Friday, November 28, 2008

Macrophenomenal Kobe

(Below is excerpted from Free Darko's The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. It is about Kobe Bryant, from the chapter on "Master Builders", a group "For whom dominance has become a truism.")
Check the resume—it's absolutely impeccable. A 6'6" shooting guard with limitless physical tools, a hell-bent perfectionist, he works tirelessly to condition his body and enhance his game. He's fearless in the clutch, voraciously competitive, and serious to the point of bleakness.

You couldn't script a more stellar career, or offer up a stronger candidate for the league's all-around finest. And yet no superstar has cut a stormier path than Kobe Bean Bryant. Kobe may be the Great American Shooting Guard—and indeed, he has spent his whole life aspiring to this kind of abstract dignity. But just as Moby Dick defines our national literature despite its rollicking imperfections, Kobe's drives and desires have made him equal parts pristine legend and unwieldy mess of humanity.

Paired with Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe was supposed to bring on a new Lakers golden age—and he did, once Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson stepped into the scene. However, Kobe and Shaq could not have been more different, and eventually clashed because of it. The world saw the three-peat, but inside the Lakers, tensions came to a simmer, especially when Shaq's conditioning and work ethic flagged. Many read this as Kobe's ego crying out, dying to take control of the team. But it was just as likely his deep-seated sense of justice.

A certain duality has always been present in his game: Kobe is both the league's smartest player and one of its most impulsive. Once, Bryant was a propulsive slasher with an uncommon midrange game. Now, when he's met by a defender, the curtain rises on an interaction of frightening detail and determination. Only Tim Duncan is as adept at milking every single square inch of space, in a precise, Terminator-like assessment of complex obstacles. But for Duncan, the action's near the basket, and the shots—aided by Duncan's height—tend to resolve into something fairly routine. Kobe, operating all over the floor, doesn't take the simple shot, throw up prayers, or gamble on his pride. He figures out how to make the impossible shot viable, going out of his way to demonstrate his superiority.

During the Lakers' lean years, Bryant struggled with his own inability to make an inferior team into a winner. In May 2007, after being ousted in the first round of the playoffs yet again, Bryant exploded, telling any and all media outlets that he wanted out of L.A. Rumors abounded, and several important-sounding meetings took place, but that fall Kobe was still a Laker. He was chummier than ever with his teammates, and had made a point of reaching out to Bynum, who suddenly blossomed, before being waylaid by injuries. The Lakers swung a one-sided deal for Memphis big man Pau Gasol and suddenly possessed the West's most imposing line-up, taking them straight to the Finals.

What exactly had happened between spring and fall? Had Kobe lost control, let out his frustration, and then thought better of it? Was it all a Machiavellian public relations coup on the part of Bryant, who ended up getting the help he wanted? Had he set foot in camp and instantly realized that Bynum was ready to contribute? Did he actually feel betrayed by the organization, emotionally wounded, or just irritated that they'd impeded his still-vital career?

We'll never know the real answer. But most likely, there's a grain of truth in all corners. And that's why Kobe Bryant would fascinate us even if he weren't the world's best basketball player. For in addition to his mastery of basketball—the kind of catch-all supremacy that's led him to pick up Duncan's bank shot—Bryant's also a study in what happens when the drives and desires of greatness fly off the rails and exposes all of its inherent contradictions. To his detractors, Kobe Bryant is Dracula: a spooky, inhuman being that gets s**t done. Starstruck fans regard him as the epitome of glitz, glam, and accomplishment. In truth, he's that most stormy, and mortal, kind of great man. If Shaquille O'Neal always represented Superman, then Kobe's been the Dark Knight: vulnerable, but all the stronger for it.

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