Photo courtesy of Youtube: Kobe Bryant poses with his five championship trophies.
By Eli Lederman
From a relative standpoint, being a star in the NBA is easy; that’s why we’ve seen so many over the past 20 years. To be a star, a player has to become his team’s alpha, turn it into a contender and come up big when it really matters on multiple occasions. He doesn’t have to win a championship, or be the league’s MVP, although accomplishing either certainly doesn’t hurt. Stardom in the NBA requires a fat stat line, a memorable highlight reel and maybe a clutch shot or two.
However, when it comes to the NBA’s legends, the true greats, there is a certain indefinable quality that they all share. It is not a physical trait, nor a skill that can be developed. You can’t place a finger on what “it” is, but you know the ones who had it. Michael Jordan. Larry Bird. Bill Russell. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Another? Kobe.
Over his storied career, Kobe Bryant was defined by his dominant play on the court and vocality off of it. He built his image as the “Black Mamba.” That persona, which meshed perfectly with his ice-cold playing style, is what made him “Kobe”—that singular name he was universally known by, just like Oprah, Madonna and Fabio.
Kobe Bryant’s remarkable career with the Lakers and Team USA was a rare blend of brilliant basketball talent, unswerving dedication, relentless hard work, passionate preparation and a coldblooded killer instinct. In other words, he’s a surefire Hall of Fame icon. Almost every NBA fan, from the most casual to the greatest fanatic, can agree on that.
What NBA fans have never agreed on is almost any other aspect of Kobe’s career. The same traits that made Kobe one of the greatest ever—his passion, his competitive fire, and that lightning quick killer instinct—have also made him one of the most polarizing players the NBA has ever seen.
This happens to many stars. When you win, it’s easy to make enemies—opposing players and fan bases alike. Often times, the hatred is temporary and spans just a few years. Kobe has been polarizing for all of the last 15 years.
It began when he and star center Shaquille O’Neal publicly feuded during the Lakers’ three consecutive championship seasons, where the bad blood boiled over after the team lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals. That summer, Kobe forced the Lakers to choose between him and the franchise center, ultimately resulting in O’Neal being sent to Miami, where he would win a championship two years later.
During that 2003-2004 NBA season, Kobe’s public image off the court took a major hit as well. Throughout the entirety of the season, Kobe was forced to travel back and forth from Los Angeles to Denver, CO, where he faced sexual assault charges. The case was ultimately dropped after the accuser refused to testify in the trial. Despite not facing any legal consequences outside of the civil suit filed by the accuser, which was settled out of court, Bryant’s image was significantly marred by the incident.
Kobe’s career settled down slightly after the two incidents, and continued on its positive trajectory. From 2005-2012, Bryant won 2 NBA championships, led the league in scoring twice, and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2008. Injuries have plagued his last three seasons, forcing him to miss extended amounts of time in each. Finally healthy again, Kobe returned this season to a Lakers team very unlike the ones from his prime. The 2015-2016 Lakers, fresh off of a brutal, 21-win season, are more a team of the future, than one of the present. With three talented players under the age of 23, a team like the Lakers would ordinarily commit a season like this one to developing their young talent, and planning for the future. Apparently Kobe Bryant, age 37, never OK’d the plan. Upon his return, Bryant jacked up shots at the rate his younger self might have, but made a far lower percentage as a grizzled veteran. Once again, Kobe divided NBA fans and pundits alike. His mindset and performance went against everything that a young team trying to rebuild should be striving for. The sole justification from Kobe’s supporters? C’mon, it’s Kobe!
So it was only fitting that Kobe announced that he would retire at the end of the season with a poem published on the Players’ Tribune. I know, I know, you would have thought that Kobe could have shed that tired cliché about NBA players announcing their retirements via the use of free verse poetry, right? But seriously, he couldn’t have just announced through a press conference or via Twitter? Kobe Bryant: polarizing until the bitter end.
After a month of hearing all of the chatter, and going 4-23 from the field on a consistent basis, Kobe penned, “This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
Polarizing Kobe was no more.
Through the fog of his farewell tour, as he makes his final stops in each of the NBA’s cities, Kobe has become easy for everyone to root for. That’s because we’re not watching Kobe the hero, or Kobe the ball hog, or even Kobe the lone wolf. We’re watching Kobe the legend . This is the end of the road for Kobe, and that entitles him to take a few liberties. Whether that entails him shooting a historically low field goal percentage, or him stunting the growth of the young players around him, or maybe even giving us all a vintage Kobe game or two, it’s something that can be appreciated by both his biggest fans, and his biggest detractors. We’re watching one of the NBA’s greatest of all-time take his victory lap around the league. That’s something that can be appreciated by all.