Sports

Firn ’16: Kobe Bryant versus Father Time

By
Sports Columnist
Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Despite concerted efforts to hate him and the uniform he wears, I’ve always been in complete awe of Kobe Bryant. It’s the intensity, the competitiveness and the drive. Even the cold arrogance speaks to a certain admirable quality — there have never been any bells and whistles with Kobe. He didn’t need to craft a marketable persona with charming press conferences and cute commercials. The man simply wants to excel.

But after suffering his third consecutive season-ending injury, Bryant is finally facing his NBA mortality. After years of shouldering the load, his body is breaking down, and his skills are eroding. What we’re left with is a world-class talent stripped of everything but a burning, hopeless will to succeed. For all the records, highlights and controversies that have marked his career, it’s this tragic final act that brings us the most fascinating Kobe storyline yet.

Most careers wind down unremarkably. Time passes, and players age. Stars become progressively less relevant before fading away into retirement. The spotlight swings to the next up-and-comer.

Kobe’s story, on the other hand, can be told with a bit more narrative flair. All those killer instincts that once made him a king are now the driving forces behind his stubborn decline. His alpha dog mentality makes him dominate the ball on every possession. His defiance makes him hoist dozens of low percentage shots from all over the floor. His determination compels him to log heavy minutes that his body can’t handle.

Hero-ball was fine as long as he was winning titles and MVP awards, but when the league changed, Kobe didn’t. Now, the strengths that brought five championship banners to Los Angeles have become weaknesses.

Tragically and comically, Kobe’s attempts to reassert his claim as one of the NBA’s top dogs are only pushing him further out of the conversation. In a league characterized evermore by efficiency, Bryant relies increasingly on volume. He is a remnant of an outdated brand of basketball that no longer yields results in a rapidly evolving and smarter NBA landscape. He’s still incredibly skilled — perhaps no other player in the world can make as many difficult shots as Kobe. But these days, few other players are even taking them.

By now you know that the numbers are ugly: Advanced metrics insist that the Lakers are better on both sides of the ball without their superstar. Even though Kobe wants to win more than anyone else, he can’t accept that his ways aren’t best for the team.

When asked about taking so many shots, Bryant explained to ESPN, “I’d rather not have to do that, but you can’t just sit back and watch crime happen in front of you.” The ultimate control freak, Kobe refuses to place his team, his career or his legacy in anyone else’s hands.

The maddening part is that we’ve seen enough of Kobe to envision the path he could’ve taken. When he takes off the superhero cape, Bryant is both an artist and genius on the basketball court. Once in a blue moon, he posts 16 assists and we think his game is evolving. But the next night he shoots 8-of-27, and the Lakers lose by 30. 

Kobe loves to win but only on his own terms. “You think I’d hang around and average 18 points, 19 points? Hell no,” he told ESPN. Meanwhile, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are kissing their championship trophies.

Equal parts flash and fire for the better portion of two decades, Bryant is capable of pretty much anything with a basketball in his hand. It wouldn’t surprise me if he returned to the floor next season with a chip on his shoulder and a spring in his step. I think we’re nearing the end of Kobe’s basketball reign, but I can’t be sure.

But even if he’s worse than ever next year and the Lakers don’t win a game, the world won’t stop watching. It’s like Kobe’s car drove fast and crashed hard, and I can’t look away from the grisly scene. For years, Kobe Bryant was a lion, and we were all sheep. What happens when the lion can no longer hunt?


Mike Firn ’16 wants to give his Patriots a shout out. Congratulate him at 
michael_firn@brown.edu.

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  • Robert

    You’re off-base when you suggest Kobe is an inefficient relic of a hero-ball past. The truth is, in his prime, Kobe was a extremely efficient scorer and many of the league’s premier players now play his style.

    I’m talking about the new generation of scoring point guards. Guys like Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, and especially Russell Westbrook who dominate the entire offensive area with their limitless skillsets and unstoppable athleticism. These guys play much more like Kobe than Stockton or Kidd, and they’re taking over the league.

    A healthy Bryant would fit right in with today’s crop of super athletic guards. And he would be the best of them. He was the pioneer behind the scorer as point guard (see his role in the triangle with Shaq) and three point bomber and rim shaking finisher. And his free throws always kept his efficiency extremely high (between 55-58 TS%).

    • Firn ’16

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. No doubt Kobe was efficient in his prime — but only because he was a crazy skilled player who hits crazy skilled shots with crazy efficiency. His particular brand of basketball is inherently not efficient. He just had the skills and the body to make it work. Now, he doesn’t, and his refusal to adapt has killed his team.

      You’re right in that there are some incredibly talented players in the league right now who can be assets to their teams by dominating the ball. But in general, NBA success is increasingly trending away from Kobe-ball and toward James Harden-ball. Westbrook plays with “Mamba Blood” (an actual Kobe quote) and is certainly capable of taking over a game, but he’s gotten a lot of criticism throughout his career for hijacking possessions away from Durant and the rest of OKC’s talented core.

      My main point basically boils down to the fact that Kobe has refused to evolve as his own skills and the league’s composition has changed. Other aging stars like Duncan, Nowitzki, and KG (circa 2008) adapted their games to compensate for declining abilities, and all 3 won titles in the twilights of their respective careers. By contrast, Kobe’s usage rate was 2nd highest in the league before he tore his rotator cuff – that’s an objectively crazy stat for a guy shooting 37% from the field, regardless of the strength of his supporting cast.