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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Kobe Bryant and the Duality of Basketball

I’m sure by now you’ve heard the story of Kobe’s late-night shoot around after the Lakers lost to the Heat. You couldn’t have possibly missed the tweets, the pictures, videos or the chatter. It even received 24/7 news coverage from ESPN, from Stuart Scott’s endorsement to ticker headliners and all the PR spin they could pack in between. Kobe stole the show last night as his legend rose from the ashes of defeat to drown out the shine of Miami’s feeble flame. This isn’t about the loss or extra practice or how Kobe is as hard on himself as his critics; this was Kobe embracing the opportunity to win the other game of basketball.

Kobe went ballistic to start the Miami game, hitting his first four shots. That was both a gift and a curse. L.A. raced out to an early lead but Kobe had flicked on his mental green light. This game was about to turn into the bar scene from Desperado and Kobe was carrying the leaded guitar case.

Only, he was shooting blanks.

Kobe finished out the game with 24 points on 8 of 21 shooting. He managed to score just six points in the final five minutes on 2 for 6 shooting to “klose” out the game. Every single one of his shots long and difficult threes, most of them coming much too early in the shot clock. A lot of the credit on Kobe’s misses has to be given to Dwyane Wade for his masterful defense, but Kobe was stuck in hero mode and was determined to go down shooting. When he finally did drive, he tried to force the issue, going 1-on-2 against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The result? Two turnovers.

I won’t dabble much further from that. I’m not looking to ignite another “Clutch” debate. I’m sure Henry Abbott will have a wonderful piece out soon that tackles more of Bryant’s high-volume, low-result style of play in game-closing situations. I’m here to talk about the events that took place in American Airlines Arena long after the shots were missed and the game was lost. I’m not just talking this post-game plea of “Hey, look at me,” I’m tlaking about how focused Kobe is on his other career; His legend.

While some may hate this side of Kobe, we should probably learn to accept it.

Kobe is the most self-aware player in any sport. He is very well aware of the race he is in against both time and history. He knows where the finish line is. He is aware of every single one of his accomplishments and how far he has come. He knows whose shadows he still stands in and which legends he is chasing. He’s not like most athletes; he is on another level, playing a game within a game. When Pau Gasol, Kobe’s teammate, suits up for a game, he’s trying to outplay his opponent. For Kobe, the competition is not always visible. He has to battle his defender on the court and the history of the game at the same time. It’s a game most don’t have the chance to compete in.

In fact, there are very few athletes like him in the world today. Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning come to mind. That’s the entire list right there. These are Kobe’s peers. These are all guys who are on the brink of greatness. Not just any greatness. These athletes are a few calculated steps away from possibly being THE greatest to play their respective sport.

They all must live a double life where in-game achievements are not enough. When you reach their level of greatness, it’s no longer about the stats or the wins or even the championships. It’s all about how the people will remember you. Will you pull of that 2-minute drill as effortlessly as Joe Montana? Will you dive for the first down like John Elway? Will slice and spin like Sampras? Will you smoke cigars on the fairway like Jack Nicklaus?

All of this is about what saga you leave behind. Any old box score or record book can tell us about what you accomplished. The numbers are there, plain as day for anyone to read. We want to scour the history books and find out how you accomplished things. Because at the end of the day, the numbers don’t reach out to our emotions the same way the stories do. The stats in the box score are cold and boring. We want the warmth and excitement of the play-by-play.

In today’s world, the importance of the owning a great legend has ballooned. No longer are small tidbits satisfying. One must write a life story that that rivals Homer’s Odyssey. And Kobe knows this. It’s why he plays both sides of the game at the same time. He knows he has to beat Jordan in both rings and narrative. He has to amass both stats and stories. For every “Flu Game,” Jordan had, Kobe needs two broken fingers. For every MJ fade away basket, there needs to be two Kobe fall back jumpers. He needs his jaw-jut to replace the image of Jordan’s tongue. He needs our respect and our hearts.

Kobe’s teams can’t just win their games; Kobe needs to win the games for them, on his own merits. Not because he thinks he has to, but because we as fans and critics think he has to. That’s the world Kobe lives in, those are the rules by which he must play. You want to be the best, you need to surpass the best.

