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Tuesday, April 16th, 2013 at 11:35 am  |  27 responses

Better Late Than Never

Looking at Kobe Bryant’s injury from the perspective of the reluctant fan.

by Allen Powell II

With Kobe Bryant, it always felt like you had to pick sides.

Were you riding with Kobe or Shaq? Who was the realer player, Kobe or Iverson? If you had to pick one player to carry your team would it be Kobe, T-Mac or Vince? Who is really better, Kobe or Jordan?

People think it’s a new phenomenon, this always quiescent argument about Kobe vs LeBron. No, that sort of debate has dogged Kobe his entire career. His basketball journey is as much about the foes he’s vanquished as it is about the skills he’s mastered. That’s why it’s fitting that when news broke last week about his season-ending injury, Kobe immediately turned to battle imagery to describe his mindset. But this time the stakes feel higher than ever before.

Kobe Bryant’s ruptured Achilles tendon is dominating the sports news right now because that’s how people react when a legend falls. Breathless updates on Kobe’s condition are impossible to escape. Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds are dominated by angry rants and glowing hagiographies. Everyone is trying to put Kobe’s injury in perspective; not just for the current season or Lakers’ franchise, but for the NBA as a whole. The basketball world knew Kobe’s career was nearing its sunset, but people were prepared for a gradual fade to black, not a sudden eclipse. This is uncertain territory.

Typically, by the time sports legends leave the stage, the audience is ready for them to go. Rare are the players like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders who refuse to give the public those sad final chapters for their bodies struggling to do what their brains tell them is still possible.

Although Kobe discussed retirement on several occasions this season, it was always hard to take his word. Just a couple weeks ago, Kobe joked that unlike most of the basketball world he didn’t have time to watch the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t an issue of a pressing schedule, but instead Kobe believed that he was still so dominant, college players should carve out time to watch him work. That’s how Kobe rolls; that’s how he’s always rolled. Unlike some stars who grudgingly accept the expectations and responsibilities of greatness, Kobe always rushed headlong into that particular lover’s embrace.

More than any other player, it seems like Kobe was built for this. There are apocryphal stories about a young Kobe living in Italy, alternating his time between prophesying about his future place in basketball’s pantheon and challenging grown men to play one-on-one. The media and fans never had to force Kobe to compare himself to other players because it was clear he constantly made those comparisons on his own. Kobe embraced measuring sticks, and he later embraced his role as The Measuring Stick. In his mind there was no other path to greatness.

But still, when I chose sides I didn’t pick Kobe. He was the media darling, the Chosen One long before LeBron. If Allen Iverson and his ilk were the spare tire left on the NBA’s waistline after it birthed Michael Jordan, then Kobe was the Insanity workout that would restore the League’s former glory. He was the Heir Apparent, the Golden Boy who had the smile, background and game needed to set things right.

But to me, he also was the poser who trotted out floppy fishing caps and hoop earrings after a certain Legend bamboozled the world into thinking they were cool. Kobe shot too much, complained too often and apologized just about never. Kobe wasn’t my guy. He wasn’t my guy at all.

But it was impossible not to appreciate him. In fact, it could be argued that every true fan of the game has felt the seductive allure of Kobe’s game at some point. Part of it is the deadly array of moves that he could unleash instantly. Some of it is the encyclopedic knowledge of how to attack any defender that borders on true genius. His skill set is so varied that there is nothing beyond him on the floor, granted it’s what he wants to do.

That was the bugaboo though: What did Kobe want to do? In his quest to scale basketball’s Mount Olympus, Kobe understood there would be tough choices. He embraced a brutal workout regimen that challenged his body and mental fortitude. Where others rested on their laurels, Kobe constantly tinkered with his game, searching for that edge, that new skill. No one has worked harder than Kobe at becoming great. Some have worked just as hard, but none have worked harder.

Yet, Kobe never understood the easy camaraderie needed to lead other men. He never grasped how important it was to make those lesser mortals, the ones who must serve as cannon fodder, not just accept their sacrificial deaths, but seek them willingly for your glory. Kobe could take and make any shot on the floor, but he always struggled with understanding the cost-benefit analysis that every leader must perform. Just because I can, does it mean I should?

When news of Kobe’s injury first became clear, he slowly let the world into his mind. He pulled back the veil and showed the public his frustration, his anger and even a little of his fear at this possible end for his career. What that glimpse did was two-fold. First, it confirmed that Kobe is who the world always knew he was. In his now-legendary Facebook rant, Kobe told everyone that he was preparing for a battle with a bear, and if they were wise, they should seek God’s assistance for the bear. The world would expect nothing less.

But, that glimpse also made it impossible not to root for Kobe to succeed. He clearly knows the odds are against him ever approaching the same level of greatness given his age and the severity of the injury. He understands how much work it’s going to take, and how likely it is that effort will still be in vain. Yet, Kobe, for now, plans to try. He can’t imagine not trying. People who can’t respect that level of commitment and perseverance, even for something as trivial as basketball, do themselves a disservice. Yes, it’s always been about picking sides with Kobe, and he’s never been my guy. That is, he’s never been my guy until now.

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  • Mr Magic FB

    This is truly one of your best articles to date. I’ve sat and heard you talk about sports and athletes and often times we disagree. However in this case you nailed it. Bro. Good work!

  • Max

    I know alot of people who hated Kobe since I know them, but now they’re all scared that he could retire (which I don’t think will happen).
    The day Kobe decides to hang em up will be a sad one.
    And this is a very good article.

  • Drig

    AllenP…….that was one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time ( I blame ESPN for this ).

  • http://twitter.com/jaceanderson jace anderson

    this article nailed it. I’ve never been a fan… but I AM praying for the bear.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sscalleone Silvano Scalleone

    Excellent article. Kudos.

