottery like something out of Space Jam. There was a definite opposites-attract vibe: the least precocious teenager I knew (me) could relate to and admire arguably the most precocious teenage athlete in the world (Kobe).


1996 Upper Deck

Learning to be the man

The important thing was probably not to be scared, standing on the wing, game on TNT, about to drive the ball into the middle of a stifling New York Knicks defense at Madison Square Garden.

Wanna be one of the greatest scorers of all-time?

Well, get on then.

Drive by John Wallace on a mismatch. Barrel through Buck Williams, Patrick Ewing and Charlie Ward. Lose the ball temporarily. Grab it. Go back up. Get hacked across the arm because this is mid-90s New York and that’s how they do. Stand at the free-throw line at Madison Square Garden. Breathe.

On the broadcast, Verne Lundquist reminded viewers that a year ago Kobe was leading the Lower Merion Aces over Haverford High Fords.

"Can you imagine what he thought when he walked in here today?" Lundquist says.

Sure. It was literally my dream, contemplated everyday, a persistent head-gazing-out-of-the-classroom-window imagining: on the Garden floor, the ball in my hands, everyone expecting me to do something with it because I'm that dude.

My imagination was inspired by Kobe’s confidence early in his career, even if my play in games rarely reflected an ability to emulate his skills. Sometimes a Kobe-like alter ego would peek out during practice, which was usually fun and led to some good-natured trash talk. The airballs that followed later during his rookie season in Utah were eerily reminiscent of moments when fatigue took over during games of "3…2…1…" in empty gyms.

Thirteen years before he scored 61 at the Garden, Kobe Bryant got his start, scoring one. And he probably didn’t think that he was going to earn his first point by getting whacked by Buck Williams, a guy so old that it’s likely he fouled Kobe’s dad at one point or another.

Following in Fatherly Footsteps

Kobe always knew that he wanted to play basketball. When he was the kid in Italy palling around with Euro-demigod Mike D’Antoni, he knew. When he was studying Michael Jordan tapes and mannerisms, he knew. When he was Kobe Bryant, leader of suburban scrubs, he knew.

For all we’ve been told, Kobe always wanted to be a basketball player. He didn’t necessarily want to be Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, but he definitely boasted a desire and aptitude for the game largely facilitated by his father’s talents and career. The son of a writer and English professor, I understand that to some degree, knowing where your talent and ability come from and also at the same time wanting nothing more than to carve a different path despite the undeniable influence of parental guidance. The handpicked books from the local library down the street, the sports sections handed over at breakfast, the emails that read like letters, the copywriting reel I watched, the freelance samples I read at an early age; they weren’t as on-the-nose as Come Fly With Me and face-to-face meetings with basketball greats, but a homeschooled curriculum is a homeschooled curriculum.

Of course, the last thing I wanted to be growing up was a writer. It seemed so lonely and unrewarding. Being on SportsCenter seemed cool. Talking about Kobe Bryant in front of millions of people and riffing with Dan Patrick was the goal. Of course, back then, SportsCenter was known as a writer’s show, so it’s probably all relative; I was going to get my education one way or another.

Embracing Perfectionism

Some of the things that happen en route to success really boggle the mind.

Kobe stutter steps at the three-point arc, ignores Fisher, Fox, Horry and Shaq (lumbering down the lane, WIDE OPEN). Kobe dribbles to the baseline where he’s walled off by three Spurs. He wriggles free and fires a 19-foot fadeaway at an impossible angle over five hands while falling down. The shot misses badly. In an unmarked van outside the arena, Coach Popovich’s CIA operatives have a spontaneous high-five party.

Phil Jackson punches himself in the face.

Lakers win by 15 anyway and Kobe goes for 37.

In classrooms all across America, teachers hand students in Kobe jerseys their English papers back. White paper and black ink have rarely seen so much red. Those same kids head to basketball practice later and launch ill-advised shots to a chorus of groans.

The red-marked English papers can turn to an interest in sportswriting, which can turn into contacts and future assignments at the college newspapers, which can lead to other opportunities that lead to other opportunities.

One day, you find yourself on a tight deadline, suddenly realizing that a fast-deadline turnaround is like the writing/reporting equivalent of getting a good shot off within the offense. It may not be best, then, to feel like Kobe Bryant with a head of steam while attempting to write something coherent up against the clock -- even when writing about Kobe Bryant.

As the assignments get longer, though, that is liable to change. The great thing about non-deadline oriented writing is that you’re allowed to be stupid on your own time. The more time to ignore the "I wouldn’t do that" angel on your shoulder, the more time the bullheaded has to convince himself that a bad idea is a good idea. All part of the process, I guess: skipping the good idea in order to overcome the bad idea and hopefully find a great one; succeeding through failure, it applies across mediums.

Learning to ask for help

You can’t win without help. It’s the reality that any kid who’s spent countless hours shooting hoops in his own solitary space comes to understand. Part of the allure of scoring, or wanting to be a prolific scorer, is the practice of movements without resistance while the imagination runs wild, conjuring up dreams of success and glory. Yet unless you’re a one-on-one maven or Smush Parker on a bender, all that work alone is meant to yield dividends in a team setting.

Why people feel so strongly about Kobe -- apart from how fucking great he was at basketball for so long -- is that his game, from the shot selection to the isolation exploits to the facial tics, has long felt like a projection of the individual work sacrificed. As individuals, many individuals seek to relate to individual success on an individual level.

