It’s not blasphemy, since the man himself said it. Kobe Bryant sucks in 2015. And while the uproar was huge when ESPN ranked the Black Mamba 25th best player in 2013, by now he ranks himself only at 200. Granted, this was a very frustrated Kobe straight after the end of the game and a couple of days later he already suggested he was being judged harder than any other player in the league.
Although that’s probably true, it’s well known that no good deed goes without punishment: he is by far the closest thing to Michael Jordan the world has seen. Not only the style of play and the moves, but also his incredible confidence and will to win are the nearest resemblance of the GOAT. Therefore being judged on a different scale should come as no surprise. Like Michael, he would hold teammates to his own super high standards and in the process psychologically destroy those that didn’t show commitment, even if that meant ending careers. Their relentless single-mindedness when it comes to basketball success never won them any sympathy points and critics regarded them as straight bullies. And whilst that dominant attitude didn’t sit well with some other, more light minded superstars like Shaq or, if you want to call him that, Dwight Howard, it certainly boosted confidence with lesser players. As a teammate you knew if you go the extra mile and work your tail off you have a prime superstar backing you up and bailing you out if necessary. An overwhelming majority appreciates that push-out-of-comfort-zone style, as long as it gives you wins. Just ask Steve Kerr who still regularly thanks Michael Jordan for 3 of his 5 NBA titles.
But to what extent is that approach still viable once the inevitable physical decline sets in? Conventional wisdom suggests shifting more responsibility to younger talents and adopting a mentoring role. However, if archieving the seemingly impossible has become the norm, self-perception adjusts. The Mamba still hopes to dominate the court for 35 plus minutes per game, even after 20 years of wear and tear. That unrealistic superhuman expectation is transferred to the fans and is supported by self-adulating commercials. Consequently the aging body is punished the same way uncommitted teammates were in the past. And like them, it crumbled: ruptured Achilles, fractured tibial plateau and torn rotator cuff are signs of excessive demand.
It’s not the underwhelming efficiency at which he is shooting the ball and not even the sacrifice of young talent like D’Angelo Russell that make the process so painful to watch. By all means, there are other players in the league that play about as selfish with similarly bad efficiency numbers. But they don’t have a legacy as arguably the greatest player in Lakers franchise history to destroy. None of them have an aura of inerrancy surround them like Kobe. His fans still believe that he might be able to adjust and start hitting shots and lead the Lakers to the playoffs. Some delusional souls even have the lakers as dark horse contenders for this season. Their faith resembles that of family members who don’t want to concede the decline of the clan’s patriarch, holding on to immoderate expectations, even though dementia has already taken its toll. The small flashes of brilliance are interpreted as them being their old self again, further encouraging the dominant approach and adding to the vicious cycle.
Let’s hope Kobe finds ways to make his teammates better that don’t involve him taking 20 plus shots. Let’s hope he can find a balance between being there for the big plays and giving the rookies space to grow. It’s unlikely that he will, since he has been in the same situation over 2 years now and failed to make adjustments. He recently reiterated his skewed logic of taking contested shots to teach the young guys focus and intensity, even when they not falling. So we need to expect further games with shooting around 30%, as many shot attempts as passes and the aging superstar unwilling to give in to father time’s superiority. Still, he will go down in basketball history and be a living legend. It’s not unfitting that in the final chapter he couldn’t match his idol, just like the rest of his career. Being great is hard, but being the greatest disproportionally harder.