CHICAGO – In some respects Kobe Bryant, perhaps the true Baby Jordan, reminds me the most of Jerry West, the original Los Angeles Lakers great guard. Because they go out of their way, defiant to the end.
Bryant is on his announced retirement tour for presumably his final NBA season to make it 20 years in the NBA. By the record book with five NBA championships and the third-leading scorer of all time ahead of Jordan, Bryant enters the all-time top-10 player debate. You find a place for him somewhere, which is no insult no matter how low on that list.
Kobe is a great one.
Whether he returns, albeit briefly, like Jordan did, or Wilt threatening any number of times, it seems unlikely. But you never say never with these guys. Especially ones like Kobe.
The narrative this season for Kobe closing after three years with injuries has been he stayed too long, made himself look bad and tarnished his legacy, sort of a Willie Mays stumbling back in center field picture in the end, that he’s held back the Lakers with his exorbitant contract and overwhelming presence, not allowing their young players to prosper and grow.
Nonsense, all of it, really.
This Lakers kiddie corps projects is a good reserve unit someday if they can retool with top free agents. No need barely out of college to torture them with the losses. Let Kobe take responsibility, which he is best at.
He’s really doing the kids and the Lakers a favor as a result by not exposing them to the wrath of the want-it now Los Angeles fan base.
Jordan was paid $30 million and $33 million his last two seasons with the Bulls. He made so much money for them he deserved the golden parachute. Heck, every corporate executive gets one, and basically after they ruin the company. Kobe deserved his deal. Good for the Lakers.
And no free agents were coming to play with those mediocre draft picks, anyway.
Kobe stumbling around in center field?
Yes, he began the season with some woeful shooting games, basically last in the NBA in the stats. But when you feel pretty good, as most people do watching on TV or in the arena, it doesn’t hurt or feel sore like returning from missing parts of three years at age 37.
The last six games before taking a game off this past weekend, Bryant shot 49 percent and averaged about 19 points as one of the better and more efficient players in the league.
But why he did that — and he’ll slump again and then be back again — is due to Bryant’s own audacity, the audacity to not so much hope but demand that his presence is the answer, and things will develop on his schedule. Not anyone else’s.
Is it time to go?
I wouldn’t agree, but I accept Kobe’s belief.
I subscribe to the tenet that if you love doing something you keep doing so until no longer physically able or no one will let you to. It seemed Phil Jackson might lure him to New York for another season if the Lakers didn’t want to.
But Kobe seems ready.
You never know.
Few ever leave at the right time because there is none.
Should Jordan have left with that pose in the 1998 Finals?
Perhaps, but he needed to know. His legacy wasn’t tainted in the least by two years in Washington. Few of the big men beyond Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain left at what critics would consider the right time, and back then departure in your mid-30’s was common given the lack of training and medical advances.
Elgin Baylor had broken down with knee problems and was about to be benched. Remember Patrick Ewing in Seattle, Hakeem Olajuwon in Toronto, Artis Gilmore in Boston, Robert Parish in Chicago, Shaq in Cleveland and Boston?
Reggie Miller played it out with one team and disappeared slowly. Magic and Bird for health reasons; same with Isiah, perhaps prematurely. But an Achilles changed things quickly back then.
West was different. He still was a 20-point scorer, though he missed much of his last season with injury. But he had a contract dispute with management and walked away, declaring he would not be treated like that. It was the same will that made him at probably 188 cm and no great athlete worthy of being the image of the NBA.
Same with Kobe.
Yes, he was athletic, spectacularly so with the way he moved and jumped.
But we have seen that before. Harold Miner, the so-called Baby Jordan from USC, had that and played four NBA seasons.
Kobe was a talent, but more like Jordan, whom Bryant idolized in a different way than most. He didn’t want to be like him; he wanted to beat him. I remember Kobe’s first All-Star Game in 1998 in what was supposed to be Jordan’s last, finally a chance to get at Jordan even at 19 years old.
Kobe opened the game waving MVP Karl Malone out of the post to go at Jordan, who would be MVP. But not before a half dozen astonishing Bryant dunks and highlight moves trying to steal the show from Jordan in Madison Square Garden.
Who does that?
But that was Bryant, and why he was the only one who would be worthy of being next even if there is no next, as I wrote in my book—”There is No Next,” published last year by Diversion.
There have been plenty who shoot better, jump higher, run faster than guys like Jordan or Bryant. What makes them special in many respects is this uncanny and special will and desire, like West with the Lakers as well, not to accept what everyone else thinks they should or could do or are capable of. Including when and how to go.
Consider what Bryant has been through to be going out arguably the most popular player in the NBA, perhaps the most popular NBA player in the world.
There’s the arrogance that had All-Stars carping at him in his first game, Bryant famously shooting multiple air balls in his first playoffs as a rookie in trying to win the game down the stretch and losing to the Jazz.
It didn’t leave a mark. Nick Anderson had missed a few free throws at the end of a playoff game a few years earlier and it changed his life. Bryant was ready to shoot again.
Who could go through what Bryant did in the 2003-04 season, court appearances all season in a sexual assault case, his future uncertain, jail possible?
Then still go to the finals, the next fall see the case dropped and a decade later again be one of the world’s most popular athletes.
This is also a player who amidst that case and the departure of O’Neal from the Lakers, for which Bryant was faulted, became perhaps the most unpopular player in the NBA among even the players. They all lined up with Shaq.
Bryant feuded openly with Malone, charging Malone was improper in speaking to Bryant’s wife. And now young players come to the alter of Kobe to worship and seek wisdom, Kevin Durant last week dining with Bryant to help learn what it takes to remain a star.
We know about the incredible and relentless work ethic and the manic training. Bryant, growing up in Europe where his father Joe played after his NBA career, became a loner, which carried into his NBA days. Nobody wanted to be like Kobe as much as to be like Mike.
So it took perhaps even more will and stubbornness to achieve so much.
Bryant did it his way and continues to, and no one should expect any different or any less. Because that’s the way you become Kobe Bryant.
It’s not easy.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”