By Jason Keidel
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In other sports, swan songs are often muted — soft ballads and rocking chairs, sans strobe lights and hip-hop histrionics.
But the NBA, given to loud, proud parties of pop culture, doesn’t know how to send someone out softly. And so it is that the biggest sendoff this century happens in Hollywood, where the party was invented, if not perfected.
The guest of honor is Kobe Bryant, who is taking his name and game to the next phase of his life, where the icon of this era hopes to join the icons of other eras and arenas. His office walls are lathered with pictures of pioneers, from Steve Jobs to Walt Disney. So if you want one more bite of the Kobe “Bean” (his real middle name), this is your last chance before they shutter the amusement park for good.
Few of us enjoy seeing our icons in repose. Especially in more violent sports, like boxing and football, where heroes often fade under the dim lights of dementia, brittle limbs replaced, bank accounts emptied, with little more than a bronze bust or banner left in his epic wake.
But you get the sense that Bryant, while painfully private and pugnacious, will transition to the private sector with more aplomb than that of his predecessors. But whether you loved him or loathed him, you’ll probably miss him. He’s become one of a kind, in more ways than one.
At some point Bryant assumed the handle “Black Mamba.” It spoke to his venomous, late-game deeds, but also doubled as a euphemism for his ornery mien. Accurate or not, Kobe was deemed the team killer, the meteor who shattered the dream team of Shaq and Kobe, breaking up the NBA’s dynamic duo, frankly, because he was tired of playing Robin. Then Shaq instantly won an NBA title without Kobe, painful proof that he didn’t need his sidekick to win a ring. Kobe wound up doubling Shaq’s post-Laker ring total, but the damage to his Q-rating was enormous.
There, however, was something refreshing about Bryant’s grumpy, singular focus. In a sports climate where everyone has cross-pollinated social media, part of a new omerta where everyone is on each other’s phone, Facebook and Twitter accounts, Kobe kept it delightfully simple, and sour. If you weren’t with him, you were against him. He brought a heartwarming hatred to the court. Like his mentor, Michael Jordan, Bryant had no time for fist-bumps, bro hugs, and choreographed handshakes. He didn’t care to cuddle before he cut your throat.
Bryant carried the spirit of the old days, back when it was blasphemous to see Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas kiss before tipoff because you were supposed to harbor epic animus for the opponent.
It’s that kind of self-imposed rancor and isolation that fueled his angry eminence. It’s how he’s able to score 81 points in one game. It’s how he won three titles with Shaq, and it’s what got him two more rings, sans Shaq, with Pau Gasol, Luke Walton and a roster of hardwood gypsies.
So, he was a jerk. That’s not news, hearsay or even third-person reportage. Bryant is out front with it, leads with his nasty emoji. He often refers to himself in words we can’t print here. He wasn’t just a jerk on the court, as we know. He cheated on his wife and was charged with sexual assault on a woman in Colorado. It was chronicled with typical TMZ fervor. It was a case study in singular clarity, as Bryant often took a jet to Colorado in the morning and then flew back to the Staples Center that same night. And he often played better under that avalanche of pressure than he did on normal nights.
Not even Malcolm Gladwell could measure how many hours Bryant put into his craft. The requisite 10,000 a master needs to perfect his craft was just a pregame warmup for Kobe, who had his mail forwarded to the gym.
And that’s the vital difference between excellent players and transcendent players. In the epoch before Bryant, he probably noticed that hardwood Gods like Magic and Michael didn’t just attend practice, they embraced it, adored it, milked it for every bounce pass. Basketball is a job for most players. But it was Bryant’s world, his altar, his de facto temple. His church just happened to have parquet floors. And the basketball gods rewarded his devotion. He retires on the short-list of the greatest ever to take a fadeaway, regardless of the position or era played.
If you’d like to watch the gripping documentary on Bryant on Showtime (owned by CBS, of course!), you’ll find his more human side. Barely. No matter the angle from which we watch, Bryant is always a nanosecond from his maniacal side.
Kobe is an endangered species. Very few icons stay with one franchise. Not even the sport’s avatar and current king, LeBron James, can keep his restless legs in one city.
And, of course, there were always the comparisons to His Airness. He didn’t shy from it. Indeed, he welcomed the lofty notions of joining Jordan’s orbit. Many of his peers marveled not only on his dedication but his obsession with being like Mike, then beating Mike.
He didn’t quite get there, of course. But he got damn close enough. He got five rings, which tied the patron saint of the Lakers, Magic Johnson. Like Magic — and unlike Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who can’t qualify because of his years in Milwaukee — Kobe spent his entire career swathed in purple and gold.
Not even Jordan could conquer his wanderlust, and ended his career inelegantly in Washington. Bryant could have played anywhere, but he understood not only his talent but also the symbolic value of being a monolith on a monolithic franchise.
It says a lot that tickets to the Lakers game tonight cost exponentially more than a seat in Oakland to see the Warriors attempt to pass Jordan’s Bulls for the best single-season record in NBA history. We’re not likely to watch a club crash the 72-win party for 50 years. Yet the NBA cognoscenti is descending upon Los Angeles. Because we may not see another Kobe Bryant for 100 years.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel