Kobe Bryant is a living legend: Kobe has created this persona by being a player that would do anything to win. And in the process, he’s garnered a reputation as someone who would play through anything.
To Kobe, the phrase, “ball is life,” is not just some cool hip phrase that people like me say when we shoot hoops with our friends. Ball is life is a matter of fact for Kobe. However, many Laker fans realize that Kobe is no longer the player that he once was and perhaps, more importantly, that the 2008 version of Kobe is long gone. Instead, he is in his 19th year at age 35. Playing after tearing his Achilles tendon and fracturing a knee, you can expect the same results for the man, the legend that is Kobe Bryant: the Black Mamba.
Watching Kobe play this season and witnessing his transformation as a player has been a totally different experience. Kobe started off the season virtually shooting the ball every time he had a chance, which isn’t that surprising. But the surprising part was how terrible his shooting had dipped. Kobe was shooting 36%, way below his career average of 45%. To some extent, Kobe has always been a volume shooter, which was acceptable when he was younger because he was making shots and creating plays. Now at age 35, his shooting sprees and combined with his relatively low shooting percentage at 40, only led to the detriment of the team. This became totally unacceptable. Even Kobe admitted that his play at the beginning of the season was unacceptable for his standards. Something had to change if Kobe was going to prove the doubters wrong and help the Lakers win games.
That change came when Kobe began sitting out games because of soreness. Never in a million years would Laker or Kobe fans fathom the notion of Kobe sitting out games or letting himself be told he wasn’t going to be suiting up. Well, on Christmas Day, when Laker fans were hoping to see Kobe go up against his former teammate Pau Gasol, we were told that Kobe would be sitting out his second straight game. Are you kidding me? Kobe isn’t going to be playing on Christmas? That wasn’t very “Christmasy.” It was at that moment when Laker fans, whether delusional or not should’ve known something had changed and it was never going to be the same again. The player, the persona of Kobe Bryant the Black Mamba had to evolve to a player we hadn’t seen before.
When Kobe did return to the court the change was immediate and obvious. Instead of just shooting away nearly every time he touched the ball, he was more passive, looking to get his teammates involved. Kobe was also under a minute restriction of sorts; going forward he was only going play about 32 minutes per game.
Nonetheless, Kobe’s new approach to the game resulted with immediate success on the court. After all, Kobe is one of the best passers in the game when he chooses to be. So it wasn’t as if he had to relearn the game, but rather, he merely summoned up some of his rarely used skills from his immense arsenal. This change in style signified the last chapter of Kobe’s career and this is how he might end up going out.
If you look at this Laker team, Kobe has no friends. Yeah what a shocker, right? Kobe has no friends on the team. Kobe also has no one on the team that he trusts. None of the guys on the team have gone to war with him chasing championships. There is no bond of going through the trenches and going through heartbreaking loses in the playoffs or of sweet victory. Kobe is all alone during his last evolution as a player. There is no Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Brain Shaw, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Shaq or Phil Jackson with him where he can turn to for support. He has found himself alone with the burden of a franchise still on his shoulders. There is no “Vamos Juntos” post on Instagram coming soon. All Kobe has is himself. When you think about it, isn’t that how Kobe would’ve wanted all along?
Kobe has always been a lone wolf. He’s relished being in solitude and being able to prove the doubters wrong. Kobe has been able to will himself and his team to new heights and carry them to the playoffs. However, “will power” has a limit and there are only so many times that “will” alone would be enough.
Seeing Kobe battle Father Time as best as he can reminds me of the movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” when Batman is fighting Bane for the first time. And while Bane proves to be the superior man in the fight, Batman refuses to go down swinging. Then Bane utters the line, “I was wondering what would break first your body or your spirit.”
Kobe’ isn’t the same player and everyone knows that fact. He has lost a step or two. The athleticism is fleeting and the days of him being able to play over 40 minutes consistently aren’t there. But Kobe still has that fight in him. To put it in perspective, Kobe is at the same stage in his career as players like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce. These players have been in the league close to as long as Kobe and none of them is their respective team’s primary scorer. Duncan has Kawhi Leonard, Dirk has Monta Ellis, Vince and Pierce are the sixth man in their respective teams.
Pride is always the last thing to go before the fall and for Kobe his “will power” will be the last to go too. It won’t be pretty to see it happen and no one will feel sorry for him, or for that matter, it doesn’t seem that anyone will feel sorry for the Lakers. It’s the cycle of the NBA since heavy is the head that wears the crown. You can only be on top for so long until it all goes away and you fall. Kobe won’t go down as gracefully as Tim Duncan and that’s exactly how Kobe would’ve wanted it. Kobe will go down in a blaze of glory attempting to obtain the ever fleeting sixth ring. It shall be glorious and an honor to watch Kobe, last of his breed, in his last hurrah.
“Now this is the Law of the Jungle—as old and true as the sky;”
“And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the Law runneth forward and back—
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
-Rudyard Kipling’s “The Second Jungle Book”