I still have dreams of playing basketball. I mean that literally. In them I’m usually a kid again, or younger in any case, with a strong drive to accomplish something, but each time I feel bogged down. Come to think of it, I often have dreams that involve some physical activity, like playing ball or fleeing someone or getting in a fight (the ego, superego, and id of my unconscious state, apparently). And each time they occur I feel like I’m in slow motion, compromised in my ability to accomplish the task at hand, even though I know what it takes to get the job done, which almost makes the frustration of not being able to do it that much worse.
I wonder if this is how Kobe Bryant feels now. Being an ageing basketball superstar can’t be easy, and from a spectator’s standpoint it sure hasn’t looked easy. After all, not only is Bryant ageing, but he’s physically deteriorating. The torn Achilles tendon that he suffered in 2013 proved to be an appropriate injury, setting into motion the beginning of the end of his long career. Despite returning from that injury, he fractured his left knee six games later, which would eventually sit him out for the remainder of the 2013-2014 season. He once again returned from injury for the 2014-2015 season, only to tear the rotator cuff in his right shoulder a few months later. Throughout his career, he exhibited a somewhat freakish knack of playing effectively through injury (he played the second half of the 2009-2010 season with a splint on his broken right index finger, and won a championship in the process), but this recent string of injuries was showing its effects on the court. The ironic thing is that I spent years of my childhood mimicking his motions, dreaming that I could play like him; now with the growing chasm between his mental fortitude and his physical ability, he might be starting to resemble me in my dreams.
Every fan has a favourite player, and growing up, mine was Kobe Bryant, who is currently playing his last season in the National Basketball Association. After twenty seasons playing the game professionally, Kobe Bryant will finally retire. People knew it was coming—it’s common sense, after all, that everyone must retire—yet it still came as a shock to many followers of the game, especially Bryant’s fans. After all, for fans of my generation and younger (who uncoincidentally make up an enormous part of the NBA’s fan base), they’ve never known an NBA without Kobe Bryant. This phenomenon is even more shocking considering the fact that Bryant is not just any other player. The legacy he’ll eventually leave behind will of course be largely built on his achievements, but his enigmatic, myth-building public persona could very well make his legacy stand out as unique. And that’s no small feat, especially in an organisation with its own Hall of Fame, an organisation who perpetuates its popularity through celebrating its past, present, and future stars.
So what exactly makes Bryant different? Well, the interesting thing about professional sports, particularly the way we fans, both children and adults alike, look up to professional athletes, is how little we know about them, which contrastly leads to how much we project onto them. This statement of course operates under the understanding that most professional athletes don’t have high-profile marriages, a reality television show, or have in any other case “crossed over” (pun intended?) into any other entertainment realm outside of their sport. Aside from a very brief dalliance in pop music (the likes of which even Bryant probably shakes his head upon recalling), Bryant falls under this category, and perhaps this is what has always made him compelling. For a certifiable NBA superstar, Bryant’s enigma has paradoxically stood out through his peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. He’s the Prince of professional basketball. What little we know gets inflated; as fans and curious observers, we latch on to what we can, and then we make up the rest.
Sure, to a Lakers fan, Bryant has been a superhero. And sure, to a Celtics fan (or a Spurs fan, or a Kings fan, or a Blazers fan, or a Suns fan), he has been a supervillain, but to the rest of basketball’s fan base he was neither so much as he was a spectacle. Even early in his career, Bryant possessed sound basketball fundamentals (which he attributed to a childhood spent in Italy, playing with European players as opposed to American ones) that complemented rather formidably his athleticism. The first half of his career followed the trajectory of “the second coming of Michael Jordan.” (Bryant himself, especially during his first years in the league, believed the hype, and he would be criticised as a ballhog in trying to prove it.) It was a storyline that, while flattering, has become more and more trite as sports analysts have dubbed countless young men “the second coming of Michael Jordan” both before and after Kobe Bryant (and they will continue to do so, probably as long as there is professional basketball).
