The NBA finals are over and the Cleveland Cavaliers have emerged victorious, burying a Golden State Warriors team which had concluded the greatest regular season of all time. However, it is championships that people remember, not finals appearances.
In what has been a side-plot to the regular season, I wanted to talk about one of the luminaries of the game who played his final game on the hardwood in April: Kobe Bean Bryant. He spent the entirety of his career with the LA Lakers and won 5 titles with them. He was named All Star several times and had an unmatched global fan following. He was the closest thing to Jordan, since Jordan himself.
Throughout his career, Kobe wanted to be better than Jordan. He affected the same mannerisms, he stoked the same competitive fire and desired to be seen as Jordan’s peer or perhaps as his successor. He inspired thousands of kids to pick up the basketball and dream of following in his footsteps. His dunks, deadly mid-range fadeaways and array of post moves leave a great example for any budding basketball player. He was a very good, if unwilling passer, and could not quite get himself to trust his teammates in crunch-time. He could be a lockdown defender when he felt like it and was a steady rebounder as well. Kobe’s goal however, remained that elusive target: Jordan. He actually did end up passing Jordan in total career points, which is an achievement of enormous proportions.
After his injury, he was never quite the same and the narrative surrounding him changed somewhat. Criticism of Kobe gained more traction in the recent past due to the advent of analytics and the recognition of the importance of efficiency and new ways to track the impact of factors such as defence, passing and creating shots. Due to his devastating injury, Kobe could no longer get his body to do the things that were once easy for him. The argument could be made that Kobe was holding the Lakers hostage with his enormous salary and negatively affecting the development of younger players. But ultimately it is the choice that the Lakers made. Kobe Bryant is the LA Lakers. He is synonymous with them and die hard Lakers fans continued to come to the Staples Center, night after night to see the Lakers lose and Kobe to miss shot after shot. The Lakers continued to rake in the dollars. For what seems from the outside as a bad idea, makes perfect financial sense. The Lakers can’t trade him. They can’t get him to retire. So they enabled him, got him a friendly coach and made the most of two lost seasons. Now, they have an intriguing young coach in Luke Walton and a good mix of talent to develop. Overall, the future in Hollywood is bright.
Kobe went out with 60 points in his final game, taking 50 shots to get there. We are a little to close to his retirement to see how he will be remembered. But all this is not to say that Kobe Bryant is sad, or disappointed. The choices that he made were very conscious ones and he did make the decision to imitate Jordan whether subconsciously or consciously and chase the same records that Jordan holds. As it is said, when you chose to live by the sword, you must die by it. It is ultimately folly to compare players of two separate eras. Too many things change in the interim. In this case, however, there is some perspective to be gained by the comparison. If you hold Kobe up to the standards of Jordan, he falls short. But then again, who wouldn’t?