System Player: The Weird Magnetism of @KobeBryant

Kobe Bryant's Twitter reveals some, hints at much, and is mostly fascinating. Not unlike Kobe himself, actually.
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The most important thing to know about Kobe Bryant’s Twitter feed is that it’s mostly a mistake to pay attention to it. The second most important thing to know about it is that it’s a work of maybe inadvertent genius.

It’s not as though Kobe’s occasionally dysgraphic blurts are all that far removed from those served up by other athletes, the intermittent retroactive live-tweeting of an 81-point game aside. Save the following of and tweeting at assorted groupies and periodic sonnings of ignorant teenagers, the usual nuts and bolts are presented and accounted for in Kobe’s little corner of the Internet. There is too often nothing to learn here, no real substantive reward to find. I can’t turn away from it.

Here is the rare case of Twitter being illuminating in spite of itself, both in form and content. Slowly, through nothing more than one anodyne dribble of nothing at a time, Kobe has eroded his own well-cultivated and well-chronicled narrative. You know it well, the one about Kobe Bryant being a contrived, tunnel-visioned, pathological narcissist. Simply put, Kobe’s 140-character bursts have become the best window we have into whatever he either authentically is, or wishes us to believe that he authentically is. It’s possible to construe that process and its shape and the entire endeavor as sad, or pathetic, or calculating, or none or all or parts of these. The implication, however, remains the same: the inanities Kobe scrawls onto his digital stationery has a different kind of weight from anything he’s told us during his 17 years in the public sphere. All that insignificance adds up, improbably, to something that seems somehow significant.

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Given his place in sports history—ascending immediately post-Jordan at the turn of the century, and holding the mantle as the undisputed face of the world’s most visibly star-driven professional sports league at the dawn of a new era of online ubiquity—it’s entirely plausible that there’s more easily accessible footage of Kobe than any athlete ever. The vast majority of it showcases at least some form of the underbite-scowling, teammate-savaging, coach-tormenting Kobeania that at best makes him come off as an ultra-competitive jerk and at worst like someone with serious humanity deficits. That he goes to great (and somewhat self-contradictory) lengths to confirm that he DGAF how he’s perceived doesn’t help matters much. It’s not quite convincing, either.

Juxtaposed with all that well-documented on-court behavior is virtually nothing of substance from his life away from it. Outside of his interest in soccer, there isn’t really any spare information about his hobbies; the only truly memorable moment of him interacting with a fan resulted in the infamous camera phone video of him throwing Andrew Bynum under the bus. We know he has kids, but he rarely speaks of them. There’s plenty of tabloid ink spilled over his marriage, but Vanessa Bryant’s name gets bandied about only when something doesn’t go according to plan, like Kobe getting caught in an affair or their recent near-miss divorce. She seldom, if ever, speaks; when she does, it’s an opaque but faintly distasteful riddle of luxury brand hauteur. (“Now, as they say, everyone and their mom is buying a Birkin or a regular size 2.55 bag in black, taupe, or beige.”). We only ever see her smile, or look concerned. When we see Kobe smile, it’s when he’s trying to sell us something, be it a System, a video game, an airliner or the idea of him possessing the bizarre and functionally useless superpower of jumping over a moving car.

If there’s a problem with all this, that’s the problem. Kobe is hardly the only professional athlete to safeguard his private life; Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a pair of similarly accomplished peers, are perhaps even more vigilant about it. Perceptions mold reality, though, and if the only faces Kobe chooses to show are those of the merciless gladiator and the frosty/grinning corporate pitchman, then we can only assess him as the paragon of those particular heedless virtues. It’s not like anyone wants to believe that Kobe Bryant truly is that aloof or strange.

Quite the opposite, actually: fans go to great lengths to see athletes as essentially normal people lucky enough to score a ticket onto the ultimate carousel of fortune. In many cases, we cheer a bit louder for the legitimate few who project something like recognizable humanity along with their superhuman talent. Smart (and cunning) as he is, it’s tough to envision Kobe not being mindful of that, but knowing and caring are two different things. Maybe Mamba just likes it better when he’s playing the snake. So what’s he doing on Twitter, then?

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Upon joining the Twittersphere, Kobe credited, in separate interviews, a desire to broadcast “with no filters” and to “be transparent” with helping him get on board. Given his aforementioned track record, we know the former is mostly fabrication; the weirdly technocratic formulation of “transparency,” as if Kobe were Bank of America or C-SPAN, is equally unconvincing. But there’s something to all this inauthenticity.

Kobe’s Twitter does indeed take us behind the curtain, albeit to a green room designed to his specifications, in the most translucent vectors of his universe. You see things there that you wouldn’t otherwise—Kobe and his wife mugging with Bill Clinton; Kobe playing the piano; Kobe visiting the set of Modern Family; Kobe tweeting from his ice bath. Yet all they amount to is Easter egg trivia for Mamba-philes; there’s the sense of another scene, maybe many more, behind these scenes. There’s no enlightenment to be had but, as always, that’s by design.