The second half of Bryant’s career, however, has been defined by his ability to overcome adversity—attacks on both his character and his body—and come out on top through, it would seem, the sheer willpower of a proven champion. Or a robotic obsessive compulsive. (He has been regarded as both.) For all the (accurate) accusations of “copying” Michael Jordan (even to the point of almost sounding like him in early interviews), Jordan still exuded a wholehearted humanity, a dispatch that Bryant seemed to care very little about. He wasn’t a wholesome role model like Jordan, nor a PR-stunting bad boy like Dennis Rodman, nor a comedic ham like Shaquille O’Neal. He was a new character for the NBA’s millennial era, defined by coldness. And it was a character that Bryant came to embrace, own, and eventually market.
One time I sat in on a poetry workshop where someone read a poem about Allen Iverson, a longtime guard for the Philadelphia 76ers and, some might say, the league’s most controversial player of the late nineties through the mid-naughts. I should define “controversial” in both Iverson’s and Bryant’s contexts, because they mean different things, even though each is closely related to the other. In fact, for much of their respective careers (Iverson came into the league the very same year that Bryant did, and he retired in 2013), the two players shared an interesting parallel connexion, at times contentious, and always competitive. Their personal stories often tangled in interesting ways, too—ways that would crop up in courtside commentary and profile pieces throughout their years playing against one another.
When the poet finished reading, the workshop’s critique morphed a bit into a discussion about basketball. I was the lone Californian in a room otherwise full of East Coasters and Midwesterners or, in other words, Iverson supporters and lifelong Bulls fans who’ve dismissed Bryant as nothing more than a “Jordan bootleg.” (The writer who used the phrase, however, did add, “Although, if you’re gonna bootleg anyone, you won’t find a better person to bootleg.”) At first, I found the overall Kobe-bashing surprising (I hadn’t spent that much on the East Coast at that point), but after some thought, it started to make a bit more sense.
Bryant was born in Philadelphia and played basketball at Lower Merion High School, located in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a west Philly suburb. Even though Philly was his hometown, Bryant was very much an everywhere kid. His father, Joe Bryant, was also a professional basketball player and moved his family to Italy to play in a European league when Kobe was only six. While his family moved back to Philadelphia about seven years later, the young teenager had to re-acclimate to American customers and was often ostrasised by his classmates. It seemed to be the kind of outsiderism that his burgeoning basketball skills would only exacerbate as an adult.
Somewhat alternatively, Iverson, grew up facing harsher obstacles, such as serving four months in prison for a bogus charge at the age of seventeen and having to spend his senior year of high school in a private school for at-risk students. These hardships made Iverson’s rise through the ranks of college basketball, along with being selected the top pick of the 1996 draft (Bryant was selected at #13) and resurrecting the 76ers franchise in the late nineties, all the more impressive. Despite growing up in Virginia, Iverson’s accomplishments, along with a demeanor and attitude that only youthful hardship can inform, embodied the Philly spirit to most Philadelphians, who chose him as the face of Philadelphia basketball over the more middle-class representation of blackness that Bryant exuded early on (a nonthreatening, poster-friendly, sponsorship-backed kind of blackness, the same Wheaties-safe quality that Jordan possessed, one that all but went away following Bryant’s sexual assault case in 2003, which I will discuss later on.)
But this is what I mean about controversy. Sure, Iverson played some part in generating controversy during his career (a 1997 gun possession charge probably the most serious, although even that wasn’t discussed nearly as much as his reputation as a ball hog and the infamous press conference about not showing up for practice). His prison stint also stigmatised his character and demeanor. Still many of the reasons Iverson was considered controversial were actually generated by the press, who often thought of him as the anti-Kobe, a tattoo-covered, cornrowed, baggy-shorts- wearing thug whose ballhogging tendencies exhibited, or were indicative of, a selfishness in character, the kind of world-is-yours selfishness you hear about in a lot of those rap songs kids were listening to. Iverson wasn’t so much controversial as he was misunderstood, and he wasn’t so much misunderstood as he was misrepresented, because to be misunderstood often suggests that people tried to understand you and failed. With Iverson, few even tried.
