Note: I wrote this piece on April 15th, 2016.
I cannot recall, in all my years of following sports, a transcendent athlete who was more strenuous to watch than Kobe Bean Bryant. At his absolute peak, he could do whatever he wanted to do on a basketball court. He was certainly one of the most unstoppable scorers I’ve ever seen: the manifestation of a rare blend of graceful athleticism, otherworldly skill, extraordinarily high basketball IQ, and ferocious competitiveness. Yet he made domination seem so stressful, as if having that type of ability was exhausting. It was like he wanted us to know that being great was a privilege that he’d earned, not something he’d been given. Most great athletes – Jordan, LeBron, Tiger, Federer, Serena, Messi, Bolt, etc. – invite us into their dominant worlds with a warm grace; Kobe built a wall around himself and kept us out of his. He created a universe in which everyone was his enemy, and every one of his accomplishments was a cold “Fuck You” to everyone – teammates, rivals, coaches, the media, fans – who ever doubted him.
His psyche was fascinating: equal parts obsessive, compulsive, narcissist, sociopath, and workaholic. It made his game an unnatural paradox. He was a phenomenal passer who chose to not always make the correct pass, a basketball savant who chose to take awful shots, a remarkably smart and charming individual with high emotional intelligence who chose to be a recluse. Kobe had to do everything the hard way: shoot the impossible fadeaway, split the converging double-team, nail the shot with defenders hanging on his jersey. He needed to do all of that simply for the sake of showing everyone the palpable force of his will.
On Wednesday, April 13th, 2016, in his last game ever, he gave us a quintessential Kobe performance. 42 minutes of playing time on a broken body with far too many miles on it, powered by a mind that just wouldn’t quit. 50 shameless shot attempts, the majority of them ball-stopping, contested, and out-of-rhythm. 17 consecutive points for his team in the last six minutes, which capped off a fourth quarter where he outscored the Jazz by himself. 60 total points and a W.
It was, without a doubt, the most grueling 60-point game I’ve ever watched. I sat through the first forty-six minutes of the contest, the outcome of which was virtually meaningless, and watched as one of the greatest players to ever touch a basketball was given the greenest of lights to shoot as much as he pleased. It was absurd and, after a few air-balls, quite painful, almost tragic. This isn’t the way Kobe should go out.
But suddenly, with the game beginning to wind down, the shots started to go in. One after another after another. And when he rose up for one final vintage pull-up dagger from just within the 3-point line, I knew it was going to go in. Everyone knew.
That’s the beauty of Kobe Bryant. His game had its flaws – certainly, he had his flaws – but he often did things that were so amazingly spectacular that you forgot about them. He constantly fluctuated between imperfect human and basketball deity. He dared to chase impossible standards, and worked so hard that sometimes you almost believed he could reach them. He was an alpha dog in the purest sense of the term, a calculated genius, and a fiery competitor. He was ludicrous and profane, yet tremendously inspiring. He was one of a kind, a truly special athlete and human being.