Dear Kobe Nation:
Let me start by saying – I feel your pain. I’m not sure I can recollect a lower moment in our history with Kobe Bryant (for one game, perhaps Game 4 against the 2008 Celtics when the Lakers’ fate in the series was all but sealed). So much so, that today was the first time I turned on the radio during my hour long commute since the Lakers were swept. Even then, I had to avoid all sports talk. I read the LA Times for the first time today as well. As usual, the slew of writers ranging from Plaschke to Simers to Heisler jumped all over the team, like vultures over their prey at any sign of weakness. It’s no surprise considering they’ve spent a majority of the last 10 years berating Bryant: from Heisler’s conspiracy theories around how Kobe caused Shaq’s exit, to Plaschke’s rehashing of ‘Kobe as ballhog’ articles, and to Simers’ wannabe “Allan Malamud on depressants” columns.
I saw Kobe play for the first time 15 years ago. I was 21 at the time. For those who you who remember his 1996-7 rookie season, it only took the first handful of games to realize the same thing Jerry West did when he called Kobe’s draft practice the “best he’d ever seen.” Within his first 20 games, I remember thinking “this guy can be the greatest to ever play the game”. My friends would poke fun at me for idolizing an 18 year old kid who didn’t even start for the original Lake Show. But it didn’t matter. This was not about my friends. This was always about Kobe and his quest. And that is a quest I believe many of you, in Kobe Nation, have been following avidly for the last 15 years – calculating each turn of events and how they will impact KB24’s ultimate goal.
To be the greatest.
Not top 10. Not top 5. But number 1. Better than Michael, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, and Bird. It was almost like he was pre-destined to be the NBA’s heir apparent. He came from respected basketball lineage, had unbelievable athletic ability, off the charts charisma, was a historian of the game, and an unparalleled will to be the best. To top it all off, we loved him because we could brag that he did all this while scoring high on his SAT, writing poetry, and watching old film in his spare time during Laker road games. He was made for Hollywood and the Lake Show. A truly renaissance basketball player cut from the finest Italian cloth – how could he not be the greatest?
And that’s why the loss to the Dallas Mavericks hurts so much.
This wasn’t about whether Kobe would pass Magic as the greatest Laker of all time. It had nothing to do with Shaq. And other greats like Wilt, Bill Russell, and Larry Bird seemed like just stops along his highway to ultimate greatness. The real prize, as any Kobe historian will tell you, was this quest to pass MJ. As the playoffs began, I still believed deep down that Kobe would fulfill this destiny. And as they’ve ended, I am equally sure that he won’t. I entered this year thinking: if he wins 2 more championships with this Laker team, he would have 4-5 rings as the alpha dog, 7 rings total, 9 finals appearances, and a slew of All-NBA, All-star, and All-Defensive Team selections. Add this to a resume that probably will see him finish 1st or 2nd in scoring as well as near in top in numerous other regular season and playoff categories, and the GOAT title would have been in reach.
In this process, I was also able to justify away many of his supposed flaws.
The 2004 debacle against the Pistons was primarily due to a lack of effort on Shaq’s part (how do you not pull down more than 8 rebounds in 3 of the 5 games?) combined with one of the best NBA Finals’ defenses we’ve ever seen. The 2003 loss to the Spurs was against a tough rival who had the only other post-MJ dynasty. The 2008 series against the Celtics was caused by a more experienced Celtics team, a tentative Odom/Gasol combo (do some things ever change?), and a lack of homecourt advantage.
The blowouts that have signified some of his elimination games during his career. The Spurs. The Pistons. The Suns. The Celtics. The Mavericks. I can point out in each of these games how it was clear that Kobe brought his A game in the beginning stretches before his teammates (always his teammates!) let him down.
A FG percentage that allowed his critics to put him in the demeaning category of being a volume shooter , I interpreted as a supreme confidence in his ability and willingness to take shots without concern for his overall shooting stats.
His locker room persona that caused so many of his teammates to be critical of him was of course driven by his MJ-like quality to not just be “one of the guys”. (though I think deep down I knew MJ had a respect in the fear he created that Kobe was not quite ever able to replicate)
The Colorado incident – was their ever any doubt that the girl was complicit? And plus, it allowed him to make those heroic same day trial and game performances. Some things do have a happy ending right? (no pun, intended)
But all of these flaws, as a Kobe fan, made him human somehow. And I, as well as many others, enjoyed watching this human fight through these flaws like the gladiator on the quest he was on – rising to heights the NBA has rarely seen, falling from grace, only to rise up once again.
Still – I cannot overlook the flaw that is getting swept by this Mavericks team. In my mind, it has cost Kobe the chance to be the GOAT. And that, my friends, is a hard, bitter pill to swallow.There are several reasons for this: (1) I think it puts a severe dent in my “plan” that Kobe could pass Michael and win 7 rings, (2) even if he does, he will somehow have to overcompensate for several questionable losses during his career (losses that MJ never had). Ultimately, I think these factors will be too steep of a climb for even Kobe the Gladiator to overcome.
So where to from here? For once, I’m not quite sure. On one hand, I think some retooling could scrape the Lake Show another championship (when does Dwight Howard get here already?). I believe this, plus a few more good statistical years and relatively deep playoff runs would be good enough to put Kobe as a definitive no. 2 of all time. On the other hand, my deepest fears are that the rest of Kobe’s years will continue downward and expose the worst of his qualities. As his skills deteriorate, will he ever accept being a complementary player as opposed to the alpha dog. Will he continue to rely heavily on his jump shot, causing his FG% to go further down? Will he refuse to accept his limitations and not end his career gracefully, going out like the champion that he is? Most sinister of all, will the Scheme Team put together a few championships allowing LeBron to move above Kobe in the NBA’s greatest rankings?
For the last ten years, I’ve had a habit of calling my good Laker fan friends while driving, pumping up Randy Newman’s “I Love LA”, and leaving them a voicemail message of the entire song after particularly meaningful playoff wins. No voicemails were left this year. Make no mistake, I am a lifelong Lakers fan. I grew up with Magic, but feel like I know Kobe. I recall being asked, when it was a distinct possibility that Kobe might leave for the Clippers, who would I root for? Sure, I would still love the Lakers, but it was still Kobe’s quest that would demand the majority of my attention, I replied.
That’s why for me, not being able to root for Kobe’s quest to be the greatest will tarnish my Lakers’ watching for years to come.
Sadly, my friends, that quest is over.