TORONTO – For a guy who was essentially drafted into an NBA dynasty and will retire with five championship rings, Kobe Bryant has spent most of his career in a no-win situation.
There never has been and never will be a more difficult follow-up act in sports than being the ‘next’ man up after Michael Jordan.
Whoever found themselves in that situation had to not just win titles, but do so conclusively and with élan, all the while pushing product and being a cultural touchstone in a league where racial awareness creates an odd sort of tension – a largely African-American talent pool with a largely white audience. Respected, feared, loved. Jordan was all these things at once and the next one to come along was always destined to be an accumulator, more than anything.
And accumulate is something Kobe has done with aplomb: Titles, points, shots, money, all-star appearances, you name it. Truth is, as Bryant plays his final game tonight in what has been a strangely dispiriting lope into his dotage I’m not sure how much more anybody else could have done. I truly don’t. Because I’m not certain anybody will ever again be Michael.
I will yield the discussion of where Kobe ranks among the all-time greats to people better acquainted with both NBA history and statistical analysis in no small measure because I believe basketball to be the most difficult sport in which to make cross-generational judgments. There is no other sport that changes its shape organically – without league-mandated intervention through the rulebook – than basketball. Just look at the manner in which the game has swung to the outside – long after the three-point line became a fact of life.
So I don’t know where to plop down Kobe – behind Michael, certainly. Behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in my mind, too – and I’ll freely admit a bit of a generational bias there. But Kareem? The Big O? Wilt? Mr. Bill Russell, never mind LeBron? Nah, I can’t find the spot for Kobe. Not definitively. And the weird thing is that I’m not certain many of his peers then or now could do it, either.
But I also know this: To hear the awe with which players such as Paul George or DeMar DeRozan talk about Bryant and his significance to them makes me think that perhaps a lot of us born without a players’ sensibility have, well, sort of missed something.
I’ve written in the past that my perception of Bryant has always been coloured by the image of him being almost omnipresent during the Beijing Olympics, when he was part of the U.S. Dream Team. Kobe got out and about, you know? Always crushed by people, yet seemingly able to glide through the crowd with a sort of bemused smile.
That Olympics was wall-to-wall sensory overload – sort of like the country itself – so perhaps it’s simply a matter of heightened perception. Maybe it comes from the fact that his father played in Europe, but Bryant has always seemed to me to be a little more aware of the world than Michael.
Mostly when I think of Kobe, however, I think about that whole group of players who went from the preps to pros. Guys like Kevin Garnett, James, Dwight Howard and Tracy McGrady who all went on to become cornerstone players.
It’s true that the path was littered with failed cases until the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed in 2005 that a player had to be at least 19 years of age and be a year removed from high school in order to be drafted, but the truth is it wasn’t the disaster many anticipated when Garnett first forced the issue out of high school.
There was an underlying element of racial prejudice in that concern. After all, commissioner David Stern used his bully pulpit to institute a “dress code” and quietly applied other pressures to make the game more, um, “mainstream.” Stern was well aware that for the longest time – well, at least before the blessed convergence of events that dropped Bird and Magic in the NBA’s lap – the league had wobbled uncertainly because of the demographic realities within which it functioned.
Too many young players making too much money too fast was, it was believed, a recipe for disaster. The more enlightened among us looked at it differently: Why shouldn’t Kobe or anybody else make money for himself, instead of going to college for a year and lining the pockets of some sleaze-ball college coach with a $500,000 shoe contract?
For me at least, it will be Kobe’s longevity – with the same franchise – that stands out. Not even Michael did that. More than anything, I think, that’s why this retirement tour has seemed to be as much funeral dirge as anything.
“Come see the shadow of the former superstar.”
Bryant seems as if he’s part of the furniture in a slightly timeworn mansion, unable to effect change and, at times, almost seeming unwilling. His career isn’t ended as much as it’s expired. There’s a tiresome dumbed-down tone to it that explains, I believe, why in all the reams and reams of print and online copy and talk-show blather you seldom hear a reference to the way he threw Shaquille O’Neal under the bus, let alone the 2003 sexual assault allegations against him that ended with an out-of-court settlement but no public apology from Bryant.
Yet there, too, Kobe essentially wore down the opposition – even managing to regain his marketing mojo by slipping into his ‘Black Mamba’ thing.
The fact we’ve become tired of Kobe shouldn’t take away from the brilliance of his career, and if he didn’t ever match Michael the least we can do is acknowledge he took one helluva run at an impossible follow-up act.