What about the man next to The Man?
by Myles Brown / @mdotbrown
Kobe Bryant is the king of superlatives. Countless references have been made to his cold blooded execution and killer instinct. Some have even gone as far as to call him an assassin. However this display of unabashed honesty may have been the strongest moment of a long and storied career. It deviated not only from his reputation for prideful defiance, but the testosterone fueled code of ethics we’ve used for so long to decide who’s ‘The Man’. After converting just 6 of 24 attempts from the field in the biggest game of his life, he could’ve credited the Celtics suffocating defense. He could’ve said that he simply wasn’t feeling it. Instead, he plainly acknowledged what we all knew to be true: He was consumed by the moment.
Unfortunately, this revelation came shortly after hoisting his second Finals MVP trophy and humility be damned, we were more concerned with doling out credit. The consensus seemingly pointed to Pau Gasol. But one can only hope that in this rush to properly assign value to their performances, we realize it’s that very instinct which created such a polarizing figure.
Kobe Bryant wants to win. This is inarguable. What’s equally clear is that Kobe wants to win his way. It’s an attitude borne of preternatural ability and competitiveness, yet more importantly, a viewership enamored with legend making. We thirst for iconic performances; signature moments of athletic excellence which make our eyes bulge and time stand still. With every crossover, reverse pivot and nimble fadeaway, Kobe etches himself deeper into our consciousness. Every injury he dutifully trudges through, every buzzer he beats and every ring he collects carves another feature on Rushmore. One or two more and some may dare to say that he’s supplanted a deity.
If Michael Jordan taught us anything, it’s that how you win matters as much as winning itself. He was hellbent on disproving the notion that a scoring champion couldn’t win a ring. He dared opponents to stop him in the waning seconds, even when they knew what was coming. And as the ball settled softly through the net to the applause of millions, his clenched fists and flexed forearm left no doubt as to the will which coursed through his veins. He took on any and every challenge and we loved him for it. But the moment he left, we began our search for another.
Kobe has faithfully followed this model, for good or ill. The problem is, more often than not, Jordan took those shots as a matter of necessity; Scottie Pippen was an otherworldly talent, but he wasn’t 7 feet tall or 300 pounds. Bryant had the luxury of Shaquille O’Neal’s prime and has arguably been joined by the game’s current best pivot in Gasol. So on those nights he performs poorly, yet still emerges victorious, many of us are all too tempted to dismiss him with the refrain of “He can’t do it alone.” Now regardless of whether this is true or even logical, he has still accepted the challenge. Sadly, it’s also led to him becoming a caricature of himself.
For all his feigned aloofness, Kobe cares what we think and it couldn’t be clearer than last night. Looking to right the wrong that was Christmas Day, Bryant began with a flurry of baskets early and even some patented jaw jutting heaves late in the contest. But it didn’t last. Eschewing the Lakers clear advantage in the post, their offense devolved into the same flat sets we’ve admonished Miami for as he continued to fire away. The most questionable decision by far was an off balance corner three with the game in the balance and 24 seconds on the shot clock. Afterward, he defended his shot selection to the media…..and then he went to shoot some more.
Despite the availability of a private practice court in the arena which would have allowed him to labor in peace, Bryant chose to attack the same basket which he’d failed to fill just an hour before in front of a crowd of fawning scribes. The twitpics and videos filled our timelines by the second. Though Kobe’s work ethic is indeed legendary, this was also an example of his unsuppressible ego. Now it would take a particularly jaded soul to accuse him of consciously attempting to shift the narrative, however that’s exactly what happened. There were no further mentions of those questionable misses nor the ugly tirades towards his teammates, just Kobe, Doin’ Work.
Why? “It’s my job.”
Actually, his job is to win. He is paid quite handsomely for it and has become quite good at it. Though sometimes that involves subjugating his ego for the good of the team, something he’s not always so good at. You see, the problem wasn’t that he missed those shots, it’s that he was apparently preparing himself to take them again. When the Lakers are mentioned as title favorites, the primary reason isn’t Kobe, it’s their frontcourt. That doesn’t mean they’re better than him, it just means that’s what makes them a better team.
But he struggles with that notion because it conflicts with his driving force: To be the best. An admirable ambition that we’ve accepted even when it leads him astray. However some of us need to remind ourselves-and Kobe-that he’s not 28 anymore. Effective as he may remain, the sparkle of youth has faded. Mistakes are more costly at this age and the stakes are much higher. Remember, there are deities to be displaced…
Some of us believe that when the time comes, Bryant will bring himself back into the fold. That he believes in the whole, the sum of its parts and all that jazz. Some of us want him to fail. But until we can decide what to expect from ‘The Man’, we shouldn’t expect him to either.