The Lakers, the NBA at large, shoe companies: They’re all talking about Kobe Bryant in the past tense. But the clock is still ticking.
by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17
a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public
If you read SLAM and KICKS with any regularity, in print or online, not to mention one of the countless sneaker blogs out there, you know that any major sneaker release these days is presented to the media with a whole host of bells and whistles. Sometimes there’s community interaction where local kids get to experience the new shoe first; sometimes there are elite training sessions where the media members get to see how the new shoe plays; sometimes there are fancy dinners where the shoe gets brought out like a trendy new dish.
And, sometimes, you end up inside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Such was the setting on a gorgeous early December day when Nike and Kobe Bryant teamed up to present the Kobe 9 for the first time. To sneakerheads, the event promised more drama than the typical release. For one, the shoe hadn’t leaked yet; there were rumors and grainy pics implying Kobe would be rocking a mid- or high-top for the first time in five years, but no one knew for sure. For another, the shoe’s endorser hadn’t played since last year’s Playoffs. How would Kobe look up close? Would he break the news on when he was going to return from his torn Achilles tendon?
Fittingly, given that Bryant is in his 18th year in the NBA and at the time of the release hadn’t played yet this season, the event opened with a look back. All in attendance were shown the “Prelude Pack,” made up of the first eight Nike Kobe shoes (remember: before Kobe joined Nike he wore adidas for a long time and was a sneaker free agent for a stretch). The eight shoes serve as the prelude to “the Masterpiece (the Kobe 9 Elite),” and each was presented with a name and a video of Kobe explaining what the particular shoe meant to him.
Being in a museum felt right for all of this. The shoes are valuable, and Kobe’s memories of what he accomplished in them are interesting. There were the four 50-point games in a row Kobe scored in the IIs, the “misery” he felt while losing the ’08 Finals to the Celtics in the IIIs, the industry shake-up he provided with the low-top IVs, the regular-season and Finals MVP awards he won in the Vs, the All-Star MVP he won at Staples Center in the VIs, the Olympic Gold medal in the VIIs.
For someone like me, who has the utmost respect for Kobe as a player but never felt the passion for him that I did for Michael Jordan, it was a helpful refresher course: Dude has accomplished a hell of a lot, in a massive NBA market, and the rabid support he gets from fans makes some sense when you see his achievements presented like this. The Museum of Contemporary Art was back to its regular programming by the day after the launch event, but it occurred to me that in this city, with this player, they could have charged admission to a Kobe Bryant shoe/career retrospective and simply counted the money.
Eventually, we got to see the 9, and the men behind it. Kobe, designer Eric Avar and Nike CEO Mark Parker presented the shoe. The Nike-run Q+A that transpired right away was, understandably, all about the shoe: the creativity, the inspiration, the materials (Flyknit!), the functionality. “We’re all geeks at heart,” Kobe said of the panelists. “This is all fun to us.”
Of course, only one of them is a legendary pro athlete, and when the shoe discussion ended and the media could interview Kobe, the topic quickly shifted to hoops. There was enthusiasm to play: “It’s gonna feel like being home when I’m back on the court. Like a fish being back in the water. The gills are there for a reason.” There was cockiness, like when he told former teammate and current FOX Sports talent Gary Payton that he is still the “best” scorer and all-around player in the NBA. There was resoluteness, like when he responded to a Chinese journalist who asked Kobe if he’d come off the bench when he returned to ease the adjustment. “Ohhh, I’m not coming off the bench. I’ll always start, but my minutes will be less.”
There was also reflection and reaffirmation of purpose. “Not shooting from April to September was the longest break of my life. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because I got to think about my career and all I’ve accomplished,” Bryant said. “It also made me hungrier. There’s self-doubt, for sure. But I’m not going to play different. This is what we do. We play the game. We leave it all on the floor, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
The one thing Kobe did not do at the Museum of Contemporary Art was announce a return. That came a couple days later, via Facebook.
And when the return came, on a Sunday night at Staples Center against the Raptors, I tuned in like millions of other basketball fans around the globe. And you know who I saw? Michael Jordan, Washington Wizard, circa 2001.
I realize I’m dating myself by remembering what MJ looked and played like in his second post-retirement stint—since many fans ignore that stretch and just think of the highlights and rings he piled up in Chicago—but some of us watched that Mike almost as closely as young Mike. And I kind of dug the old version. The dunks were few and far between, the wins were a lot harder to come by and his body clearly ached. But he was still—much moreso than when he was young and could jump over 6-11 Mel Turpin—a scientist on the floor. In the season he turned 40 years old, Michael Jordan played all 82 regular-season games (including 15 off the bench, Mr. Bryant), shot 45 percent from the floor and 82 percent from the line, and posted per-game averages of 20 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals. These numbers were achieved with guile. With knowledge. With possibly the greatest footwork a basketball player has ever possessed.
On one hand, it might seem premature to put 35-year-old Kobe Bryant in that stage, but in basketball years, Kobe is actually older than Mike ever was. He has already played almost 200 more games than Mike did. And Achilles injuries are no joke. Just six games after he came back, of course, Kobe hurt his knee and was pronounced out again. The knee injury after the Achilles was likely no coincidence.
