The Mamba’s Tale
Kobe Bryant was taken 13th in the 1996 NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
I was 9. I didn’t know what the internet was. Or that I was gay. I didn’t have a personal computer. I wouldn’t have a phone for nearly 10 years, or a smartphone for 15. I was heading into 5th grade, and I was an avid collector of Basketball trading cards. My world was small. Scottie Pippen was my hero. That year, Kobe won the slam dunk contest. The Lakers were knocked out of the Playoffs by the Jazz in the Second round. An 18-year old Kobe, in all his hubris, shot four air balls in the final minutes of Game 5 as the Utah Jazz clinched the series in overtime. A month later, the Jazz fell to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals in six games. The Bulls won their second straight title. I graduated 5th grade.
I don’t have a whole lot of memories from my one year at Delta middle school, 6th grade. At least not good ones. There isn’t much, beyond being told by a teacher to drink more water because I have overactive salivary glands; being repeatedly kicked under the table in biology by the 2 kids in class I thought were my friends; being repeatedly told by the biology teacher I wasn’t being repeatedly kicked; and obsessively washing my hands once I got home from school to the point where my hands were a dry, cracked, bloody mess, and I had gloves bathed in Vaseline to slip my hands into when I wasn’t washing them to give me some relief. I was just beginning to understand that I was different.
It was 97-98, and Kobe was all of 19, in his second year in the league. For the season, he averaged 14 points, and was a spark plug for a Laker team mired in upper mediocrity. Behind a growing wave of popularity he had been voted onto the all star team–there probably hasn’t been a less deserving all star until Kobe Bryant this year. I remember having a recurring argument about who was better. Scottie Pippen or Kobe Bryant. I said that Scottie was better, much better. Kobe would surpass him, but not yet, not even close. I’m happy to say I was right on both counts. It’s probably my best memory from middle school. Thankfully, I got into another school at the end of the year.
On June 4, 2000, the Lakers and Blazers met in Game 7 of the western conference finals. The series had been a back and forth affair. My beloved Blazers, led by Scottie Pippen, fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a deciding game in Los Angeles. With 20 seconds remaining in the 3rd quarter, Scottie Pippen nailed a three to give Portland a 16-point lead. As the quarter wound down, Brian Shaw banked in a lucky three of his own to seize momentum for the Lakers. In the fourth quarter the Lakers continued to chip away, and as Portland’s lead shrank they began to panic and go away from the offensive sets that had worked so well for them to that point.
I watched in horror in my parent’s bedroom. This was supposed to be Scottie’s moment. His team was going to win the title. But it was slipping away again. The lead dwindled–from 8, to 6, to 4. The LA crowd roared. Even though the Blazers were still ahead, it was clear they were going to lose. When they still had the lead, I ran into the bathroom by my father’s office, in the dark recesses of the apartment. There was no room further away from the sound of the two televisions that were blaring with raucous Lakers fans. Plus, if I didn’t see the Lakers take the lead, it never happened. I huddled on the floor by the bathtub, plugging my ears and hoping. To no avail… I heard a deafening roar come from the tv two rooms away, and started to cry. I came out a few minutes later. The game was over, and I already knew the outcome.
That roar, it turned out, was in response to the ultimate highlight of Kobe’s early career, and the death knell of Scottie’s. With 48 seconds left and the Lakers up 4, Pippen picked up Bryant around mid court. Kobe crossed Pippen over once, left to right. A test. Pippen froze as Kobe ran by, but Kobe let him back into the play. Seconds later, Kobe hit him with another cross, this time right to left, a little beyond the top of the arc. Again, Scottie bit, and Kobe drove around him. He released what on first glance was an oddly flippant one-handed shot. Then the enormous figure of Shaq loped into the frame. The pass arched over the desperate arm of Rasheed Wallace. Shaq, right arm extended high over the rim, grabbed the ball and slammed it home. He ran toward the bench, shouting and pointing with both arms. The crowd went crazy. My heart was crushed. A dynasty was born.
