It’s just after 11 p.m. on what couldn’t be more than an ordinary day. Kobe Bryant sits in the Los Angeles Lakers‘ locker room gently lacing up his signature shoes. Dressed in sweatpants and a Nike long sleeve T-shirt, Bryant walks into the weight room. Listening to nothing but silence, Bryant is alone, save for the camera crew. At this point, they’re invisible to him.
My brain cannot process failure. It will not process failure. Because if I have to sit there and face myself and tell myself, ‘You are a failure,’ that’s almost worse than death.
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Leg presses, calf raises, weighted calf raises, Bryant mercilessly works his body at an hour where most are asleep or at home with their loved ones. Such was the life of rehabbing a torn Achilles.
Though this routine appears only once in his documentary Muse, it’s hard to imagine Bryant not doing this every night he could.
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More than a year of rehab later, Bryant was back on the court, setting the NBA record for most missed shots in a career, and more significantly, passing Michael Jordan for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in the form of a free throw, the same way he scored his first point in the league.
Kobe Bryant is a dramatist of sorts. His flare for the dramatic and his win-or-die attitude were perfectly summed up in Muse‘s final words:
“My brain cannot process failure. It will not process failure. Because if I have to sit there and face myself and tell myself, ‘You are a failure,’ that’s almost worse than death.”
But it’s not just image-generated drama that Kobe Bryant lives off, it’s the drama generated from his narrative of greatness, his story. And in this coming season, we may very well witness Kobe’s final chapter on the basketball court.
Though I watched Michael Jordan and was alive for some of his greatest moments, much of his career, especially his scoring and athletic prime, was before my time.
Kobe Bryant is my Michael Jordan.
For many people, their Jordan is LeBron James. But, for me, it wasn’t just the fact that Kobe mimicked much of Jordan’s game (in reality, he only mimicked the moves of the 1996-98 version of Jordan; Bryant never had younger MJ’s athleticism or style of play).
It was the fact that Kobe gave his heart and soul every night on the court, it was the fact that after every offseason, he seemed to come back with something new in his arsenal, it was the fact that despite every on-the-court or off-the-court issue in his career, he never stopped trying.
Because I want to see if I can.
Kobe always seemed so human. Jordan and LeBron are supremely athletic deities, built like Greek gods and gifted with athleticism that would surely translate to any sport. It’s not to say Kobe wasn’t athletic; he definitely was elite in every facet of athleticism in his younger days, it’s just that he never seemed to rely on it too heavily.
All of his moves, even when he was young, were so skillful, so pure, as if he was playing basketball the way it was meant to be played. And now, in his final days, skill is almost all he has.
After sitting out most of last season with a torn rotator cuff, health and age are major concerns for the Laker legend. Last season Bryant played 35 games, averaging 22.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game on horrendous shooting splits of 37 percent from the field and 29 percent from deep.
Many thought it was over, that Bryant was no longer the player he once was. And it’s true to some extent. Kobe has limitations that he simply cannot overcome, as much as he tries. Perhaps that’s why LeBron and Jordan have always looked so immortal, any limitation they’ve ever had has been shored up by their impressive physique or durability. Kobe no longer has either of those.
More than that, Bryant finds himself on an, at best, middling Lakers’ team with nothing more than an outside shot at the eighth seed in a fiercely competitive Western Conference. He is surrounded with mostly unproven youth in Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle and media-beleaguered veterans in Nick Young, Lou Williams and Roy Hibbert.
It almost seems a disservice to both him as a player and a dramatist to surround him with such a lackluster cast for what could be his final performance. But part of it also couldn’t have been scripted any better.
In “Kobe: The Interview”, he discusses exactly why he’s attempting to rehab his torn rotator cuff and get himself back to full health: “Because I want to see if I can.”
For Kobe Bryant, we’ve seen him turn “if I can” into “I just did” time and time again.
He scored 62 points to the Dallas Mavericks’ 61 in just three quarters.
He scored 81 points in a single game.
He went to three straight Finals as “the man” and won back-to-back titles after so many people said he would never win without Shaquille O’Neal.
He singlehandedly willed the Lakers to the playoffs in 2012-13 before ultimately succumbing to his Achilles’ injury.
Blue Man Hoop
He has done so much over the course of his career, and it’s sad to see it coming to an end. I know I’ll be devastated when number 24 hangs it up for good. Because it won’t just be about an all-time great retiring. It won’t just be about my Michael Jordan never suiting up again.
It’ll also be about a man who has lived his NBA life constantly seeing if he can, a man who has spent more of his life in the league than out of it, finally admitting that he can’t.
And yet, before that day comes, we still have this last chapter, however long or short it may be. A playoff berth with this supporting cast would be the icing on the cake of a storied career. Yes, it is unlikely, and the odds are definitely stacked against Kobe and the Lakers in every sense of the phrase.
But now it’s our turn, Kobe. We want to see if you can.
For all your doubters, there are still believers, believers in your fire, in your pure competitive will, something that doesn’t even make any logical sense or show up on a stat sheet. And even though that flame is fading, there is also still hope, for a candle burns brightest at the end of its wick.
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