Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
This is the first in our NBA preview series, which we're calling "Why We Watch." The series is dedicated to players who, for various reasons, positive or negative or both or otherwise, make us watch the NBA. Kobe, the NBA's foremost pathological jerk-maestro, seemed a reasonable enough place to start. Watch this space for more of these as the season approaches, and probably into the season as well.
It's pretty much incontrovertible at this point that, for all his equally incontrovertible on-court achievements, Kobe Bryant is a Grade-A asshole and a terrible teammate. The evidence is obvious and everywhere: The Shaq-Kobe schism in Los Angeles and its long, ridiculous aftermath; the court case in Colorado; Rafe Bartholomew's excellent piece about Bryant and Smush Parker at Grantland. The NBA's best teams at the moment feature superstars either joining forces to play with their friends, as in Miami, or building remarkable cults of personalities around themselves, as in Oklahoma City. Kobe's Lakers are a super-team now, too, but he is not any more a part of it at the moment than he ever has been a part of any of his teams. In today's NBA Kobe is, in his defiant and grandiosely dickish Kobe-ness, something of a man out of time. It's not because he has gotten older, or even necessarily changed. Kobe has always has been this way.
Bryant cares about two things and two things only: winning and his legacy. The two are inextricably linked, something he understands all too well. Kobe, who fell slightly but ineffably short of being the on-court heir to Michael Jordan, is roughly three thousand points and one championship away from matching him in the annals of NBA history. The career 45.3 percent shooter who's made more than $220 million and has another nearly $60 million in salary due to him will never be as good as Michael was—this surely pisses him off, that state being something of an emotional default for Kobe—but he might still surpass the numbers of the man who passed him the baton all those seasons ago.
At 34 years old, time is slipping away from Bryant, but it's not gone yet, and his talents are such that he can still slow the passage of time, bend it, subordinate it to his kingly will as surely as he subordinates everything else. In 2012-2013, Bryant will have Steve Nash to pass him the ball and Dwight Howard to play defense and dunk. Even a Celtics fan can admit that this is going to be fun to watch. Kobe may not have much fun, himself, but basketball is not about fun for him, anyway. It's about being at the center of things, and winning.
Despite his massive flaws on and off the court, there is something about the former slam dunk champion's game that gets more beautiful the older he gets. Like Jordan, Bryant is singularly obsessed. And, as Jordan did during the empire-building period of his middle- and late-career, Bryant has stayed great thanks to how brilliantly and tirelessly he has obsessed over himself. This is that old a-hole narcissism bridled and turned into an energy source: those hours of self-review and self-criticism and self-improvement are where Kobe leverages his great talent in a way that a better-rounded or less self-obsessed person might not be able to do. And so he learns a new wrinkle in the offseason, figures out what his body won't let him do anymore (but doesn't tell anyone), then learns to compensate, and to win in some new way. He's aging, undoubtedly, but also enduringly, gracefully. It's admirable, especially if you don't think too much about where it's coming from.
More than the development of his game, however, I appreciate Kobe's honesty. It's not that Kobe doesn't care about anyone but himself—he does, still, probably too much and clearly not in ways that make him be less of a high-handed jerk. But it is that Kobe doesn't care what you, or anyone else thinks, at least relative to how much he cares about what he thinks, or what he knows. The same qualities that make Bryant a great player make him a terrible teammate and a gross person. But at least he's transparent and honest about it: there is no pretending to be any other person, or to see the world any other way. This makes him an unlikable person, of course, but he is so self-assured and comfortable in the way he inhabits this towering vanity as to be both compelling and thus perversely likable. (This is complicated, but it might help if I note here that Jay Cutler is my favorite NFL player.)
If you plot players in the NBA on an Approval Matrix-type graph that has "Hard Work" and "Natural Ability" for axes, Bryant would be somewhere in the upper right quadrant. He came to the sport with the perfect pedigree for success, but it's hard to argue anyone spent more time honing his game than the son of a man named Jellybean. Bryant does not coast; his self-absorption will not allow it. The self-anointed Black Mamba's ego is outsized—his website features something called the "Kobe Minute, which is nearly as absurd as giving yourself a nickname—but so is his talent and his dedication to cultivating and extracting the maximum from that talent. Bryant excoriates his teammates, perhaps unfairly and certainly not in a considerate or pleasant way. But he's exponentially tougher on himself than anyone else.
It should be interesting to see the new-look Lakers either come together or fall apart. The season rests in the hands of Howard, who Kobe is already trying to build up. This won't be a replay of Jordan's merciless hazing and Full Metal Jacket-ish breakdown of Kwame Brown, but it's easy to see how the relationship between Bryant and Howard could end badly. Howard isn't exactly known for his overwhelming work ethic; Kobe isn't exactly known for his interpersonal skills.
Bryant told Yahoo that the Lakers want to "challenge [Howard] to do more than just screen-and-roll and dunk. We want opposing teams to see him as a dominant force." That's nice rhetoric, but we all know Bryant well enough at this point to know that he cares about Howard only insofar as a dominant big man—Dwight Howard, Shaq, whoever—helps Kobe achieve his own goals. Howard is useful to Bryant in that he'll take pressure off the aging star until the late stages of the game, and that he may be able to muscle his way to a few wins on his own. But at the end of the game, and at the end of the season, Bryant will take the ball back like he always does; he will take the final shot, because he always does. Kobe never takes his ball and goes home, and there's something admirable in that for all the jerkiness that both tempers it and powers it, and in his refusal to stop—he wants too badly to play, to prove he's better than you. But he always makes damn sure you know that the ball is his.