The Lakers won the championship that year, and the next two years. Kobe kept improving. He was a spectacular but not generational athlete–he wasn’t thaaat fast, couldn’t jump thaaat high, and wasn’t thaaat quick. But he was a generational obsessive with generational body control and balance and with a once-in-a-lifetime work ethic. In the early 2000s, he developed first into the best scorer in the league, and then it’s best player, a well-rounded one-man offensive juggernaut who also excelled at defense thanks to his instincts, commitment, and unparalleled competitiveness. Shaquille O’neal, his more celebrated teammate, was a sensitive, passive-aggressive big man who didn’t always work very hard and needed to be the center of attention at all times. Naturally, as a hungry Kobe eclipsed his loafing teammate, the two clashed.
In the Summer of 2003, following a disappointing season in which the Lakers failed to win a championship, everything came to a head. By the time Kobe was accused of rape on July 2 and sold Shaq out to the police for no reason, I was a rising senior in high school. In the preceding years I had come out of the closet, first to a counselor at my lefty summer camp, then to my family and my fellow campers, and then to the whole world. I finally felt comfortable, or some semblance of comfortable, in my own skin. I was finally free to be myself, not that I knew who that was. I made sense to people, because I think I made more sense to myself.
Negative press rightfully surrounded Kobe throughout the 2003-2004 season, as he shuttled back and forth between his team and legal obligations in Eagle, Colorado. In many ways, awful as it was, the experience was liberating for Kobe. The good-boy facade of his youth, which had pretty much completely eroded anyway, was now good and dead. He turned heel.
The summer of 2004 marked the culmination of the Kobe-Shaq fued. Having lost in the finals to the upstart Pistons, the Lakers were in disarray. Kobe was a free agent; he wouldn’t sign with the Lakers if Shaq stayed on. Smack in the middle of his prime at 26, he was the best player in the league, successor to his lazy, aging teammate, and stylistically, to Michael Jordan. Logically, the Lakers stuck with their young stud, and traded away their lumbering big man.
I was excited to see dark Kobe unshackled. But that didn’t happen in 2004-05. Phil Jackson had stepped down, and was replaced by Rudy Tomjanivich–the coach who had once failed to integrate a sub-prime Scottie Pippen into an effective offense in Houston. The Lakers never clicked, and Kobe struggled with his health. Phil wrote a memoir about his last season with the Lakers, which doubled as a smear campaign against Kobe Bryant. LA missed the playoffs for the first time in Kobe’s career.
Kobe became the Black Mamba prior to the 2005-06 season. At 27, he was already heading into his 10th season. That summer, in a stunning about face, Phil signed back on to coach the Lakers. The front office surrounded Bryant with castaways and never-weres. And in the fall of 2005, supposedly citing a Ric Bucher article I’ve never been able to find, Bill Simmons buried the greatest gem I’ve ever read in his NBA season preview:
Here’s Kobe explaining his new nickname: “The mamba can strike with 99 percent accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession. That’s the kind of basketball precision I want to have. Not being able to train the last two summers, I was in a gunfight with a rusty butter knife. I did my share of killing, but I was just fighting to survive.”
It turns out, Kobe had quite a summer–he referred to it as “blackout”. In addition to binge watching Kill Bill, he grew a new layer of skin through a 24-7 conditioning program.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been more onboard with anything in my life. I was a sophomore in college. My heart had just been broken by a boy for the first time, and I was a total mess. Everywhere I turned, I found a new way to fuck up. But in October, just as basketball season started, a flip switched. I had joined the frisbee team that fall and was beginning to make a group of friends I’m still close with today. I started to relax, to let myself go and enjoy college. Kobe became a part of my identity–for the first time in awhile, my best friends liked sports just as much as I did. I would talk about him, joke about him. Write emails in satirical homage to him. I drilled down hard enough that I got my teammates to occasionally refer to me as Mamba. By the new year, things had completely turned around.
And that year, true to his word, Kobe hit his devastating peak. Over the first 24 games of the season, Kobe averaged a little over 31 points per game, and broke 40 five times. Then, on December 20, he scored 62 against the Mavericks in three quarters. In 33 minutes. A Mavs team that would go on to lose in the NBA Finals to an ad-hoc amalgamation of the Miami Heat and NBA Referees Inc. That’s when all hell broke loose. On January 22nd, he scored 81 points. For the month of January, he averaged over 40 points a game. He averaged over 40 again in April.
