Amid the unforgettable silliness of late Wednesday night, when Kobe Bryant was shooting and scoring and winning and hugging and basking in the Hollywood glow of it all, I kept finding myself focusing on his teammates.
I trust you can appreciate the irony.
But, yes, the teammates. There were the current Lakers, that motley collection of mismatched parts and talented but emotionally unready-for-prime-time kids, most of whom were literally children when he was in his prime, who were almost certainly fans then and probably don’t really know the guy any better now as teammates then they did when they were watching him lift trophies in the distant past. But more so I was distracted by the former teammates, the ex-Lakers, a no-less motley but generally more talented group of men, many now showing their age.
There was Ronny Turiaf, beloved exuberant Frenchman, a dude who had open heart surgery a couple of weeks after he was drafted by the franchise in 2005. There was Derek Fisher, who I’m old enough to remember as a charge-taking, clutch-shot-making role player before he became a bad coach and a guy whose name now inspires an immediate Google autofill of the words “matt barnes wife.” There was DJ Mbenga, apparently, and Chris Mihm and Devean George and Adam Morrison and Mike f’ing Penberthy, who I’m doubtful Kobe recognized at all.
There, good lord, was Lamar Odom.
There was Shaquille O’Neal.
There was, then, a collection of guys who were once paid to share a place on a roster with Kobe Bryant, the man who literally trademarked the idea that banners are more important than friends. Early in his career, he was known for refusing to hang out with his teammates; maturing into a champion, he famously beefed with the most dominant teammate he ever had; for most of the latter part of his career, he proudly wore the mantle of Jordan-esque bully of the lesser men around him. The elder statesman thing never fit him well, until maybe this year, when the season-long farewell tour made him look—almost, if you squinted hard enough—beloved.
Based on 20 years of evidence, few of those guys loved him, and Shaq probably isn’t the only one who hated his guts (good morning, Smush). But there they all were last night, during and after the game, cheering and hugging and smiling, so many smiles, and not a second of it looked anything less than sincere. You didn’t have to like or even know Kobe Bryant to smile through last night. You could’ve hated the dude and still found yourself smiling. It wasn’t about rooting for him. It was only partly about him at all.
Waking up to Twitter this morning after way too little sleep, I was struck but the tone of a handful of tweets, some from people I respect, writing off the Kobe curtain drop. The gist of most of them, almost universally from people who didn’t tune in, was “Hey lookit that, Kobe took a bunch of shots and made it all about him, what a shock.” And if you were only going on the box score, hey, fair enough. But I don’t know how that could be your takeaway if you actually watched.
Twitter is at once a useful and badly warped lens through which to view anything, but it felt pretty relevant last night. Before and shortly after 10:30 EST, my TL was a impromptu debate on the relative merits of the competing late games, and what which one you chose to watch said about you. (I mocked this debate early on before wholeheartedly joining it a short time later.) I had no interest in watching the Dubs, because I’m not a fan, and because the outcome seemed unlikely to ever be in doubt. As for Kobe, I only planned to watch the first few minutes… during which Kobe couldn’t score and looked like he might never again.
And then he did, a bunch, very quickly. And just like that, at once surprisingly and entirely predictably, it was compelling.
By the end—long before the end, really—Kobe was dominating the virtual conversation. There was nothing new or interesting to say about the Dubs, only acknowledgement of their historic excellence, which was both right and entirely uninteresting. They are an amazing team, maybe the best ever if they keep this up over the next two months, but unless you’re so enamored of efficiency and the elevation of onanistic Silicon Valley #disruption in the realm of professional sports, I don’t know what was compelling about that game. The Warriors win. That’s what they do. If you genuinely love the Warriors, I hope you watched it and savored it.
The rest of us, if you’ll pardon the melodrama, were immersed in a messy, glorious celebration of life itself.
Ridiculous, right? I know. I was tired when I was watching, and I’m tired now. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so much about a talented millionaire sociopath’s last game if I’d gotten more sleep. But I don’t think it would matter. At various points in my adult life, I have actively loved and actively hated Kobe Bryant; this possibly says more about me than it does him, but whatever. I’m largely ambiguous about him now, appreciating him mostly for what a compelling weirdo he is. To say I was “rooting” for him last night would be to miss the point.
But boy, was I rooting for the moment. And that moment had damn near everything. Athletic greatness, yes, the reason Kobe matters in the first place, but so much more. Hubris, arrogance, frailty, humility, ambition, resilience. Blindness to reality, a refusal to submit. Honesty, and, with that ultimately scripted mic drop, a cynical bit of marketing to boot. And that was just Kobe, just the basketball player, on the court.
The rest, well, that’s why I couldn’t stop thinking about his teammates, so many of whom we think of largely in relation to Kobe himself. What an array: Goofballs and addicts and petty giants and immature kids and a bunch of other random dudes who were just happy to be along for the ride. Guys whose names he might barely have remembered, guys he slandered or abused in a thousand practice matchups, guys he otherwise ignored. And in the moment, that moment, they beamed, because what a thing to be a part of. Whether they loved Kobe or hated his guts was beside the point, just as it was for a lot of us watching at home. This was a moment, messy and ugly and stupid and hilarious but ultimately, undeniably compelling.
What else is life? What other reason is there to watch grown men run and jump and throw a ball through a hoop?
Photos by Atiba Jefferson