It’s weird to feel the need to do this, but I think the time has come: I’m writing, more or less, to defend Kobe Bryant. I take this as a welcome development—the past few days have seen serious media coverage of Kobe’s shortcomings in crunch time, and my sense is that, despite the howling protests of millions of commenters, smart basketball people have started to peel back some of the thick skin of mythology surrounding Kobe BEAN Bryant. However, if we’re going to continue to recast the way in which Kobe is discussed, I have a few thoughts to offer.
First, the disclaimer portion. If you’re the sort of reader who might identify yourself as a “quant,” fear not; I recognize the fact that there are several NBA players today producing more efficiently than Kobe. If you’re the sort of reader who reviles the idea of advanced analytics, come with me, also; Kobe is one of my very favorite players. I am pleased to see the discussion of one of the game’s icons become more nuanced, but I am in no hurry to see Kobe’s legacy seriously recast. To the extent that recasting Kobe’s legacy is a straw man, I apologize.
It’s more or less beyond argument by now that Kobe’s tendencies as a basketball player frequently inhibit his team’s chances of winning. As you’re certainly aware, the renewed interest in discussing Kobe’s efficacy is primarily centered around the discussion of crunch time, and the evidence is clear: in tight, late-game situations, Kobe is just not very good at producing wins regularly. Of course, I’m writing this the day after Kobe went 9-31 against the Wizards, of all teams, and so people are rightly discussing Kobe’s selfishness and tendency to break away from a team offense. I will say, though, that none of this matters.
Kobe Bryant is by now twice as much image as he is basketball player, and if he is one of the more inefficient players right now, he is perhaps the most efficient self-mythologizer. By hardly saying anything apart from a few laconic f-bombs, Kobe has positioned himself as the masculine ideal for star athletes in the public’s mind. It doesn’t matter that some of his media moves are patently staged—like the late-night Miami shooting session from a year ago—by simply refusing to waver in his projected demeanor, Bryant meets the authoritarian competitive ideal. I think this is what most viewers truly ask of any athlete they seek to canonize: that they be unwavering.
It is in this way Kobe separates himself from mundane life, and in separating himself from the mundane Kobe creates a space we fill with idealization. You or I, after shooting 3-17 in the second half, would probably go about finding that next shot differently. Kobe does not, and this supremely irrational behavior coupled with his history of success makes us think he must be tapped into something we are not. Contrast this with LeBron, who is almost always supremely rational on the basketball court, for which he is roundly excoriated. I can see that Udonis Haslem is wide open and that he has the better shot; I cannot see whatever must be making Kobe hoist that next fadeaway. Even when the rabbit does not come out of the hat, Kobe’s insistence on pulling tricks makes us think he was the source of the magic all along.
I will indulge the worst sort of tendency toward armchair psychology and say that viewers respond to Kobe in a way that they don’t (forgive me) to LeBron because Kobe is the emotionally safer choice. Kobe’s self-regard is unassailable, and we can depend on him to keep meeting our expectations for his behavior. We are never going to see Kobe tweet that he let his teammates down with what he hopes is the right amount of exclamation points. LeBron courts adoration in the same way I do, that many of us do, but here again Kobe separates himself from mundane rationality. Kobe must be tapped into something I am not that he consistently belittles his teammates and seemingly finds success while doing so; LeBron, frankly, is far too needy like I am.
Of course, Kobe also has a history of winning in a way that LeBron has not, but I think it’s clear Kobe is co-opting credit for championships that would be circumstantial for anybody of his talent. It’s ridiculous to me that anybody would suggest LeBron would not have had Kobe’s success alongside Shaq or Pau Gasol in their prime, but here we are. The important thing is that Kobe has those victories, and by refusing to alter the way he carries himself, he has created the illusion of his behavior being responsible for those championships.
All of which, I think, is as it should be. Why should we ask Kobe to change? It seems manifestly clear to me that he’s not nearly as interested in winning as he is being perceived as somebody who is only interested in winning; he understand that immortality is really about perception. To which I say: Good. Bravo. Encore. Because there’s room in the league for this. Jackson Pollock produced very few accurate bowls of fruit. There’s room in the league for somebody whose ultimate goal is to use basketball, because it makes the basketball more compelling.
I’m also curious why we’re beginning to criticize this figure in sports. As a cultural artifact, sports don’t really weigh more or less than important fictions, and yet the interest in deconstructing Kobe is way more than it is in deconstructing, say, Don Draper. In fact, Don Draper is sort of the ultimate gunner; he prizes his agenda over the rest of his team, he’s willing to put the product at risk, he cares very little for the feelings of those around him, or at least is willing to be appear that way. Smart people are willing to accept a character like Draper as beguiling whole. Why shouldn’t we do the same for Kobe?
If you’re in the business of making basketball decisions—who to pay how much, who should shoot when—then you should care a great deal about Kobe’s style of…decision making. But if not? If you’re just watching?These are just basketball games, and we watch to be entertained. Kobe understands that winning is a medium of greatness, and he has changed his relationship to the medium. And that’s enough to make sure that I’ll keep watching.