Watching Kobe that year was astounding. He could get any shot he wanted whenever he wanted from wherever he wanted. Almost every possession, it seemed as though he’d make up his mind and pick a spot on the floor, and regardless of the defense, get there and shoot, whether he was open or had 4 hands in his face. He had perfected the balance on his jump shoot. He could begin his shooting motion from any angle against any defense, and by the apex of his jump, his shooting point was identical. I was fascinated by the psychological crisis that seemed to consume Kobe on every possession: should I keep the ball and try to make something happen by myself, or pass it to one of my hapless teammates? Flanked by Lamar Odom and flotsam that included whipping boy Smush Parker, the answer was never straightforward, even though Kobe often faced 4+ defenders.
He almost singlehandedly carried the Lakers to a 45-37 record and a first round matchup with the 54-28 Phoenix Suns. The Lakers were overmatched, but they had Kobe. The series included a diving dunk over controversial MVP Steve Nash in Game 2, and two buzzer beaters in Game 4, the first a crazy floater to tie the game and send it to overtime, and the second a pull-up jumper from the right elbow over double coverage that became the signature highlight of his career. Behind their star’s heroics, LA unexpectedly took a 3-1 series lead. After losing Game 5 on the road, Kobe scored 50 points in Game 6 back home and the Lakers came within a Tim Thomas three-pointer with 6 seconds left of knocking the Suns out of the Playoffs. Phoenix won the game in overtime. Back in Phoenix, the Lakers fell behind early in Game 7. At halftime, Kobe had 23 points, but the Lakers trailed by 15. Famously, he scored only 1 point on 3 shots in the second half, and the Lakers crashed out of the playoffs.
LAs 2006-07 season was nearly identical except Kobe had changed numbers, from 8 to 24. And the Lakers were a little worse, finishing 42-40 and getting swept by the Suns in the first round. It was starting to feel like Kobe’s prime would be wasted toiling away on a perpetual 7-seed, not bad enough to rebuild, not good enough to contend. Kobe bristled at the notion, and put pressure on management. He demanded to be traded. But the Lakers wouldn’t let their prized asset go.
On January 31, 2008, the Lakers were 28-16 and already near the top of the western conference. They had started the season 25-11. Andrew Bynum, who that summer had been the target of Kobe’s vicious parking-lot tirade to a random Lakers fan, blossomed in his 4th year in the league, and his development had hurtled the Lakers up the standings. But on January 13 he dislocated his left kneecap, and the Lakers struggled without their young center.
On February 1, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for spare change, draft picks, and the rights to his brother Marc. Normally, integrating a star takes time. But all of a sudden, the Lakers offense purred. It was a blur of high-post passing and back-door cuts, punctuated by Kobe’s cultured isolation. Lamar Odom flourished off the ball, developing a telepathic understanding with Pau. The Lakers finished the season 29-9, and were the top seed in the Western conference.
As I wrapped up my Senior year of college high and miserable on the pain meds for a hand I broke playing frisbee, the Lakers ripped through the Western Conference Playoffs, losing only three games en route to the Finals. They dismantled the defending champion Spurs in 5 games in what was the most artful sustained expression of Bryant’s brilliance. The Spurs, anchored by Tim Duncan, cut off his path to the basket, but no matter–Kobe repeatedly stopped on a dime to release jumpers and delicate floaters that dropped elegantly through the net.
Their whirring offense scorched all that was before them until they ran into the Celtics. Game 1 was the “Paul Pierce” game, in which the Celtics staged an injury to their star to get the crowd riled up and get into the Lakers heads. He fell down in a heap, and teammates carried him wheelbarrow style down the tunnel as cameras followed. Minutes later, he emerged to thunderous applause. Buoyed by their own WWE style antics, “Ubuntu”, moving screens, and a stifling defense that altered NBA convention, the Celtics won the game and took the series in 6.