Kobe’s awareness of the game hasn’t left him, and he’s still a beautiful jump shooter with the ability to get shots off from all different angles, but in the Raptor game he looked, well, creaky. In the games that followed, there was an added issue in Lakerland that may or may not get solved by March: They lack healthy point guards, so for a stretch, Kobe became the Lakers’ de facto 1. There’s immense irony in this, given his occasional aversion to passing over the years. There are also a lot of physical demands at that position. Of course, Kobe is a basketball genius, so he can do what he has to do, but the results have been mixed. In the six games Kobe played between injuries, only two resulting in Laker wins, the career 26-ppg scorer averaged 13.8 points, 6.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. As well as a mind-numbing 5.7 turnovers per game. On defense, let’s just say Kobe is not exactly getting two hands up to contest every shot his man takes.
Kobe’s post-game comments have addressed the flexibility he expects to get back, the physical comfort he thinks will eventually return. If anyone could regain the fluidity of their younger self, it’s a maniacal rehabber with the means and motivation to travel to Germany for treatment the way some people walk around the corner. To friends of mine who love Kobe, that’s the key issue: Will he regain the physical ability to play the game the way he once he did, or at least a close approximation of it?
And if he doesn’t, what kind of player do the Lakers have? Interestingly, if you ask Kobe’s current teammates about him, they don’t talk too much about his physical gifts. They talk about all the intangibles he brings. “What I’ve learned from him is the mental approach,” Jodie Meeks tells us. “On a game-by-game basis, no matter if he’s sick, hurt, anything that he’s going through, off the court or anything like that, he’s always focused. It’s amazing to see that. I fee like if he can do it, I can do it, or come pretty close to it.”
Jordan Farmar, who expects a return to greatness from his former and current teammate, says Kobe “doesn’t really take no for an answer. He’s going to will it to happen, whatever it is, come hell or high water. He prepares himself and works really hard. Just being around that kind of dedication and that willpower every day helps make you better in the long run.”
“He’s definitely a mentor to me, on and off the court,” says Laker forward Jordan Hill. “He knows all the positions and he’s always pulling people, like myself, to the side to talk to us and let us know what we’re doing wrong. He’s always got suggestions and adjustments for us that can make us better, not just for basketball but for everything. What sticks out most is probably his aggression in trying to get his point across. When he does this, he’s trying to embed it into you—your heart and your mind—so that you can understand. He doesn’t yell at you; he just makes sure that he’s giving you all the details. He’ll break down everything to you, and do it and try to get his point across to help you understand.”
“Watching how he prepares off the court shows you what you need to be doing,” Steve Blake says. “You see why he’s so successful so you try to emulate him as much as you can. He’ll point things out, pick-and-roll stuff and certain individual things throughout the game, so you listen and try to implement things he’s helped you out with. He’s just a really good teammate.”
We also spoke to Grant Hill, now an analyst after an 18-year NBA career that featured all sorts of athletic feats, not to mention debilitating injuries and the re-making of a game to combat them. “He may have lost a step athletically, but I still think he’ll have the ability to go out and dominate,” Hill says. “Maybe in a different way, but more with his skill and his intellect than his explosiveness. I think he’s too good, he’s too fundamentally sound, he’s too experienced. I’m excited like everyone else to see how he comes back and how he deals with the pace of the season.”
When you hear all about his work ethic and fundamentals, and you see Kobe gutting through games with an MJ-like guile at point guard, and you hear fans go absolutely bonkers for him at the Staples Center (“MVP! MVP! MVP!”), the fact that the Lakers just re-signed him to a mega-contract that will last through the ’15-16 season makes plenty of sense.
It’s highly unlikely that L.A. will get its money’s worth in terms of on-court production, but if Bryant can indeed reshape his game and work as an emotional and mental leader and a smart-playing complement to whichever other high-talent players the Lakers bring in, maybe they can make one more run for glory in the Kobe Era and get him the sixth ring he so desperately craves.
A lot of the questions at the shoe release focused on Kobe’s place in the all-time NBA scoring race. He’s already fourth all-time, with MJ’s 32,292 reachable this season and Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at least within loud screaming distance.
Kobe claims not to care about that, though. “Where I finish on the scoring list has never been a goal of mind. If it was, I would have gone to college, come in and played a lot of minutes and scored a lot of points from the beginning,” he says. “I don’t know the numbers I have or the numbers I need.
“I don’t play basketball to score. I play basketball to win Championships. Scoring is easy. Getting a group of guys to work together and win a Championship—that’s the challenge.”
And if it doesn’t happen? If Kobe can never dominate again, or if his contract takes up so much cap space that the Lakers can’t bring in enough other guys to share the load?
Both seasons that Michael Jordan played for the Wizards, the team went 37-45. I still enjoyed watching them though.
Additional reporting by Bill DiFilippo, Abe Schwadron and Yaron Weitzman