The Last Mohican

Kobe Bryant's maniacally competitive career is approaching a tragic end.
by March 26, 2015
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Michael Jordan played a now famous game with the flu, up the previous night vomiting and with an empty stomach except for a cup of coffee. Willis Reed limped out onto the Madison Square Garden floor to start and inspire his New York Knicks in a 1970 Finals Game 7, days after tearing a thigh muscle. Magic Johnson accepted the challenge of starting a clinching 1980 NBA Finals game at center with his Hall of Fame teammate on the mend.

Emmitt Smith played one half in a division-deciding game at the end of the 1993 NFL season with his shoulder outside its socket after slamming it into the Meadowlands turf. Kellen Winslow fought dehydration in the 1981 divisional playoff game to catch 13 balls for 166 yards and a touchdown, and was carried off the field by teammates. Kirk Gibson lifted the Dodgers to victory in the opening game of the 1988 World Series hitting a pinch hit home run with a bad hamstring on one leg and a swollen knee on the other.

In sports, there are guys that are cut of a different cloth, of a different mold. They are goal chasers, they are testers of their own character. They are competitors.

Not to undermine any others, that wouldn’t be fair. But these guys have moments forever etched in sports lore because of one thing. Competitiveness. It’s a part of their legacy. It’s the “let me test myself…let me see if I stack up…let me see if I can do this.” All of those guys had it. Right now, currently, there are some that do. Cutthroat competitors, not out to make friends, just there to win. Look at the best league in the sport that James Naismith invented in 1891, and there’s one example that stands out. One goal chaser, one tester, one competitor who stands out the most.

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Los Angeles Lakers at Utah Jazz, Western Conference semi-finals, Game 5, May 12, 1997

89-89. Fourth quarter. 11.3 seconds on the clock. 18-year-old Kobe Bryant brings the ball up the floor for the Los Angeles Lakers, a 56-win team with perhaps the game’s most dominant physical presence in the middle, and two scoring guards—Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones—on the wings. Bryant is the team’s 11th leading scorer. He doesn’t care. This is a big-time moment, the moment that Bryant had dreamed of when he was nothing but a young kid from America growing up as a foreigner in Italy, where his dad, Joe Jellybean, played pro ball. This is the big-time, lifelong dream staring him in the face.

As Bryant moves to the top of the arc guarded by Byron Russell, right hand dribble, he makes a move right, a beeline to the right elbow, shielding Russell with his left forearm. The kid stops on a dime, moves the ball from right to left ready to shoot. Russell elevates, Kobe elevates. Karl Malone grabs the rebound as time expires in regulation, Bryant’s shot falling well short of the rim, barely catching any mesh.

Three more airballs would be Kobe Bryant’s destiny that night, one three from the left wing, one from the top of the arc after a crossover dribble, and another from the left wing hoisted with six seconds on the clock down three, Laker leading wing man Jones with his hands up in the corner pocket, perhaps wondering why Kobe didn’t make the extra pass to the open man, the better option. Kobe retreats back down court with a slow, methodical walk, his face ripe with disappointment. It’s evident. The kid who grew up in the foreign land with the dreams of late game heroics had let his team, and himself, down in the waning moments of a season ending loss.

Little did anyone know, that this moment would be the start of the maturation of the young Kobe Bryant, struggling mightily in his first clutch opportunity, but, as time would tell, the failure the learning tool for his future. Michael Jordan starred in this commercial in 1997, one that would become legendary, the ultimate lesson in learning by failure, never becoming discouraged, trying until you are successful. Ironically, that same year, Bryant got his first taste of failure.

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2015

Kobe Bryant is 36 years old. Goes by Mamba or Bean if you want to be clever. He’s third all time in scoring, has five championships, had back to back scoring titles, a string of consecutive 40-point games, 61 in three quarters, and dropped 81 once when he was a hot as the oil in a deep fryer. And, in 2013, he walked off the court after rupturing his Achilles. Walked. Off. The Court.