That summer, me and a few friends set off for the Bay Area to try to make new lives for ourselves out west. We set off from New York on July 4th, our own Independence Day. We drove cross country, sticking North through Yellowstone, pivoting South up to the Grand Canyon, then heading back North to San Francisco, stopping in Las Vegas on the way. Naturally, tensions arose. When my friends chose to live in a neighborhood I didn’t feel comfortable in, I ran back to New York. I had barely lasted a month on the west coast. Truth is, I don’t think I was ready to break out on my own. I bounced from internship to internship for a couple of years as the financial crisis wreaked havoc on the job market for confused recent college grads. Living at my parents with my brother, I slowly built a social life for myself in the city, getting back into soccer and exploring gay nightlife in the city.
By the time I found my first permanent, full-time job as a paralegal, the Kobe/Gasol/Odom/Bynum/Jackson Lakers were well on their way to winning their second straight title. In 2008-09, they had finished the season 65-17, and seemed to be on a collision course with LeBron James’s 66-16 Cleveland Cavs. LeBron had already eclipsed Kobe as the league’s best player, and the two starred in perhaps the greatest series of commercials in basketball history. But despite James’s superhuman efforts, the Cavs lost to an Orlando Magic team lead by peak Dwight Howard. An Orlando Magic team that proved to be no match for the more cultured Lakers. It took Kobe, Pau, et al. 5 games to dispatch the Magic and give Kobe his first title without Shaq. In 2010 he grabbed his second, in 7 games over the Celtics.
With Bynum improving consistently it didn’t seem like the end of the mini-dynasty, but it never does. In 2011, the Lakers were swept out of the Playoffs by the eventual-champion Mavericks in the Conference Semis. Lamar Odom was discarded after a controversial failed pursuit of Chris Paul, and a year later they were knocked out in the second round again, this time by the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder in five games.
The 2012-2013 season was supposed to mark the Laker’s return to prominence. That summer they restocked, acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the offseason. But the Lakers struggled out of the gate. Howard was clearly laboring after offseason back surgery, and the years seemed to have finally caught up to Nash. Coach Mike Brown also struggled to integrate the new pieces into a coherent offense. He was fired two weeks into the season, with the Lakers sitting at 1-4. Rumors swirled that Phil Jackson would take over again as coach. Brown was fired on a Friday; Phil met with Lakers executives on Saturday, and asked for two days to consider. While he was contemplating, the Lakers went ahead and hired Mike D’antoni, hoping he was the man to unlock Steve Nash and figure out a way to inject life into the Lakers offense.
He wasn’t. The Lakers sputtered to a 17-25 record. Nash and Howard struggled with injuries. That’s when “gunner” Kobe consciously became “facilitator”, and the tide began to turn in the Lakers favor. Against the odds, at age 34, he was having one of his most efficient offensive seasons ever. He was carrying the team, which started so poorly, toward the post-season. Along the way, he turned in some true virtuoso performances. The season was littered with turn-back-the-clock moments: a driving dunk over Josh Smith against the Hawks; a shot-clock-beating dunk over two Nets.
He also joined the world of social media in January. His Twitter was remarkably relatable, witty, charming, and real. For the first time, his walls came down. One standout post, in the doldrums of the Lakers January nadir, had a picture of him at the piano playing moonlight sonata with the tag “Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata calms me down when I reach my breaking point #relaxandfocus”. It was just so… Kobe. The NBAs greatest heel completed his transformation into its most beloved grumpy uncle. The self-proclaimed Black Mamba became the heroic, aging gunslinger trying to hold a flawed Lakers team together through the sheer force of his will.
In April, 2013, I went to Berkeley to visit a good friend from college. I had naively quit my job the previous August, and struggled for months to find consistent work. I also naively pursued a relationship with someone who didn’t really want to be in one. Both situations ended badly, and I was broken. Even though they were struggling, the Lakers and Kobe were a bright spot–they were endlessly entertaining, and because of the soapy quality to their season and quest for the 8-seed they were front-page sports news every day. And finally, finally, the media was on Kobe’s side.
