Better Late Than Never

by April 16, 2013

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.