The other side to individualism is the loneliness that defines it. For the longest time, Kobe cut a solitary figure in a league filled with guys who wouldn’t go anywhere without a posse. That reality spoke both to fans, who were made to feel closer to him intrinsically, and artistically-inclined observers, like me, who spend a lot of time walking around alone, far too often unbothered by the very structured elements that can lead to greater success.

Taking Ls

It was painful to watch Kobe do everything in his power to save face during the early to mid-aughts, whether it was during a beef with Shaq or a crisis press conference. Kobe has long distinguished himself in how clearly you could hear him swallow before answering a question during interviews. Has the American public ever become so familiar with the lump in a celebrity’s throat? Given all the spin and PR, a public persona that isn’t an all-encompassing facade can actually be both charming and disarming. We’ve all had to swallow hard when facing the music. Credit to Kobe for never working hard enough at his persona to lead an NBA rookie transition seminar in how to fool the media.

Yet it was hard to rep Kobe back then, as trying too hard became a noted part of his process and he struggled to keep up with his own grace on the court. In fact, it was actually really Kobe-like to rep Iverson more than Kobe through the years. When you’re a certain age, sought-after acceptance comes before anything. You wanna feel your generation.

The only time I ever wore Kobe’s Adidas sneakers was when I fell asleep once after school and needed to borrow a pair from a friend in order to play in that night’s game. But I always felt current when I was rocking Iversons, looking at the pitbull and trying to live by the "only the strong survive" inscription in the kicks, making sure my shorts sagged to a level that represented the times. In hindsight, Iverson’s effect felt more like you can’t tell me anything because I am now, while Kobe’s felt more like you can’t tell me anything because I am me.

People who can’t be told anything often try and fail at being rappers. While Iverson missed with the regrettable "40 bars", Kobe had "k.o.b.e." a disaster featuring Tyra Banks. At least he noted that he lived for "basketball, beats and broads." I was, to a privileged few, that "ill flowin’ gringo, bilingual, spoutin’ that Spanish lingo," until I forgot the rest of the lyrics I had written and stammered my way out of ciphers with dudes who were serious enough about hip-hop to be handing out head shots. It’s always good to know that you can give up at being a rapper.

Leaning into geek-dom

The easiest most relatable inner-dork trait I always shared with Kobe was the foreign language thing. I watched Kobe’s Game 4 overtime heroics against Indiana in 2000 while studying abroad in Buenos Aires, around the same time I illegally suited up for an Argentinean college basketball team as an American high school student. I watched the rumor-mill carefully from a temporary home base in Madrid, when it was reported that Kobe was entertaining playing abroad during the 2011 lockout. Naturally, he became much more likable when he teamed up with Pau Gasol. There was nothing like two watching two All-Stars communicate in Spanish, knowing their opponents couldn’t understand them, just like there was nothing like being given a fake Argentinean name in case a referee got up in your face.

One of my favorite pastimes in NBA locker rooms was listening to native Spanish-speaking journalists yuk it up with the Spanish-speaking players as the beat reporters stood there awkwardly, needing quotes for gamers and knowing that they had to wait their turn. Pure interaction can be so much easier in a second language, anyway, as breaking a language barrier often shatters cultural pretenses. And Kobe was never better with the press than when he was shifting languages like his brain had a multi-lingual manual transmission.

Coming to terms with age and time

Late Wednesday night I sat at a Thai restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard where taste buds go to die. Kobe had just scored 60 points on 50 shots. His jersey, scribbled on by about a hundred patrons, rests faded and worn, to the left of the TV.

Over this week leading up to Kobe's final game, I have repeatedly flashed back to another group of signatures. On a collage, with pictures and box scores highlighting my not-so-illustrious high school basketball career, a buddy and teammate signed in golden ink, "As long as you believe in the fadeaway, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks."

Defining the middle ground

To an 80s baby and 90s kid, Michael was always the destination, Kobe the open road and LeBron the visuals reflected in the car mirrors. The open road -- who you are when you’re trying to reach your goals and all that happens along the way -- is what we often find ourselves most nostalgic about. Despite a career stuck between MJ’s mythology and LeBron’s prodigal rise through a more hypersensitive cultural minefield, Kobe has accomplished pretty much everything.

Incredibly, he’ll never be known for leaving, be it through temporary retirement(s) or decision(s).

I was told about Michael Jordan and witness to his legend as a kid, and I’ll probably spend the most time telling my kids and grandkids (if I have them) about LeBron. But I’ll tell them from the perspective of someone whose greatest influence was Kobe.

To that end, records set the standard. MJ was analog and LeBron is pristinely polished like a digital music file. That leaves Kobe as anachronistic as a CD collection, awkwardly compiled but brilliantly influential, complete with hard-to-miss scratches, bizarre mixes and eye-catching cover art.

Every adult experience in my life, every success and failure, had occurred when Kobe was an NBA player. I think Jay Z is his only mainstream superstar contemporary in that regard, but even Jay "retired" once, and has gone from threatening suspected CD bootleggers with a knife to helming a streaming service. Things change. Like many, I woke up on Thursday, the same unsettled person, except for the absence of one evolving constant that’s been around for the past 20 years.

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Alternate History: What if the Hornets never traded Kobe to LA?

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