Achilles, knee, and rotator cuff injuries have sidelined Kobe at one time or another the past three seasons—the Achilles late in the 2013 season, the knee limiting him to six games last season, and the shoulder forcing surgery this January. It’s given us time, to reflect on Bryant, one of the game’s all-time greats, as the end of his career is not yet over but now inevitable more than ever and a matter of time. Could be after next year, could be the year after that. But we know it’s soon.

So what is the legacy of one Kobe Bean Bryant? The greatest player of his era? Check. The closest thing we’ve seen to Michael Jordan since he retired? Check. If you stopped there, you’d be remised, omitting perhaps the most important part, the singular quality that makes Bryant different. Different in the way that if you watched him play on mute, you’d know what he’s about. Some guys go out on the floor and go through the motions. Not Bryant. He approaches the game differently than most. If you want or need one more thing to add to the legacy of Kobe Bryant, it’s in the approach.

Simply put, he is a different animal. He’s a make-no-friends, no nonsense, give me all you have or nothing type of guy. Relentless. Ruthless. Tough. Competitive. If you aren’t of his same mindset, you can’t play with him. Well, I guess you can, but he won’t like you. He’s much like Jordan in that way. If you can’t match his will, his desire, you best not step on the court with him to battle. He’s the type that’s not afraid of failure, wants the blame or the praise, wants to win to prove a point to himself but also wants to do it for the name on the front of the jersey. The proof is all there. It’s the Kobe Bean Bryant legacy. Nineteen years in the making.

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“Do you think he’s going to try and send you a message?” “Maybe. Maybe. But I’m going to try and send him a message that I don’t back down from anybody.”

The guts of an 19-year-old Kobe Bryant. Using the NBA’s brightest stage in America’s brightest city, on its biggest platform, to challenge the greatest player that the game of basketball has ever known. Michael Jordan with five rings, working on a sixth. Bryant young, talented, ready for a challenge. Jordan goes for 23, 8 and 6 and gets his third All-Star MVP in 1998 in New York City. Kobe goes for 18 and 6 rebounds. But it’s not the statistics that matter there. It’s the situation. Here’s Bryant, still a teenager, guarding a living legend. He knew he wouldn’t win that battle. Still young, he hadn’t gotten to that point. It was about testing himself against the greatest to ever do it. It was the beginning of an approach to the game and a burning desire that would manifest itself through Bryant’s career, enabling him to etch his legacy in stone over the next 17 years.

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“It was a choice that I made. I could have gone to another team. I made the decision to stay and try to win with the group that we had. I was fine with that.”

Kobe Bryant has had opportunities in his career to go elsewhere. He could have left Los Angeles when the three-time Champion duo of him and Shaquille O’Neal were broken up after a five-game Finals loss to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals. He demanded a trade in 2007, although that was most likely more postering on his part to pressure the organization to make moves to form a contender once again more than it was truly wanting to leave the only team he’d ever known. There have been opportunities. But Kobe’s loyalty and desire to win as a Laker, with the purple and gold, one franchise, trumped any offers or temptations there were elsewhere.

For Kobe and the previously dominant Lakers, 2004 was clearly a transition year. Their aura of invincibility was gone. O’Neal was in Miami, set to embark on another title run with the up and coming Dwyane Wade. Kobe is left to wonder if he, too, should leave, or stay and ride it out his new running mates. The 2003-04 Lakers had two Hall of Famers join O’Neal and Bryant, won 56 games, and made it to the Finals. The next season, out was the big man, and in was Caron Butler, Brian Grant and Lamar Odom. These weren’t Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers anymore. These were Kobe’s Lakers. They won 34 games. And for Kobe, it didn’t matter who was there. It was his team now. He accepted that challenge.

Lakers or Clippers?

That offseason, Bryant had an offer from the Clippers for seven years, worth $106 million. His offer from the Lakers, was seven years and $136.4 million. The Clippers had a one time All-Star Power Forward named Elton Brand, who would average 25 points and 10 rebounds in 2005-06, his best season. Brand was a versatile, athletic 4-man who could shoot it. They had Corey Maggette at the 3, 24 years old at the time, strong and versatile. Kobe was 26. He would’ve fit right in and formed a Championship nucleus for a team that had been a bottom feeder in the NBA for years, a Sports Illustrated cover just a few years earlier painting a Clipper picture of the worst franchise in history.

