The Kobe Bryant you think you know from popular culture died a few years ago. The Kobe you’ve watched wave to opposing crowds this year isn’t the self-described Black Mamba millennials made their own when he was carving out a non-Shaq niche for himself in the mid-2000s. The one-word Kobe who is a star and also doubles as a synonym for demanding teammate and pathological competitor, hasn’t been around for a while now. That Kobe would gladly serve up a knuckle sandwich to contemporary Kobe, too, which is how we know Kobe has actually grown up. Even with all of us watching and extolling those things about him that are now missing in the mature version, Bryant still managed to make it through without imploding.
The old Kobe’s last moment probably came when he hit a pair of free throws with an Achilles’ tendon rolled up to near his knee like God Herself had snipped its connective tissue near his ankle. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti rightly called those free throws the “gutsiest moment” of Mamba’s career; We’ll just call them gully.
That year’s Lakers team wasn’t great, either. With Dwight Howard — and a back that was still out of whack after offseason surgery — taking up all the space in the paint, Pau Gasol was hemorrhaging confidence at an alarming degree and the personnel just didn’t fit coach Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less system. So when Kobe went down late in the 2012-13 season with a ruptured Achilles, the ensuing Lakers sweep at the hands of the Spurs didn’t surprise anyone.
But the Kobe who came back for just six games the following season before fracturing his kneecap, was surprising; The Kobe who only played 35 games last season, too, shocked most astute basketball fans. Talk of too much mileage, and the tired cliche about undefeated Father Time started to swirl on social media any time Kobe’s name came up. We didn’t really know it yet, but the pathological Kobe who was so polarizing a presence up until that point, was already dead.
This year didn’t start out all that different, though. Kobe shot the ball more than most players his age would, and it was clear he empathized with a boozy Dylan Thomas scribbling his eulogy at the White Horse Tavern in the Village. People still mocked and mooned over him in equal measure, but Kobe had already gone through a metamorphosis; he had already sipped from the corporeal cup and there was no turning back.
When Kobe announced in the fall that this would be his last year, giving every NBA city and fan a chance to see Vino one final time, that was when we knew the old and new Kobe had finally fractured. We were shocked, but not by the fact he was retiring. No, we were shocked that he was announcing he’d retire so early in his final season. He wanted the swan song. The Black Mamba — as a paradigm for the killer instinct — is now strung along the wall of some embittered Lakers fan who dabbles in reptilian taxidermy. The Kobe we saw this year is someone else, a player and person who is kinder and gentler and more self-reflective than we’ve ever seen before.
The Kobe most of us grew up with was something totally different. That Kobe psychologically destroyed Smush Parker, taunted Kwame Brown and kept countless other teammates at bay as he did his thing; that Kobe never met a big-time shot he wasn’t going to take; that Kobe wasn’t ever going to let a teammate slip up and not hear about it in the most biting way possible; that Kobe opted out of his Lakers contract in 2004 to offer up an ultimatum that forced Shaq out of town (Shaq was just as culpable, but still) and flirted with the Clippers and a host of other teams to drive up his asking price and give a symbolic F-you to Lakers fans who wanted to keep Shaq over him; that old Kobe forced Mitch Kupchak to explore trade ideas in 2007 because the supporting cast Kupchak had put together wasn’t up to Kobe’s exacting standards; that old Kobe would’ve hated this incarnation of himself. That’s OK, too. Our younger selves never like our current versions. That’s how we know we’re getting better at the whole life thing.
If you wanna stop reading now, we won’t blame you — we would. Because this is when it’ll get personal for the last few paragraphs as I attempt to make Kobe’s retirement about me. Me, me, me. Solipsism is still in these days, so here we go.
Like Kobe’s younger self, I thought I was tough stuff when I was a teenager, too. I’ve got the perpetually off-kilter nose, head full of Lysergic and rotted liver to prove it. After every smart-ass comment to a bigger guy at the keg or the bar or the house party, I got my ass beat — hence, the nose.
Similarly, Kobe had to take his lumps, too. He missed the playoffs when he was 26 and then was forced to battle in the first round with teammates most would describe as glorified d-league knockoffs; he was stuck with a similarly crappy iteration of the Lakers when he was 27 and 28, too; his prime. Bean was saved by Memphis and general manager Chris Wallace, but those three wasted prime years were punishment for Kobe’s inchoate self.
If it weren’t for the sublime Spaniard Pau Gasol and the forefather of today’s Swiss-Army-knife forward, Lamar Odom, Kobe would have just had those Shaq-adjusted #ringz and we’re not talking about him as possibly one of the two or three best guards in NBA history.
For me, it wasn’t losing in the first round that forced me to grow up. It was something else. Eventually, like all people, I stopped fronting so hard and grew comfortable in my own skin. But I got to know myself away from the glare Kobe has endured since he was a teenager. The obvious and obnoxious holes in Bryant’s development as a person were revealed for the entire world. Thankfully, I’m a nobody with a crummy jumper.
The old Kobe would hate this Kobe joking with opponents and smiling after a loss. The old Kobe involved a lot of violent imagery and war metaphors. The old Kobe has been dead for a while. Long live this Kobe. He’s not the one you fell in love with, but everyone grows up, even Kobe.