The Kobe Conundrum

The other day I read something that made me pause and think for a bit. There was a very interesting article posted on Bleacher Report. I am a Kobe fan, he is my favorite player in the NBA, of all time. I am also very unapologetic about that. Obviously I think MJ is the G.O.A.T., that goes unspoken, but the heart is a very interesting thing. And I’ve always liked Kobe. I still have the number 8 jersey in my closet. And while Sam Quinn brings up an interesting point in his article, I see it this differently.

We’ve seen it all before. A kid comes into the League. That kid is kind of good, so good perhaps that everyone can see him surpass the competition in a few years’ time. Inevitably, the comparisons starts, the kids name comes up more and more. Suddenly we mention him in the same sentence as the holiest of the holy. We all know these names, Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James.

We do this ourselves because we have the ultimate marker of perfection in the NBA. It happened before, it will happen again. In one way, it is Jordan’s fault for being so damn good. In a way, it’s our own, for refusing to accept Jordan’s gift for what it was, and still waiting, wanting, wishing for someone to replicate it. To have the same effect on the game as #23 (and at times 45).

The problem this time, is that we actually came close. We had a kid who was not only skilled, but just as passionate about the game as Jordan himself. Unlike anyone else, Kobe bought into this fairy tale of being the “new Jordan” he put that moniker on his back, he made it his target to reach it. I don’t know if he believed it or if he wanted to believe it, but Kobe looked that challenge square in the eyes and took it on, like no one before.

He wanted to be Jordan almost as much as we all wanted him to be Jordan. He took his mannerisms, he took his moves, down to the last detail. It was the best impersonation job anyone has ever seen. Down to the All-Star appearances and the Slam Dunk win. And then something else happened, he started winning.

Winning, but not any kind of winning. The same coach, the same pattern. Three in a row, with Jackson on the sidelines, engineering the success. Yes, some will say that was Shaq’s team, and in many ways it was, but Kobe didn’t waver in the playoffs either. Look at his stats, he was amazing, he was through the roof, he was the second coming. So close he could taste it, see it, be him.

Perhaps that went to his head, perhaps they just weren’t built of the same stuff after all. The fairy tale, the chase, it all fell apart as the magic kingdom crumbled, Shaq got himself shipped off to Miami and the air apparent was left picking up the pieces. But Kobe wasn’t ready to give up, not now, not ever.

So in it comes, number 24, more training, more work. Eventually, Lakers traded for Gasol and the magic was back, except this time no one would ever admit that it was anyone else’s team by Mr. Bryant’s. Sure, Phil was the same exact mentor behind the scenes, but on the court it was all Black Mamba. One more ring, then two more, he was so close, the legacy was writing itself. Before it all fell apart again.

Don’t let the chase take anything away from the man. Kobe is the most important player of his generation, of my generation in many ways. He has done things no one will replicate and he had the drive matched only by one other person in the history of the game. But he fell short. Because ultimately, when it comes to comparing someone to Michael Jeffrey Jordan, everyone must fall short. He actually was too good for anyone to ever catch up, he changed the game, and then we took the legend and built it up even higher.

In the end Kobe Bryant is still one of the best players to ever step on the court, no one will ever take that away from him. He has changed the game, not in the ways Jordan has, but in his own. He was the face of a franchise and the face of the league. Perhaps it wasn’t always the face that the League wanted, but such is life. A truly amazing athlete that still, even at the age 34 comes to compete night in night out against people 10 years his juniors. In many ways he is the ideal basketball player with one, very fatal flaw that will define his career. Equal parts our fault for putting this on his shoulders, equal part his for buying into the myth instead of trying to be #8, that fault is, he is not MJ.

I  honestly think Kobe’s legacy is that he relentlessly chased Jordan his whole career. Equal part his competitiveness equal part media feeding the fire Kobe became the apparent. The man who was supposed to walk up the mountain of basketball and displace its current God. They said it about many people: Hill, Penny… but Kobe was the only one who bought into the story so much it defined his career. And that’s the major difference between him and LeBron. James is happy to just be him, to be the King. Kobe will spend every breathing moment on the court chancing a legacy that is not to be usurped.

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