SLAM Top 50: Kobe Bryant, no. 28

The definitive ranking of the NBA's best players for 2015-16.
by September 29, 2015
54

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

***

I know. Homey’s words popped a wheelie on the zeitgeist a while back. Not in a way he would’ve liked. Poetry made pop. Michael Kaine and John Cena reading his words on screens big and small.

No point in getting too worked up. Happens all the time. Madison Ave. is in the business of cultural appropriation, after all. Takes over a movement, a body, an expression of revolt. Guts it of its spirits rebellious. Empties its soul. Sanitize its words and images. Commoditizes it all as the cool now pushed at department stores. Form without content, selling symbols whose referent they hope is forgotten.

Che Guevara’s face on your t-shirt, Malcolm on your dorm wall, Straight Outta Compton sterilized for the ‘burbs and boardrooms. Don’t think this is all new, either, and that things were more real back in the day. Heard a long time ago, an itinerant whispered that the material is meaningless, intimated a new age of shared food and free healing to come.

Rumors have it he uttered it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Few years later, cathedrals laced in precious stones are erected as his house, and down at the souk, his end is cast in gold to hang around your neck. Madison Ave. do what Madison Ave. do and has always done.

Sucks but whatever. Even if Dylan Thomas’ words above are now sullied for the literati and the well bred, those who cherish esotericism for esotericism’s sake alone, who gives a shit. If you sift your way through, the original word and image are still there to be seen.

The truth of that original word, in fact, is why the words were stolen in the first place: because people in the business of selling shit recognized that there is something in the romanticism Thomas draws on, in revolt, in those who challenge power’s bid to monopolize truth, in those who bow neither to authority nor conventional wisdom.

They get how it all connects deep and reminds us of things we know but occasionally misplace, and that, if they are skillful enough, they can draw on the feelings inspired in us by those truths to move product.

But forget this sad reality for a moment. Focus only on the power of romanticism. It will help us see Kobe Bryant as he enters his 20th season, I think.

Romanticism’s approach to knowledge has in fact always been the vehicle that got us closest to the truth about Kobe. It makes a home in our intuition, casting a suspicious eye against the prophets of efficiency, positivism, PER reductionism, of those seeing basketball as a series of regressions run on STATA. False gods are these, this intuition whispers. Joyless gods, at the very least. Better to kneel at the altar of Bubba Chuck.

Yes, this romantic intuition of ours speaks to a sense of feeling and knowing about the world, speaks to truths irreconcilable to the rules and language of science, truths beyond transliteration. It is a whisper softly echoing somewhere in our minds, recalling that there is something that matters, profoundly, about wanting the ball at the end of the game, and that something profound happened in London in 2012 when the greatest players on the planet felt their own fear creep up and looked for the one man who wanted the ball to bail them out.

It is this intuition that allows us to unpack Kobe’s rage, his ambition, and the pathology of his stubbornness for what they are: his greatness boiled down. That cliché or not, some very important things in life cannot be quantified, included how this man hoops.

***

It is strange how so many people behave when the sublime athlete nears the end of their career. For the most part, we want them gone. We pretend we want them gone for their own sake, but that’s bullshit.

We want them gone because they force us to reckon with the inevitability of age, they force us to think on the ends awaiting us all. Gods fallen from the heavens, walking amongst us with a limp and bags under their eyes. It’s straight out of Larkin’s Ambulances. As the sirens wail, we think not of the sad fellow inside the vehicle but of our own, ultimate demise. “Poor soul, they whisper at their own distress.”

In this way we wince at the ageing athlete. We cringe at their cautious few steps when first rising up off the bench, at the heavy legs, the hard landings, and the graying at the temples. Just go, we say. Cede the floor to the young, let us marvel at them and their vitality. It is their time now. Acquiesce to that gentle tide carrying us into the realm of inconsequence as we age, so that we may forget death for a while, even if we give up the right to truly live by fading into this purgatory.

Saddest thing in life is an ageing hipster, Dr. Evil once said. Fade, Kobe, before the future memory of you is blemished by the struggles of the present. Live as a symbol of your past self.

Fuck that noise.

Camus was right. I rebel therefore we exist.

Honor, then, those who rebel, those who hold on for the right to matter. Those who claim the right to matter until the very end. Those not cowed by the prospect of failure but enlivened by the chance to live with such consequence.

No, we should not see in Kobe’s struggle with age a precursor of our own end, an ambulance racing by. We should not wish him gone so that we can go on ignoring death and hope death ignores us, so that we can settle into half-living. We should see his rebellion as testimony of how fully we can all continue to live. Rather than time ushering us away from living as we move further and further from our youth, his example demonstrates the contrary.

His example proclaims that in the face of that tide, you need not be meek. That you can fight, wrestle the undertow until exhaustion, and that these moments can be moments of incredible joy and fervor. Perhaps it is only at the edge of the abyss that the pinnacles of life—feeling, knowing, seeing—can be experienced, intensified by the full clarity of the stakes.

There were many times in the past when Kobe’s physical gifts were such as to obscure the artistry and genius behind his performance. As the body has slowly withered, however, his art, his mind, his learning, and his conditioned intuition, it is all that is left. Some find this imagery depressing.

I say, rage on Kobe, because perhaps when we are reduced away to little but our craft and will, looking the keres in the eye, we may find deliverance.

28_bryant_chart

SLAM Top 50 Players 2015
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Rajon Rondo Kings PG 14
49 Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks SF 8
48 Rudy Gobert Jazz C 10
47 Al Jefferson Hornets C 9
46 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 7
45 Goran Dragic Heat PG 13
44 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 11
43 Jeff Teague Hawks PG 12
42 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 6
41 Joakim Noah Bulls C 8
40 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 11
39 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
38 Andrew Wiggins T-Wolves SF 7
37 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 9
36 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 10
35 Gordon Hayward Jazz SF 6
34 Pau Gasol Bulls PF 9
33 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 8
32 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 8
31 Andre Drummond Pistons C 7
30 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 7
29 Draymond Green Warriors PF 6
28 Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 5



Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.