  • Sergio

    Amazing article, Allen. Its great to see how basketball (and sports in general) is more than just a game, but rather a metaphoor of life.

  • LakeShow

    Best thing about this to me, is that I didn’t read the author before hand, and I would not have guessed AP wrote this.
    Well written AP.
    I know you don’t need my approval, but this is a SLAM gem as far as i’m concerned. I could see your perspective through this article very well.

  • kadavour

    good job Powell. It reads like there should be more to this, those last 2 paragraphs came on too suddenly. I know there is (ooh, i think i see what you did there).

  • http://twitter.com/AjpDos Allen Powell

    Thanks folks

  • Brandan E

    great article here, really telling.
    Kobe is a top 5 all-time player in my book and he will b back to add to it!

  • bike

    Very well done. Nice piece.

    There was a time when I absolutely despised Kobe. I couldn’t
    deny his genius on the court but he struck me as a narcissistic, arrogant, prick
    that shot too much and was always quick to throw a teammate under the bus.

    Now he seems, well, likable. I don’t know if it has to do
    with his age or his self-realization that the ride is nearing the end. He has
    developed a certain tongue in cheek sense of humor and blended it well with his
    fierce competitiveness and passion for improvement. He will always be the
    ultimate grinder.

    He is Kobe Motherfu*in Bryant.

  • http://twitter.com/apowellAdvocate Allen Powell II

    Yeah, i find myself getting irked at him occasionally, but what I appreciate more and more as I age, and he ages, is how hard he works. He never cheated the game from a work standpoint, or cheated himself. You can argue he made plenty of mistakes as far as his shot selection and how he related to others, but when it came to working, he never, ever shirked at thing.
    That impresses me constantly. Often I will think, “Well if Kobe can work this hard to be great a simple game, I need to put in some work at (insert important activity).” After all, when you think about it, Kobe is better at basketball than 99 percent of the world’s population is at anything they do. That should inspire us to do more.

  • shutup

    Fantastic article, share many of the same sentiments.

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    holy sh!t Allen this is awesome.

  • jama

    MJ was every bit as judgemental and strict about his teamates as Kobe, but the difference is it was a much more private era for that kind of thing. perhaps the Bulls handled it better than the Lakers

  • KBwillbeback

    Nice job Allen!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Junior-Taylor/100003121138419 Junior Taylor

    Great article…AP. I am known as the resident kobe “hater” on here but that is far from reality. I respect what the guy has done for the game and has him ranked in my Top-10 Greatest players list (#10). I may not be a fan of his approach to the game and leadership style but I am a huge fan of his work ethic and accomplishments.

  • robb

    Loved it.

  • Sergio

    I think exatcly the same way that you do. In my former office, I had a posi it in my pc with “KB” written, to always remind me to work hard and give my best.

  • Darksaber

    Excellent write-up, AP.
    Disliked him for years, had the chance to meet him and watch him shooting at 8am in the Summer during a Nike promotional tour in Asia, GOTTA respect the work ethic and willpower.

    He’ll be back and probably near 2012/2013 levels too.

  • Dagger

    The best article I’ve read on slam in years. Lucid writing, great insights, and yes, most of us feel the same way you do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jay.brodes Jay Brodes

    i am probably in the minority on this but i am ticked as i am pretty sure this could and should have been avoided. i know mamba wanted to go 48 min but a 17 year vet with his mileage should not be logging 45 min in april! sorry! the coach should not be a YES man! the 2nd time he got hit friday vitti should have pulled him ..period! phil said so and if phil was on the side lines mamba would be playing tonight! thanks dantoni..i hope you pay for this for ending a career!!!

  • underdog

    Yes, he is simply inspiring, just like Jordan was. I’ve got a poster in my dorm room of young Kobe – it’s an ad of his shoe KB8. It says “if you don’t believe in yourself nobody else will”. I have this poster since I was 14 or something. And as the years went by I’ve thrown all my other posters to the trash, but I bought this one with me to college, because it stayed relevant. It’s not just another slogan, there’s a man behind it, who really does what he have to do, and I respect that.

  • underdog

    One more thing, I know lot of people hated Jordan’s HOF speech, but I really liked it, because he pointed out exacty these things when he said:

    “I hope that it’s given the millions of people that I’ve touched, the
    optimism and the desire to achieve their goals through hard-work,
    perseverance, and positive attitude.”

  • airs

    Good sh*t allen, hit it right on the head

  • The Seed

    Well written article.

    I disagree with this paragrahph, Yet, Kobe never understood the easy camaraderie
    needed to lead other men. He never grasped how important it was to make
    those lesser mortals, the ones who must serve as cannon fodder, not just
    accept their sacrificial deaths, but seek them willingly for your
    glory. Kobe could take and make any shot on the floor, but he always
    struggled with understanding the cost-benefit analysis that every leader
    must perform. Just because I can, does it mean I should?

    I agree with this paragraph,That was the bugaboo though: What did Kobe want to
    do? In his quest to scale basketball’s Mount Olympus, Kobe understood
    there would be tough choices. He embraced a brutal workout regimen that
    challenged his body and mental fortitude. Where others rested on their
    laurels, Kobe constantly tinkered with his game, searching for that
    edge, that new skill. No one has worked harder than Kobe at becoming
    great. Some have worked just as hard, but none have worked harder.

    Also Kobe HAS EARNED EVERYTHING HE HAS.

  • https://twitter.com/jasontichenor Mr. Wet

    Very nice article. This is the first year I’ve really started to like Kobe, always respected his game though. But, for some reason I’ve wanted him to succeed all season. That, and his interviews are buy far the best in the league.

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