Even at his peak, Kobe Bryant made greatness look grueling.
He had every gift, every natural blessing, every competitive trait that an athlete could ever dream of — but he made having them look hard. He could do whatever he wanted on the basketball court — but being in charge of that kind of skill, of that kind of transcendent greatness, was exhausting, and the strain showed.
It was if Kobe had to keep the Mississippi flowing himself, armed with nothing but his own sheer force of will. He accepted nothing but perfection, from his teammates, his coaches, from anyone whom he believed could achieve it. He played with a kind of scorn, one that could come only from a place not just of superior ability, but of superior suffering.
Kobe defined himself through his talent yes, but only in the way that someone who takes pride in carrying a heavy burden without mislaying it would. He had contempt for anyone whose burden was smaller, or who failed to carry their burden like he felt they were capable of — those who didn’t take the plight of greatness as seriously as he felt they should.
This is how I’ll remember Kobe, one of the game’s timeless icons.
Kobe died in a tragic helicopter accident, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, on January 26.
It always feels inappropriate to talk about a game under these circumstances, but it could never be ignored, not when you consider Kobe’s incredible legacy. His greatness, his work ethic, his singular drive to be the best, made basketball seem like much more than a game.
Unlike the other shining stars of the sport — Michael, LeBron, KD, or Shaq — Kobe didn’t inhabit his talent so much as angrily oversee it. His smile on the court had a way of making moments feel more tense, of ratcheting the stakes to a level at which only he could cope with them. It wasn’t in him to be generous. If you’re Superman, you can have fun flying; if you’re the CEO of ExxonMobil, oil is never a joke. Kobe’s demeanor and his game were -nonhuman — he was a figure of mythological proportions.
Through the tenacity of his game, Kobe gave you catharsis without relief. Like in the Lakers regular season finale 16 years ago, when he hit a baffling, twisting three-pointer over the Portland Trailblazer’s Ruben Patterson to tie the game in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter; then, in double OT, trailing by two, Kobe got the ball with less than a second left and hit another dagger, this time a three-pointer to win the game This performance, coming days after an eight-point performance against the Sacramento Kings that was widely perceived as a protest against public criticisms of his shot selection. Now, Kobe was validated, reacting with a sort of luxuriant rage, leaning into Shaq’s embrace and roaring like his jaw had come unhinged. He wasn’t showing you he could put the weight of his greatness down. He was taunting you with the fact that he didn’t need to.
He was such a force of nature that it was hard to believe he could ever surrender to mortality. He was so tenacious that you could never imagine he’d hang up his sneakers, exit stage left of the Staples Center and ride off into the sunset. So strong on the court, so constantly relevant even in retirement, so singularly great, that life without him will always seem unimaginable.
Kobe never seemed as dominant as Jordan because, unlike Mike, he refused to recruit us into the construction of his dominance. He couldn’t trust us with it. He had to do it himself, the way he did everything. This made him fascinating, not that he cared even a little bit. On the court he was a narcissist, but a strangely impersonal narcissist, like a general whose army happens to be deployed inside himself. Over the years, his success, his vivid bitterness, and his adherence to his own impossible standards created this confounding paradox: He made misanthropy look like a key ingredient in a team sport, selfishness like a synonym for greatness. Or, to see it from the other side: He made a team game look like a viable path to a life of chosen solitude. He was basketball’s hermit, and you either hated him or loved him for it — but regardless, you always respected him.
Kobe was more superhero than man, with the storylines of his career reading more like comic books than news briefings. He defied real-life parallels, reinventing himself to remain relevant — he skillfully constructed Lakerdom in the post-Shaq era, orchestrating a trade for Pau Gasol and restructured his game to win two more rings at the age when most basketball players fade from the limelight.
Kobe’s career reminded me of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, that tale of talking wolves and vengeful tigers and the Law of the Jungle. In the story, Akela, the Lone Wolf, rules the pack from atop the Council Rock. Do you remember it? It’s silly, but also profoundly moving, like Kobe Bryant. Akela is strong and cunning. But he knows that one day he must lose his strength, and that when that happens, the young wolves will challenge him and pull him down and kill him — which, of course, nearly happens in the course of the story. Time and time again, Kobe fought off the young bucks, proving that he was indeed the last of his breed — the last great Alpha Dog basketball may ever see.
And his game, albeit imperfect, was a joy to witness, like some meta public art piece that we could all enjoy. Looking at his highlights is like jumping into a time machine to 1993. Bryant gets the ball on the wing early in a possession, backs down like some hybrid of Mark Jackson and Michael Jordan, and unleashes a preposterous 20-foot turnaround ripped from an ancient league. And he sinks it. One of the greatest gunslingers of all time, with the maverick prowess and uncanny ability to control a game that captured the world’s imagination.
Kobe wasn’t supposed to die. Not now at least. He still had his golden years ahead — to live long enough to see his statue erected outside Staples Center and his jersey inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. To live long enough to sit courtside at Staples when he’s bent-backed and gray, keeping alive the memories of two decades of greatness with a wink, maybe even fooling everyone one last time by retiring in an old folks community next to Shaq. Gianna was supposed to become the next face of the WNBA, and her dad was supposed to watch her every step of the way.
But instead, all we have are memories, and unfulfilled potential, a tragic ending to two stories left unwritten.
In his swan song on April 13, 2016, Kobe made shot after shot against the Utah Jazz, on his way to 60 points, as the Staples Center filled with a steady, deafening cheer.
Kobe picked up a microphone afterward to address the crowd.
“This has been absolutely beautiful,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s come to an end.”
Neither can we.