It was all the more reason for not only Philadelphia but every NBA fan who has ever felt misrepresented or mistreated because of how they looked to root for Iverson. When his 76ers faced Bryant’s Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals, it was less 76ers v. Lakers as it was Iverson v. the World, and instead of Iverson being the anti-Kobe, Bryant became Iverson’s foil. In picking Iverson, Philly had dismissed Bryant as an opportunist, someone who repped Philly to obtain the street cred he had lost when gaining sponsorships and appearing in kids programmes.
Despite all that, Bryant’s Lakers would beat Iverson’s 76ers that year, and Iverson would struggle and fail to match that high point for the rest of his career. Bryant, on the other hand, was improving year by year and, despite an army of detractors, still lauded for his talent and ability to contribute to championship teams. But his public standing took an unexpected turn in 2003, when he was arrested and accused of sexual assault. The allegation was filed by a hotel worker in Colorado, who claimed that she was raped by Bryant in his hotel room. The charges were eventually dropped and a civil suit was settled out of court, but in the process of the ordeal Bryant lost notable multi-million-dollar endorsements from companies that no longer wanted to be associated with him. (One company, Nike, never severed its ties with Bryant but refused to use his image or promote his shoes for two years.) Because of his status as a professional athlete, his tarnished reputation failed to gain solace on the basketball court, either. Even if they wanted to, commentators struggled to avoid the topic at the mention of his name. Furthermore, the case was only one of a few off-court distractions for the Lakers that following season. It would be Shaquille O’Neal’s last season as Bryant’s teammate and Phil Jackson’s last season (although he would later return) as Bryant’s head coach, both integral parts of the Lakers’ past successes, both claiming indirectly that Bryant’s long-standing reputation as a selfish player were big reasons for their departures. On top of it all, the Lakers eventually lost in the Finals to the Detroit Pistons at the end of that season, a death knell that marked the end of Bryant’s success as we knew it at that point.
In February 2015, Showtime Networks aired Kobe Bryant’s Muse, a documentary that featured a remarkably disarmed Bryant speaking candidly about the darkest moments in his career. To my knowledge, it was the first time Bryant has commented, explicitly and publicly, on the ramifications of his sexual assault case. Over the course of his career, a lot has been made of his private, guarded nature (the tagline for Kobe Bryant’s Muse is “A Legend Unguarded”), partly because it seemed true and he left very little for the media to probe. In the wake of his arrest and pending trial, the media had a field day. And while sexual assault isn’t as rare in the world of professional sports as one would hope or expect it to be, sports media in general (and professional basketball media in particular) aren’t trained for such journalism, which is part of the reason why sports media coverage on such issues tends to go very badly (victim blaming and discrediting immediately come to mind, not to mention the sense of privilege that only a predominantly male community such as the sports world can undoubtedly foster). Bryant’s story was no exception, but the fact that little was known about his personal life at that time (other than the fact that he was married and his wife was expecting their first child) seemed to create more room for speculation.
I remember watching an emotional Kobe Bryant speaking before members of the media at a press conference, holding his wife’s hand, maintaining his innocence but admitting fault to consensual adultery. It was the first and only time I recall him addressing the incident (until, of course, the documentary twelve years later). After the charges were dropped and the basketball world slowly refocused on Bryant’s activity on the court rather than off it, the incident was rarely mentioned, not during game commentary and certainly not directly during interviews (yet the ordeal would almost always be mentioned in profile and think-pieces on him; I seem to recall one piece that said something along the lines of: “When Bryant dies, all his obituaries will mention his sexual assault case in the second paragraph”).
Watching Bryant discuss that particular episode of his life in Kobe Bryant’s Muse was surprising. I certainly didn’t know about the miscarriage that Vanessa Bryant suffered in 2005, which Bryant himself seemed to attribute to the stress from the case’s fallout. He also disclosed that the Black Mamba, the on-court alter-ego that he adopted throughout the second half of his career, was a direct coping mechanism against the backlash, the taunts and jeers from attendees in the stands. Upon the moniker’s initial ascendance, Bryant cited Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies as its inspiration. That seemed obvious. What didn’t seem obvious, perhaps to everyone but Bryant himself, was that the Black Mamba was a helmet, or maybe more so a mask, to put on during battle and tune everything else out. Eventually it would outgrow even that purpose and become a vehicle that would make critics regard him in a way not many others have been regarded before, and that included Jordan and Iverson.
