Even at his peak, Kobe Bryant made greatness look grueling. He had every gift, every natural blessing — but he made having them look hard. He could do whatever he wanted on a basketball court, but being in charge of that kind of skill was exhausting, and the strain showed. It was as if he had to keep the Amazon flowing with nothing but his own force of will. The scorn he directed at other players — at rivals, at his own teammates — always seemed to come from a place not just of superior ability but also of superior suffering. You call that a river? He defined himself through his talent, but in the sense of someone who takes pride in carrying a heavy burden without mislaying it. He had contempt for anyone whose burden was smaller, or who didn’t take it as seriously; this was why, after he’d made something of himself, he couldn’t go on tolerating Shaq. His stringency and his ferocious responsibility to himself left him sealed inside a closed circle. People wanted to be like Mike. When Kobe came around, they wanted to get the hell out of his way.
He wasn’t humorless, nor was he above showboating. But where Michael Jordan’s little backpedaling shrug was a gift to the crowd, a way of inviting fans in, Kobe’s smirk was a provocation. Jordan knew instinctively that the final inch of dominance was earned through a certain lightness, and he cultivated it as ruthlessly as his jump shot — the tongue-waggling, the pranks at the All-Star Game, the celebrations where he wept unself-consciously or seemed to float in the air. It was theater, but it completed the aura of invincibility; here was an athlete whose supremacy was so unshakable that he could afford to act unconcerned about it. Kobe could never be unconcerned, because unlike Jordan (or LeBron, or Shaq, or Kevin Durant, or Allen Iverson), he didn’t inhabit his talent so much as angrily oversee it. His smile had a way of making moments feel more tense, of ratcheting the stakes to a level at which only he could cope with them. It wasn’t in him to be generous. If you’re Superman, you can have fun flying; if you’re the CEO of Exxon, oil is never a joke.
When Jordan celebrated, you felt that a weight had been lifted from him — and from you, in the act of watching him. Kobe seldom made you feel that way. He gave you catharsis without relief. I remember a game nearly 11 years ago, in April 2004. It was the Lakers’ regular-season finale. Kobe hit a baffling, twisty 3-pointer over Portland’s Ruben Patterson to tie the game at the end of the fourth quarter; then, in double overtime, trailing by two, he got the ball with less than a second left and dropped another 3 to win the game. This was days after he’d scored just eight points against Sacramento in what was widely perceived as a protest against criticism of his shot selection. Now, utterly validated, he reacted with a sort of luxuriant rage, leaning backward into Shaq’s embrace and roaring like his jaw had come unhinged. He wasn’t showing you he could put the weight down. He was taunting you with the fact that he didn’t need to.
Kobe never seemed as dominant as Jordan because, unlike Mike, he refused to recruit us into the construction of his dominance. He couldn’t trust us with it. He had to do it himself, the way he did everything. This made him fascinating, not that he cared. He was a narcissist, but a strangely impersonal narcissist, like a general whose army happens to be deployed inside himself. Over the years, his success, his vivid bitterness, and his adherence to his own impossible standards created this confounding paradox: He made misanthropy look like a key ingredient in a team sport. Or, to see it from the other side: He made a team game look like a viable path to a life of chosen solitude. This was true off the court, too; even his raw, late-night Facebook post after his Achilles tear in April 2013 was about regaining the will to conquer. He could post a video of himself playing the “Moonlight Sonata” and somehow seem more remote. He was America’s social hermit.
Which was fine, of course, as long as he was winning titles and burying heartless midrange daggers and being named MVP. But defiant artistic remove is a quality whose justification requires constant renewal, and athletes’ careers are short. Kobe is 36; the Lakers are terrible. What happens when the most dramatically isolated superstar in basketball starts to fall apart?