You’d have to go back 35 years to find the last time the Clippers franchise was a truly successful, when they were the Buffalo Braves. Bob McAdoo wasn’t walking through that door. Neither was World B. Free, the catalyst behind 43 wins for the San Diego Clippers in ’79. Ron Harper and Danny Manning, leaders of the 1991-92 Clippers—the last Clipper team until 2005-06 to finish over .500, weren’t walking through that door.

And neither was Kobe Bryant.

He chose to stay in Los Angeles, a staunch supporter of what the Lakers would try to build post-Shaq, Bryant being the leader, the star, the go-to, the face.

The decision to stay in purple and gold wasn’t just about Bryant wanting to build something special with the only franchise he has ever known in his now 19 years of playing NBA basketball. It was about the personal pride, the will to win and lead, the burning desire to singlehandedly make what was now his team into a winner. He could have been a part of an effective Big Three with the Clippers—Bryant still young and coming off a 25, 5 and 5 season still playing in the gargantuan shadow of Shaquille O’Neal. But he was fine with leading his own team now. “Let me see if I can do this…put this on my shoulders…I’ll lead.” Old school.

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“It’s of utmost importance. For me to ask for a trade or to go play someplace else to try to chase a Championship. That’s not me. That’s not what my career has been about, that’s not who I am. I stay with it.”

Bryant doesn’t believe in changing teams when the going gets tough, leaving for the less burdensome, easier road to a potential Championship. It’s a part of his makeup, what makes him him. Part of his legacy—staying in one place, enduring through the tough times, creating better times. It’s why he ultimately stayed in 2004 with the Lakers, though the offer from the Clippers was tempting and talked about in the media, you sense that he never wanted to leave Los Angeles.

The Lakers also had a trade in place for Bryant in 2004, to the Detroit Pistons—one that would have yielded Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and a couple draft picks. But Bryant resisted. He turned it down. Loyalty to your team may be a part of the old NBA, and not enough of the new. For whatever the reasons, rarely do we see nowadays guys stick with one team. David Robinson spent 15 years in San Antonio, Tim Duncan is on his 18th there. Magic Johnson stayed always a Laker, Larry Bird always a Celtic. Bryant has old school loyalty. Stubborn. I’m not leaving no matter what. Has it hurt him lately? Yes. Has it hurt him in the past? You bet.

The post-Shaq and Kobe Lakers were a far cry from the dominant unstoppable force they were when they went six, five and four in three straight Finals’ from 2000-2002. It was utter dominance. In fact, if not for the indomitable will of one Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the ’01 Finals (48 points), the Lakers would have swept the entire postseason. The Lakers from 2005 to 2007, the years of Bryant’s career wedged between the greatness of a threepeat and his personal redemption of two titles in 2009 and 2010, were him leading a thrown-together conglomerate of young fringe players, veteran journeymen, and guys who would grow into nice players but too young and green to contribute at that time (think Andrew Bynum and Sasha Vujacic).

Lamar Odom was really the only player of substance at that time. And yet here was Kobe Bryant, sticking with it, in his prime, with the type of killer instinct that makes a lion jealous and a heart as cold as ice on the court, no regard for the opposition—just out to win.

A 27-year-old Bryant would average 35.4 points in 2005-06, the highest scoring average since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 in 1988-89. And that conglomerate? Bryant led them within a game of the second round, losing to Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns in seven, Bryant averaging 28, 6 rebounds, 5 assists on 50 percent shooting in the series. That entire season was classic Kobe Bryant, the will of an uber-competitive man, coupled with a skill set as complete as there is at the perfect prime age for an NBA player, able to put his team on his shoulders, carrying them as far as he could possibly take them. No “this will be too hard of a challenge…I’m going somewhere else.” None of that. Bryant is just different.