Someone told me the other day that in 20 years no one will care about Kobe’s shooting percentages, his selfishness, the missed shots or even the made shots. All we will remember are the rings. I disagree. That might be true for the good players, but it doesn’t apply to the great ones. The Kevin McHales, James Worthys and Scottie Pippens of the world just need to win. The Magics, Birds and Jordans of the world need to show us more than just winning. We need the stories — the lore of their unparalleled work ethic their trash-talking; their incredible leaping ability; their closed-eye free throws. We need the post-game stories, the gambling, the women, the cars, and the lifestyle. All of it gets bound and published when you’re trying to become the greatest. It’s right there for all to read and we all want to read it. It’s what draws us in and makes us fans.

So why then, does Kobe rub people the wrong way? Perhaps it’s because he is the first of a new generation. A generation of athletes who live among a society that is very aware of the past and present. We have access to everything, whenever we want it, conveniently packaged on 1,500 different channels delivered in HD at anytime you please to your home, phone or iPad. No longer do you have to be a beat writer to know the happenings on a team flight or the trick shots at practice. All we have to do is log onto twitter or search YouTube. It’s all there at our finger tips. And Kobe is in a race to against time to fill up his compile a massive collection of NBA jewelry as well as padding his Google search results.

There is a seemingly untouchable mythos of a man named Jordan. Kobe wants to not just conquer that legend, but clobber it as well.

Bryant never got the opportunity to match skills on the hardwood. They never battled for playoff supremacy in their primes. As one faded away the other was cast into the spotlight.They now battle on a paper playground, one where writers and fans will ultimately determine who was better based on not just the games we saw but the stories we read.

And for that reason, we can’t blame him, not for last night, not for his career because Kobe wants to personify the determined warrior. As blatant as it seems, it’s something that needs to be done. For every field goal percentage point he finishes below Jordan, he needs to make up with game winners. For every MVP he comes up short, he needs another story to fill the void. Where he struggles on the court, he can make up ground off of it. Basketball isn’t just played whistle to whistle. Like the strings on a net, there are many intricacies of basketball that weave together. Those stories help hinge the collection of box scores and tie the names of legends to this sport. They help lead us from page to page, from game to game, through the annals of the NBA. It’s where players like Wilt and Russell stand tall. It’s where Jordan and Bird can shoot past the record books and into our hearts. Where a guy like Magic can surpass other point guards, not just with his passes, but with his smile.

Kobe is very self-aware of where he stands in the game, both of the record books and of the urban legends. There are two games to this sport, and he’s knows he needs to dominate both of them. Every move he makes is calculated. He does nothing without considering the ramifications to his public image, to his legend. We get upset when we hear LeBron talk about building his “brand” yet we applaud Kobe when we know he’s intentionally building his “legend.”

It’s the broken fingers and the game winners, the highlights and the fist pumps. All of it is calculated to one day attach at the bottom of his Hall-of-Fame resume. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for hard work, and Kobe puts in more work than anyone. I just don’t like that he tells all of us that he puts in more work than anyone.

Last night was a perfect example of this. He missed shots because he took terrible shots, not because his jumper was off. If he really wanted to account for this, he would have sat down and watched game-tape to see who was open and what passes he missed. To study how the defense played him so he can exploit their flaws next time. But sitting in a film room, by yourself, with no witnesses wouldn’t help his legend — at least not if no one knew about it. This is where Kobe has to play the game after the other game is already done. With a cast of national media members in the building for a headlining game, Kobe took to the court to practice his jumper. Was this necessary? Not from a basketball standpoint, no. But it was necessary, from a historical standpoint.

Kobe needs this late game shoot around. He needs to do GQ photo shoots with his finger pointlessly wrapped. He needs to win All-Star game MVPs, no matter how foolish he looks in doing so. Because this isn’t all about the game that is basketball, this is about the game of basketball. And Kobe’s trying to win all of it.

Shane is a contributor to Larry Brown Sports, NBAoffseason.com and Stacheketball.com. You can find him babbling about basketball all over the net or tune in as he tweets nonsense on twitter @Suga_Shane.



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