This article has been submitted by The Imaginary Player, Trevor Smith.
“Be good and you will be lonely”- Mark Twain
Kobe Bryant may be the greatest individual basketball player of all-time. Until very recently, he might also have been called one of the worst teammates the game has ever known. The reality that Bryant possesses undeniably rare singular brilliance as well as a complete disregard for the necessity of teammates made his narrative even more fascinating than it might be otherwise. Faced with the task of describing Kobe in one word, what designation would be most appropriate? Phenom or aloof? Astounding or antisocial? As the Lakers stumbled in the post-Shaq era, it appeared as though Bryant was rehashing Michael Jordan’s career arch, only in reverse. Whereas 23 achieved his greatest successes late in his basketball life by trusting others around him, Kobe and the Lakers won three championships early on via his sacrifice of personal statistics in the name of the greater good. Since then, Mamba has gone a decidedly different route and engaged in a one-man war against the rest of basketball. But as individual records fell and personal accolades stockpiled, the Purple and Gold moved farther and farther away from the pinnacle of basketball achievement. His personal mastery of the sport was detrimental to team success: the rest of the Lakers were so transfixed by his basketball genius that they were often caught watching him rather than playing with him. Bryant was left alone with his personal prestige and his pride. His stature as the game’s greatest player would not buy him victories and all of those points and breathtaking performances did nothing to prevent him from being isolated and desperate. KB24 was a man without a country, wasting the prime of his career on a mediocre team. He pouted, he sulked and he watched as that elusive fourth championship slipped farther away.
“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” – Charles de Montesquieu
When the Lakers refused to trade Mamba this fall, it looked as though he and LA fans alike would have to suffer through a lost season before his evitable move the following summer. Then, something changed. Bynum started playing hard every night, Farmar matured into a stud backup point guard, and all of a sudden, the Lakers’ questionable supporting cast had evolved into a viable unit that had serious prospects for postseason success. Bryant began to believe and after their pummeling of the Suns on Christmas, so did everyone else. Evidently Kobe was not an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, for there would be a second act in his life in Los Angeles. Playing with a renewed passion at both ends of the floor, 24 facilitated others and recognized when it was necessary that he dominate. His team jockeying for position among the ultra-competitive Western Conference elites, Mamba was finally making everyone around him better and trusting his teammates. When Bynum went down on January 13, Lakerland held its collective breath, fearing the season might be lost. Enter Memphis GM Chris Wallace and the inexplicable Gasol heist and now Hollywood’s team looks stronger than ever. Armed with the best teammate he has had since The Big Aristotle took his weight problem to South Beach, Bryant has been locked in with a focus unseen since LA’s last title run. The Spaniard complements Kobe perfectly; his high basketball-IQ and considerably versatile skill set allow him to read and react to Bryant’s movements better than almost anyone. 24 undoubtedly realizes this and has blended with Pau perfectly to create what might be the West’s best 1-2 punch. With Gasol, Kobe has seemingly entered Neo-mode, reading defenses as though they were a matrix of binary code designed for him to splinter. We are still a ways away from Phil Jackson proclaiming him to be The One, but it is reasonable to suggest that Bryant is playing the most complete basketball of his illustrious career. Suns coach Mike D’Antoni summarized the feeling of the league at large in saying, “You’re never going to stop Kobe. He’s just too good.”
“Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude.” – Ralph Marston
The Lakers resurgence has them currently atop the West with a mere 19 games to play and the easiest schedule remaining of the conference’s major powers. This has propelled Bryant into the lead as the most likely candidate for this season’s MVP honors, an award which he has somehow never received despite being the game’s most complete player for almost half a decade. His statistical merits alone this season (28.1PPG, 5.3 APG, 6.1 RPG, 1.97STL) would typically be enough to secure the award, however there is a man-child in Cleveland who says otherwise. With seven triple-doubles to his name and a stat line that is so complete it appears as if it were crafted in a secret government laboratory (30.9PPG, 7.4APG, 8.0RPG, 1.96STL), LeBron James is embarrassing the league and crushing everything in his sight. Surely without his outstanding play, the Cavs would be a cellar-dwelling excuse for a professional basketball team. The argument could easily be made that he would average a triple-double if he had better shooters around him. Despite this, the Maurice Podoloff Trophy simply must find a home in Los Angeles this year. As perfect an offensive weapon as he is, the King does not consistently commit on the defensive side of the ball. With his physical gifts, LeBron should be the best lockdown defender in the NBA, yet he has not put forth the effort and commitment to this facet of his game at this point in his career. Bryant on the other hand will soon be named to his 8th All-NBA Defensive Team. His offensive displays are all the more impressive when one considers that each game he is locking up the other team’s best at the other end. Further, the Lakers success elevates Mamba above James in the MVP pecking order as it has been established (perhaps foolishly) that voters select the best player on the best team, or at the very least a team with true title aspirations, a bill Cleveland does not fit. LeBron James has more God-given talent than any player in the history of professional basketball. His physical abilities and dimensions make him the perfect model of a basketball player, possessing size, speed, athleticism, and coordination in a frighteningly complete package that in unrivaled in modern sport. What His Majesty does not yet possess is Kobe Bean Bryant’s work ethic, killer instinct, and utter and total devotion to the game. Bryant has maximized his potential at every turn and never skipped a step in his development to become the most polished player since Michael Jordan. Right or wrong, Mamba will win the MVP as a type of Lifetime Achievement Award, recognition that he is the most complete player of his generation. In his most recent Nike campaign, LeBron told us that we “do not want to be LeBron James,” that we wanted to be better than him. According to that definition, what we want to be is Kobe Bryant.
“He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.” – Joseph Heller
Bryant smells blood in the water. He recognizes that for the first time in four years, he has a legitimate shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien, and that if he does it will be his first time as the unquestionable leader of a team. Black Mamba Katana is as conscious of his place in the history of the game as any player in the league. He knows that to achieve his stated goal of eventually being considered the best player to ever lace up a pair of Nikes, he must win a minimum of two more championships. The first step in securing that place is to win the respect, fear and admiration of his contemporaries. That part of the bargain seems to already be covered (three rings and 81 point games have a way of doing that to people). Of Kobe, the Orlando Magic’s Rashard Lewis, a player with the league maximum allowable salary, said the following:
“He’s an unbelievable player. He’s God’s gift, something that’s going to flash before our eyes and I don’t think it’s every going to happen again. The only person I can think about he’s catching up with is Michael Jordan.”
As already identified, Bryant is easily the most complex and confusing superstar of his generation. His excellence on the court is trumped only by his puzzlingly complicated persona off of it. Much of the detractions he inherits are self-induced, and he makes a better villain than hero in the eyes of many. But one way or another, Kobe’s basketball immortality is already secure. What he aims for now is something more.
“What I’m doing right now, I’m chasing perfection.”
This Lakers team is not perfect: their team defense is sometimes shaky and they are not yet playoff proven. But for the first time in a long time, they have given reason to believe. And that might just be all Kobe needs come June.
This article has been submitted by The Imaginary Player, Trevor Smith.