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“You have to take the good with the bad. You’re the captain of the ship. You go down with the ship. When the ship’s going down you don’t jump off and swim to another one.”

Kobe Bryant has five Championships. He’s currently out for the season after a rotator cuff tear. He missed pretty much all of last season with a bone fracture in his knee, and the season before tore his Achilles. His chances of winning a sixth at this point are slim to none. His Lakers have the fourth worst record in the NBA, and the last two seasons have brought on franchise records in futility. Bryant, the longest tenured player with one team in the history of the League, is nearing his career finish line.

From young wunderkind, to one half of one of the greatest duos in history, to leading his own team without much assistance, to getting back to championship glory, and falling back into mediocrity, Bryant is the captain of the Laker ship. And right now, he’s going down with it.

His team is once again a youth-infused group that houses a couple of veterans, and you can imagine it has to be hard on the super competitive 36 year old. 17 wins. 49 losses. Bryant appeared on Jimmy Kimmel a few weeks ago, and was showed a clip of some of his Laker teammates celebrating post game after an overtime win vs the Celtics, breaking a 7 game losing streak. It was the Lakers’ 14th win. Surely, not much to boast about. Kimmel chuckled at the clip. Bryant was stone faced, shaking his head, sighing as he adjusted his tie. This dude is just different.

You could see the disgust on his face, the “what are these guys celebrating for we’re 14-41” look. Like he has said, it is a different era, and “I am old school about it.”

Bryant’s competitiveness is working to his detriment right now, the undying loyalty, his love for the Laker franchise—linking him to an organization that has won the second most championships in history, one that in the last 20 years had only one losing season (2004-05) before last year’s 27 win campaign—keeping him in a situation that could turn around next season if the Lakers get a big-time free agent this summer, but also might not.

It’s Bryant’s choice to not leave, to never truly consider an out, and it’s admirable. Too much of that is gone in today’s game. Guys want to win Championships, sure, but they don’t necessarily want it on their shoulders. It’s a different time, a different era. Not many want to go down with the ship.

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“You can’t possibly become better than me. Because you’re not spending the time on it that I do.”

Most are in bed. Surely, the party-goers of the Los Angeles night scene might just be getting to bed. If you work 9-5, you could get up to go to the bathroom and lay back down knowing you have 3-4 hours left of sleep, depending on a commute. Kobe Bryant isn’t sleeping. He’s working on his craft. The game that he’s long called his refuge is apparently his personal cure for insomnia. Or maybe, he just works harder than you. While you sleep, he’s been up. He works tirelessly you could imagine, countless jumpers, free throws, three pointers, patented post up, spin baseline, fade-away. Up fake, bank off the glass, three-pointers at impossible angles.

A young player longing for his chance in the NBA once asked Bryant is he could work out with him. Bryant said sure. Bryant gave the kid the time. The kid responded with something akin to the time being too late in the day, relaying to Bryant that he wanted to get started earlier in the day. “Not p.m., a.m.” The time? 3:45.

Are there other guys that work hard? Certainly. Are there other guys that get up in the wee hours of the morning to hone their craft? Yes. But something about Kobe Bean Bryant is different. It’s having the chutzpah to challenge the greatest player of all time as a rookie, defending him, testing himself, wanting a challenge when most lived in fear of His Airness on the basketball court. It’s going back to the practice facility after those airballs in the ’97 Playoffs as soon as the Lakers’ flight landed to shoot jumpers literally all day long—to make sure that those misses didn’t happen again. It’s demanding that his teammates play up to his level, with his mindset, accepting nothing less than that to lead them to back to back ’09 and ’10 titles.

It’s sizing up LeBron James in the 2011 All-Star game, and flushing a two-hand jam on James as the 26-year-old understudy attempted one of his patented come from behind blocks, and then hitting a three on the very next play. The then 32-year-old won MVP that night—the thought process of ”this is my night, the biggest stage, the bright lights, this is my night.” Fast forward to 38:06 and watch for a couple seconds. Bryant is disgusted.

The Last Mohican indeed.