Kobe’s real aim, it seems, is to use Twitter as spackle, a way to plug and perfect his own mural-scale self-portrait. He accomplishes this by playing soothsayer to someone he has probably never met, or by letting fans put him in his place when the situation calls for it. His ostensibly playful punking of Darius Morris is humorous on several levels, most obviously in a “Look, you guys, I can be fun” way but also in a scrupulously Regular Guy sense, with the barely concealed messaging: “Fuck you Smush, I do care about the little people.” As always, there’s the implied subtext that Kobe will feast on Darius Morris’ very soul if he botches a 2-for-1.

Then there’s the reaffirmation of his ideologies. Kobe leans on pointed words and grotesque actions with such zeal that, for a moment, one would be forgiven for wondering if his feed is less about buttressing his ego than an insatiate expression of his id. But then you watch him clumsily repurpose a pair of team captains shoving each other in a national championship game into a teachable moment—it comes off much more as oblivious self-assurance. Or he staples a selection from his ever-expanding oeuvre of #CountOn hashtags—which, naturally, funnel back to his latest Nike campaign—onto the back of most every transmission, and it’s clear that he is forcing his rhetorical shots.

For all the bluster attached to his Twitter retrospective of the 81-point game, it’s also the least important thing he’s done since joining. It tramples on the same worn ground he’s stalked for nearly two decades, only with bigger tires. Sure, it was daring in scope and hilarious for its Kobe-fied machismo and overstatement; yes, in brief moments, it was genuinely insightful. But it dissolved so quickly into self-hagiography as to become a different sort of real-time reflection: he tweeted about a basketball game, while readers watched him reach the summit of athlete vanity in real time. Even then, it's only the scaling that's surprising; if tasked with choosing an athlete who'd dare attempt the climb, you’d be hard pressed not to #CountOnKobe.

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Oddly, it’s only in the moments when Kobe isn’t trying to Build Character Depth that he winds up doing so. The 48 accounts he follows is a panoramic gold mine, fascinating as much for who’s included—”Fat Amy” from Pitch Perfect, who received the Kobe stamp of approval before Magic Johnson did—as for what those inclusions suggest. Implicit in subscribing to someone else’s updates is their retention of value in the follower’s eyes; it could be argued that you can learn more about what Kobe deems important in a two-minute scroll session than from any, or every, interview he’s done.

The impact of seeing him devote seven different follows to business or advertising-related accounts resonates much more than listening to him wax poetic about his brand, if only because there’s no way for him to spin that mouse-click onto the blue button as something other than an assessment of value; the account either has authentic meaning, or it doesn’t. It’s long been common knowledge, for instance, that Kobe is tight with Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski but it takes on another level of significance (or at least serves as a reminder of the many Kobe exclusives Woj has scored) to see that Wojnarowski is the only pure sportswriter he follows. I couldn’t tell you why Kobe follows Chandler Parsons, per se, but given that he’s the only non-Laker NBA player that Kobe follows, there’s probably a good reason behind it. And it says something that, among hundreds of millions of accounts, his first follow was women’s soccer star Alex Morgan. Only Kobe knows what that something is but irrespective of why, that innocuous decision seems to contain much more significance and mystery than a thousand #KobeTweets.

There is one tweet, though, that stands out among the thousand. Fittingly enough, it involves a picture. The image of Kobe hugging his 14-year-old niece shouldn’t stand out for any reason, and wouldn’t most anywhere else; it’s an uncle showing affection for his niece, sending some birthday wishes, nothing more. It’s a sweet photo, which of course it should be. But there’s something doubly touching about it given that Kobe’s famous smile seems strikingly un-composed, for once. It's mundane, but extraordinary mostly in how believably mundane it is; it may be the only one of Kobe’s many public moments in which he displays what seems like genuine warmth.

Then, back down the rabbit hole: given everything we’ve seen and known, and what Kobe has shown us, there’s the question of whether this really is a moment of genuine warmth. And finally, that, with the possible exception of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kobe Bryant is the only athlete on the face of the planet who demands to be interpreted so cynically. Or, for that matter, so thoroughly.

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Ultimately, though, that chain reaction of suspicion and counter-suspicion and increasingly fine parsing doesn’t arrive at a concrete conclusion. It doesn't matter whether that girl really is close to Kobe, or if she’s some faceless relative that he chucks a check at twice a year for the holidays. What does matter is that we’re able to perceive that moment candidly, unlike most anything else he does, because it’s such a distinct break from character.

The sheer meticulous precision and constant calculation of all things Kobe Bryant makes it unlikely we’ll have many of those moments over the life of his tweeting career; that’s too bad, if more so for him than us. In the winter of his playing career, the most self-conscious man in the NBA cannot grasp that an interaction like that—one that’s not “transparent” but actually open, human, likable and recognizable—unwittingly shows those who care to look so much more than any hashtagged distillation. Or perhaps he does, and simply wants not to show us that sort of thing. There’s a difference between self-consciousness and self-awareness, and a wide gulf between brand management and basic human behavior. What kind of human has a “system,” anyway? It’s mostly a rhetorical question, but Kobe might answer it all the same.


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