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It’s funny, for one thing. It’s always funny when a person’s self-image drastically exceeds the reality, and it’s doubly so when the person is as arrogant as Kobe. The crowd may worship success, but it also accrues small resentments toward athletes who hold themselves aloof. Kobe isn’t precisely hated, but now that success is deserting him, the crowd is happy enough to see his insolence brought to earth. This Lakers season has been a bizarre clinic in bad-tempered screwball, a farce made of missed 15-foot jumpers. He’s shooting under 38 percent, by far the lowest rate of his career; this month, he missed his 13th straight potentially game-tying or go-ahead field goal attempt in the last five seconds of the fourth quarter, his worst stretch of clutch shooting ever. When he hasn’t been clanking buzzer-beaters, Kobe has compared his teammates to toilet paper; lashed out at Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak in practice; wound up in a weird, weird seriocomic feud with Lakers shooting guard Nick “Swaggy P” Young; and generally given the impression of a man whose remaining margin of self-certainty is crumbling by the day. Twitter has watched this breathlessly, gawking at the slow-motion crash. I have, too; it’s irresistible.
I want to make the case, though, that this season has also been a kind of gift. It’s thrown Kobe’s essential qualities into relief. It’s helped us understand him better. That look of hard, mad, small-eyed determination reads a little more starkly when everything is going to pieces than it does up 12 in the Finals. What were the odds, anyway, that Kobe would end up marooned in such a dramatically perfect situation? A tyrant, he’s facing large-scale rebellion; a loner, he’s surrounded by enemies, on his own team and in every arena he enters. The NBA’s most self-willed star, he’s discovering the limits of what his will can do.
Here he is, for instance, trying a first-quarter buzzer-beater against all five of the Sacramento Kings:
It’s comical, because it reflects a towering self-assurance that is also wildly misplaced. But underneath the comedy, it’s also riveting and slightly tragic, because Kobe refuses to be limited by anything but his own idea of himself. We’re all dying on the altar of individualism to some extent; Kobe simply isn’t hedging his bets. And for all that, he almost hit the shot.
Great athletes sometimes find themselves in these clarifying final acts. Shaq retired in a cloud of chummy nonchalance. Jordan went out on a play that completed the perfection of his all-important legacy (and then came back to screw it up, in a move that told us just as much about what drove him). Most of the time, though, careers wind down in ways that mean nothing except that time is passing. Remember Karl Malone in Los Angeles? This season is the distillation of the go-it-alone challenge Kobe set for himself back when O’Neal and Phil Jackson left L.A., or even sooner — Kobe, remember, is the star player who invited none of his teammates to his wedding. (It’s a wonder he invited his wife.) He can’t win, a fact that has no apparent bearing on the fury with which he is trying. We’re seeing Kobe stripped of everything except the will to succeed, a will that persists despite being hopeless. We’re seeing him face his doom with a fearlessness that is ludicrous, profane, and maybe slightly inspiring. We’re seeing the existential Kobe Bryant.
A few months ago, I read The Jungle Book to my 8-year-old niece. She listened with huge eyes to Kipling’s story of talking wolves and vengeful tigers and the Law of the Jungle; as soon as we were finished, she demanded to hear it again. One of the places where her eyes got biggest was the part about Akela, the Lone Wolf, who rules the pack from atop the Council Rock. Do you remember this? It’s silly, like Kobe Bryant, and also kind of moving, like Kobe Bryant. Akela is strong and cunning. But he knows that one day he must lose his strength, and that when that happens, the young wolves will challenge him and pull him down and kill him — which, of course, nearly happens in the course of the story. There’s a lot of talk in basketball about players who are alpha dogs; an October 2013 Sports Illustrated cover depicted Kobe as the last of the breed. But ask my niece what happens when alpha dogs reach the end.
Kobe is alienating because he doesn’t care about dignity. If preserving his sense of who and what he is means ending his career loudly and embarrassingly, he will be as loud and embarrassing as he can. He has severed his ties, imperiously, with the support systems that keep other great players respectable after their skills erode — with teammates, coaches, and executives who could help mask his weaknesses and fawn over him in the press. Nick Young would tear Kobe’s throat out just to appear in this sentence. The role Kobe is playing is one he created for himself. He is showing us what happens when an alpha dog dies ungracefully, the way alpha dogs are supposed to die. It is hilarious and painful to watch, and probably to live, too, although who knows? It can’t be easy.