Kobe was incredible. He was also running on fumes. At 34, he was playing far too many minutes, and carrying far too large a burden. The Lakers needed to win practically every game they played. Kobe refused to sit, and D’Antoni refused to sit him. As he hurtled the Lakers toward the 8-seed, beginning on March 30th, he played consecutive games of 48, 47, 43, 47, and 41 minutes. The Lakers won four of the five games. When I got to the Bay, I met my cousin at the brewery where my friend tended bar. It was April 10 and the Lakers were playing the Blazers. I was in California so the game was on. On the second night of a back to back, having played 41 minutes the previous night, Kobe played all 48 minutes, scoring 47 points on 27 shots, finishing with 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 4 blocks.
Two nights later, the Lakers played the Warriors in LA. I watched the game on local television at my friend’s while I waited for him to finish his shift. Early in the 3rd quarter, Kobe fell down in a heap, grabbing his left knee. I thought that was it for him, for his season–the other shoe had to drop. He got up and played on, but it was a warning sign. With 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter the other shoe dropped. Down two, Kobe drove past Harrison Barnes by the arc and then tumbled to the ground in agony at the the left elbow. He thought he was kicked–he wasn’t. His teammates surrounded him, then helped him up after Barnes assured Bryant that he hadn’t been touched. That’s when he knew. The Lakers called timeout, and a stunned Kobe limped to the sideline. After the timeout, he stepped up to the line and hit two free throws. He then hobbled off the court and into the locker room. He had torn his Achilles. He would never be the same.
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) March 28, 2013
He made it back in December of 2013, but 6 games later he fractured his left knee and missed the rest of the season. The Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005, and the second time in his career. He returned at the start of the 2014-2015 season but struggled, shooting just 37% before he tore his rotator cuff in January 2015 and missed the rest of the season. The Lakers finished a franchise-worst 21-61.
This year has been his farewell tour. Finally healthy, he started the season off cocky and confident, as if he truly believed he could carry this Laker team to the post-season as he had 10 years earlier. As if he truly believed that he was missing nearly 70% of his shots on account of bad luck. He would progress to the mean, and would lift the Lakers with his rising tide. He was oblivious to the fact that he was the brick weighing them down. As he continued to struggle, reality set in. Kobe gave up, he let himself go. On November 29, he announced that he would retire at the end of the season, a fact that seemed to dawn on him after everyone else. He’s suffered through the season on an awful Lakers team, fighting off injuries and sitting out home games in order to play as many games as possible on the road in front of the adoring fans that greet him at every arena.
I’m in the minority, at least among those I know–I’ve enjoyed late-career Kobe. The aging gunslinger, fighting a losing battle against his basketball mortality. A player who once used to be able to get to any spot on the floor he wanted, get any shot he wanted. 5 years ago, he was the best player on the best team in the NBA. Now he’s one of the league’s least valuable players by advanced metrics. But that belies the fact that he’s been one of the most valuable in terms of buzz, press, and ticket sales, allowing the Lakers to simultaneously tank and stay relevant.
And a player whose face had been marked by a permanent scowl in his prime with harsh words for every mistake has learned to laugh off his teammates’ errors and instead offer words of encouragement. Now he’s a wise old sage. In response to a question about what he said to D’Angelo Russell following the rookie’s recent transgression, he explained “All I can do is just do my best Yoda impersonations and give him that kind of sage advice, I guess. ‘One day pass, this shall.’” At least on the outside, even if he couldn’t adjust his game and take a more passive role on the court, he made the mental transition Michael Jordan never could. Plus, the fans want Kobe to shoot. I want Kobe to shoot, even if he keeps missing.
Now I’m almost 30. I go to work, go home, see friends and go out on the weekends, play soccer every once in awhile. Days and weeks bleed into each other. I’m probably more cynical than I’ve ever been. I’d call myself world weary, but I’m old enough now to know that would be naive. I’m perpetually entrenched in an existential crisis–I still don’t know who I am, or what I want. Which all sounds terrible (first world problems, I know), but it basically means I’m a typical 30-year old in New York in 2016.
I’m okay. I’m still young, I still have time to figure it out. And Kobe still plays for the Lakers. At least for one more day.