Bryant’s acrimonious split with all-star teammate Shaquille O’Neal and the departure of head coach Phil Jackson, both in 2004, saw the end of the Lakers championship dynasty, of which Bryant was a huge part. The following three years saw Bryant in relative isolation, in some respect a physical manifestation of the isolation one could assume Bryant had been feeling personally, and many critics doubted that Bryant, deemed “uncoachable” by Jackson at that time and still considered a ballhog who would never surpass Jordan’s greatness, could win a championship as the Lakers’ sole leader. With a chip on his shoulder but hardly any team support, Bryant went on a three-year-long scoring spree with little to no acknowledgement of anyone around him, teammate or opponent, friend or foe. This was what the Black Mamba was: cold-blooded, territorial, and venomous. It was an easy idea to transfer onto the basketball court, and onto Bryant the basketball player. He was feared and formidable, liable to strike with precision in any situation, and cold-blooded when it came to humility or civility, including his teammates and coaching staff. “I had to organise things,” Bryant says in the documentary, “so I created the Black Mamba. So Kobe had to deal with these issues, all these personal challenges. The Black Mamba steps on the court and does what he does. It was just, ‘Fuck everyone.’ I’m destroying everybody that steps on the court.” It was a spectacle of almost superhuman proportions, solidifying the certainty of Bryant’s individual prowess, which was always footnoted with the fact that his style of playing, impressive though it may be, would never result in a championship.
A profile piece on Bryant that appeared in the 31 March 2014 issue of The New Yorker pointed out, quite accurately in my assumption, that “in retrospect… 2008 marked the beginning of Bryant’s maturation.” Not only did Phil Jackson return as the Lakers’ head coach, but Bryant’s Black Mamba persona was, inadvertently, winning back some of the fans he might’ve lost in the fallout of the sexual assault case. Though it is arguably easy now to deduce that Bryant was airing out dirty laundry during the Black Mamba’s formative years, many basketball fans simply enjoyed watching Bryant’s new bad guy performance. His superhuman ability, always in danger of going down the wrong tube as a Jordan bootleg, was much easier to swallow, and much more fun to hyperbolise, once it belonged to a supervillain. The Black Mamba carried all the fearsome mystique of Boba Fett or Darth Vader.
Bryant’s myth-building added another layer of impenetrability, which I can assume suited him just fine. Bryant may have created the Black Mamba as a coping mechanism (an “offense” mechanism in his case), but the dark cloak was also tailor-made for media and corporate sponsors to latch onto. The Lakers’ return to the top of the NBA class coincided roughly with Bryant’s, or should I say the Black Mamba’s, increasing appearances in commercials and promotional campaigns. The clever ones, more often than not those tasked to sell his basketball shoes, capitalised on the Black Mamba persona by incorporating it into premises and storylines. (The most memorable example of this was a Nike commercial that featured Bryant jumping over a speeding Aston Martin. The video went viral and brought forth the debate of whether the stunt was fake or whether Bryant actually did it, a notion that only the Black Mamba could pass off as plausible.) Myth-building not only turned into moneymaking but also created an opening for fans to believe that they finally understood who Bryant was, even if the supposed answer was otherworldly.
After Bryant announced last November that the current NBA season, his 20th, would be his last, his Lakers were about to embark on an eight-game road trip. As a result, the road trip became a farewell tour of sorts, with fans in different cities relishing their chance to see Bryant play in their home arenas for the last time. Altogether it was a celebratory function, an odd association for Bryant, who up until that point made the concerted effort to hush boos from opposing fans by beating their teams senseless. Maybe it would’ve been different if he and the Lakers could still do that; although, now that I mention it, if he and the Lakers could still do that, maybe he wouldn’t be retiring. (After all, in the numerous interviews Bryant has given since his retirement announcement, he has cited his physical deterioration, as well as his body’s inability to carry out what his mind feels he still should, as the main reason he is hanging his jersey up.) Or maybe fans are celebrating the realisation that the Black Mamba had already retired, and what they have left to enjoy is Bryant himself, an ageing basketball player who, it turns out, is human after all.