What startles most about Kobe Bryant is his longevity. He has played in the NBA for twenty years. Few, if any, have played so well for so long. But longevity was also Kobe’s curse. He lasted into an era that had no use for him, an anachronism. By the time he won his last two championships, he was already being eclipsed by a player (LeBron) who was historically better.
Late Kobe, like late Hemingway, was a throwback to himself. The violent jabstep; the crossover and pump-fake; the heedless drive into the lane against multiple defenders before the nervous retreat into the fadeaway, his body hinging and snapping, his oversized jersey billowing, his shot—more likely than not—clanging out. What once seemed like a kind of vicious genius became what it perhaps always was: theatrical, ritualistic gestures toward a game that no one played any more, and with reason. Kobe was playing “Kobe,” the teenager who came into the league in mourning for Jordan, the obviously greater figure. In Los Angeles, where I am from, these things were virtually impossible to admit. When I left, in the middle of the first championship run, the hatred and disdain for Kobe were, to me, bewildering. What to others was obvious was simply unconscionable to the Lakers faithful.
The era of analytics has not been kind to him, and histories written with the statistics in mind will be merciless. PER, VORP, plus/minus: all give us a Kobe who was never the best player in the league and often bad for his team. His murderous, self-regarding instincts, once seen as assets, now seem as venal and risible as the nicknames he had to give himself because he had few friends, as unnatural as the way he shoved out his jaw and bared his lower teeth after improbably sinking one of his low percentage jump shots. Scrutinizers will continue to point out the selfless masters who didn’t or won’t enjoy Kobe’s long sendoff: the doe-eyed Tim Duncan; Kevin Garnett, another straight-out-of-high-school great; the tragic Steve Nash, possessed of possibly the worst haircut in the history of the sport, deprived of his ring by the infamous hip check from the malicious Robert Horry (who undeservedly has seven). These figures were transformative in a way Kobe will prove not to be. Several of them, unlike Kobe, were even nice guys. Basketball goes through paradigms, and today’s is exemplified by the old Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs, who paved the way for the Golden State Warriors. At once commanding and perpetually out of his time, an unknowable man and a player with few followers or imitators, Kobe will remain a fixture of the annals of the game, but somehow unplaceable.
And yet basketball is also, chiefly, an entertainment, and not a single player who is statistically “better” than Kobe has been as glorious to watch. He was a sociopath, and his deep-seated contempt drove him to become one of the most beautiful athletes. The comparison with Duncan, an incomparably nicer man and better teammate, is instructive. Though Duncan may end up being accounted the greater player, I am with those who find his post-up, bank-shot style a chore to watch. Very few, even the haters, have felt this way about Kobe in his prime. Every now and again, in my frequent moments of Kobe-doubt, I find myself rewatching one of those YouTube compilations of “Top Ten Kobe Clutch Shots” to regain my faith. Comparing his various off-balance threes to close out games of Stephen Curry’s, the most sublime of shooters, shows the superiority of the latter’s game—his halfcourt arcs slicing through the air like a knife through bean curd, with unprecedented ease—but also the peculiar inimitability of Kobe’s.1 Never a serene figure, Kobe was nonetheless, at the end of games, often an ineffably calm one, able to turn his solipsism into a source of strength.
It was also, of course, destructive, on the court and in life. It’s curious how few post-mortems have mentioned the 2003 sexual assault case that, had it taken place in an era of social media, would have sunk his career. I have long wanted to forget it myself—reveling instead in the charming, smiling Kobe who handled press conferences in passable Spanish and excellent Italian—but in the cavalcade of praise that has attended his prolonged exit, it ought to be remembered. His lawyers defamed and tarred the accuser, questioning her sexual history, making it impossible for her to testify, artificially closing the case in favor of the accused. It was one among the ways Kobe sought to “eviscerate” his opponents.
I have seen Kobe many times, mostly from the nosebleeds in the cavern of the Staples Center with its sapped, lethargic fans, in a posture of fervent belief and adoration that has slowly given way to a public defensiveness and a private sense of pain. The last time I saw him was in Philadelphia, where he was born, and where he returned to play his first game after announcing his retirement via poem. Many were wearing the number 33 Lower Merion jersey, from the rich suburban high school where he first came to coaches’ attention, and then the world’s. Once again I looked at him with a feeling of pride and gratitude, not unmixed with regret and sadness, and as he sped out and made his first three shots with a kind of surpassing, divine ease that comes only from monomaniacal devotion, there was a moment when it seemed like nothing had changed: he was still the same, he should never retire. He proceeded to go 7-for-26 against the 76ers, a team so bad it can hardly be called professional, helping to hand them their first victory of the season. Last night, with his 60 points off of 50 shots, he was once again spectacular, nonpareil, and somewhat ridiculous and deeply self-absorbed. I couldn’t forget that I loved and revered him, and it was through tears that I watched him exit through the tunnel for the last time, somehow relieved after all that it was over.
An earlier version of this article omitted the mention of the knife—our vegetarian readers will recognize the pleasure and facility suggested by the image—causing many people to wonder how a basketball passing through a block of tofu evoked effortless tranquility. We regret the metaphor. —The Editors ↩