The Greatness (and Flaw) of Kobe Bryant
I wrote the article below about four years ago, long before I ever dreamed that Kobe Bryant would die yesterday at the age of 41. But it seems particularly relevant in many ways now. While he was one of those rare athletes who was larger than life, he was as mortal as the rest of us. I wish he wasn't mortal. I wish I wasn't mortal. I wish we lived in a world where people didn't grow old, get sick, injure themselves, and die in tragic accidents. I wish that mothers did not have to grieve the loss of 13-year-old daughters.
But we don't live in that world. So in this flawed and brutal world of mere mortals, maybe the best we can do is make the most of moments of transcendence. Kobe Bryant had plenty of those, and a big reason why we sports fans cheer people like him on is because they show us what humans can be at their best. And they might also push us to try and be better at whatever it is that we do.
Anyway, the following still sums up a lot of what I felt about him as a basketball player. Others are more qualified to describe him as a man, and people who really knew him have a lot of nice things to say. His peers may not have all loved him, but they definitely respected him.
Trying to be Superhuman
Almost three years ago, Kobe Bryant blew out his Achilles tendon in one of the last games of the season. Before that game, he had played about five or six games in a row without taking a minute of rest in a desperate attempt to drag the Lakers into the playoffs. This team of aging stars that had added Dwight Howard before the season started had not come close to living up to expectations. Injuries and coaching changes had taken their toll throughout the season, but Bryant, amazingly, was having a terrific 17th season at the age of 34. His legendary ability to play through injury and overcome any physical obstacle (including age itself) was on full display. Then, for no apparent reason, the Achilles snapped while he was making a standard move to the basket. So he walked slowly to the foul line, knocked down two free throws, and limped off to the locker room. When it was confirmed that his Achilles had torn, some people wondered if Bryant would ever play again. But given what I had seen of Bryant over the years, I never doubted that he would try to return and prove that he was as good as ever.
One of the most frustrating things about being a human being is that we are stuck in flawed bodies that inevitably get injured, sick, and ultimately decay and wither with age. We have the capacity to dream big dreams, think great thoughts, and strive to live forever, but ultimately, no matter how hard we might try, mother nature and father time get us in the end. Most of us grudgingly learn to accept our inevitable limitations. But there are those occasional individuals who strive to be superhuman, whether they are soldiers, businessmen, politicians, or athletes. A normal person would retire after 17 NBA seasons and a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Kobe Bryants of the world just see it as another opportunity to overcome seemingly impossible odds and prove their doubters wrong. Through sheer will power, he was going to once again push that worn down body beyond its breaking point.
Unfortunately for Bryant and the Lakers, he has not played particularly often or well over the past two and a half seasons. After missing the first few months of the 2013-2014 season due to the Achilles injury, Bryant came back and had another major injury just a few games into his comeback. Last season, he only made it through about half of the year before getting injured again. But even when he was playing, in spite of some moments of brilliance, he shot by far the lowest percentage of his career, and the team ended up with its worst record in history. This season, Bryant has been able to play in most of the games, but his individual performance, along with the team’s, is even worse than last year. And in spite of being in rebuilding mode and having some young promising players, Bryant is still taking more shots than anyone on the team and is playing a hell of a lot of minutes for a 37-year-old. But all things considered, it is remarkable that he is still on the court and has good games from time to time.
I firmly believe that a person’s greatest strength is also his or her greatest weakness. Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest basketball players of all time because of his perfectionism, incredible work ethic, and all-consuming desire to win, but his self-confidence is possibly his greatest asset. When the game is on the line, he has always wanted the ball because he believes that he is better than everyone else. These traits have served him and his team well over the years, but they have also frustrated many coaches, teammates, and fans (like me). Basketball is a team sport, and as great as Bryant has been, he has often tried to do too much on his own. And now that his physical skills are not what they used to be, he is more frustrating than ever. If he could just accept his newfound limitations and be more of a role player, he could probably still help an NBA team win. But Bryant, apparently, could never accept that kind of role, and he will push that broken body to overcome nature and prove his greatness until he jacks up that last shot.
On Sunday, Peyton Manning, the NFL’s all-time leading passer, won his second Super Bowl. At the age of 39, in a season in which he missed almost half of the games due to injury, many argued that he should not have even been on the field. But luckily for him, Manning happened to be playing for a team with a great defense, and so long as he was able to get a few points on offense and not have any major screw ups, Denver had a chance. Now Manning could have gone out there in the Super Bowl or in previous playoff games and tried to prove that he could still throw for 300 yards every game and possibly gone down in a blaze of glory. But instead, he adapted to his own limitations and to circumstance and did what was in the best interest of the team.
If Kobe Bryant was playing for a championship contender instead of a team in rebuilding mode, would he be able to take on less of a role and act in the interest of the team? Would he be able to muster up enough confidence in his teammates to let them take most of the shots in the 4th quarter? Or are guys like Kobe Bryant just not made like that? I guess we’ll never know. The only thing we know for sure is that sports careers, like everything in life, have to end eventually. As I heard Charles Barkley say recently, father time is undefeated. But hopefully, Bryant has learned some things over the past twenty years that will help him move on and find success (and meaning) in whatever he does next. It must be tough, after all, to no longer be the best in the world at something.