As Kobe Bryant’s Showtime documentary looms in the not-too-distant future, the Lakers legend has made time for a media tour as he rehabs another career-challenging injury. Regardless of what happens in the last few years of his career, Kobe Bryant will continue to be one of the only players in history who can be compared to Michael Jordan. While I have fervently argued that the two are not in the same area code in basketball lore (see linked article, for one), if you boil greatness down to championships, position, tenacity, and scoring prowess, there’s an argument to be made.
Jalen Rose mentioned that Kobe tearing a rotator cuff on a simple dunk is an issue: “If you can’t dunk the basketball…it’s like not being able to brush your teeth,” he said in a podcast. But in classic Kobe fashion, the work ethic and drive will not stop him. (Maybe $24 million is a pretty good incentive, too.) In lieu of attending Lakers games while rehabbing his injury, Kobe has opted for appearances with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel on late-night TV. Kobe’s approval of the happy-go-lucky nature of Nick Young, Jeremy Lin & Co. is, well... skip to the 1:50 mark and see for yourself:
Kobe pours his heart and soul into basketball unlike any player save maybe Michael Jordan. The ferocity earned him the snake moniker, the Black Mamba. He goes in for the kill and there is no room for joviality. The real question, though, is just that: is Kobe’s style the best for the successful career of a basketball player? And not only that, but does Kobe himself see the issues with this no-fun approach?
Kobe highlighted in his appearance on the Grantland Basketball Hour (GBBH) on ESPN that he grew up in isolation and as a result tended to look inward rather than outward to solve issues. He extrapolated this tendency to his strategy on the basketball court, where he found himself reluctant to share the basketball. If he was double-teamed and a teammate was open, he would consciously prefer to take the tough shot himself rather than give the opportunity to a teammate.
This attitude worked. Los Angeles saw five championship banners raised during the career of a player who scored 81 points in a game against a Toronto Raptors team that had that very Jalen Rose who intentionally injured Bryant in the 2000 NBA Finals. The revenge-seeking nature drove Kobe.
Loyalty and Relationships vs. Superstar Talent
Kobe’s relationship with Shaquille O’Neal soured in the early 00s because the diverging personalities of the two directly clashed. The work ethic of Kobe combined with the media-loving, free-spirited Shaq ultimately could not co-exist. One of the factors that boiled over from Kobe’s personality was this desire to prove that he could “win one on his own.” Shaq had won all three Finals MVP awards in the three-peat. Conversation simmered, was Kobe was only riding on the coattails of a guy who put up 30 and 15 in the 58 playoff games from 2000 to 2002? Apparently the "role" of 25-6-5 and the majority of clutch shot-taking was not enough to prove he was a co-star not part of the supporting cast in Hollywood.
Kobe forced Jerry Buss to decide between moving forward with himself or Shaquille O’Neal. The 25-year-old superstar Bryant was the clear choice. The irony here is in how today many people proclaim Kobe’s loyalty as a defining factor in his greatness. If we accept the arbitrary value in one player remaining with a single organization, is that value not tainted by the shooing in-and-out of teammates? Especially when one of those players has established himself as one of the top-10 greatest players of all time? Hypocrisy oozes from the doublespeak of such logic.
Trade talks surrounding Kobe came to fruition in 2007 after the Lakers posted three consecutive seasons with win totals in the 30s and 40s…all after trading Shaq. Kobe even told Stephen A. Smith that he’d rather “go play on Pluto” than endure another season with the Lakers.
But you wouldn’t know that if you listened to Kobe (or his fans) talk about his loyalty today. In that GBBH interview, the star guard talked about how he has been “such a diehard Lakers fan” and that asking for a trade or to play somewhere else is “not him” and not what his career has been about. I believe that you take the good with the bad, Kobe said. You go down with the ship.
This lack of acknowledging the reality that he made is what make it easier for his fans to proclaim him to be so loyal. But the blatant hypocrisy is problematic and taints his legacy. This isn’t a problem of moral ground on the part of "haters." The man who values loyalty so high cannot see that his view of loyalty is warped. Bryant's own basketball career is marred with trade demands and even people who don't like him can get caught up in the fantasy that Kobe paints about himself. In that GBBH interview, Bill Simmons speculated that Kobe could have the record for most years playing on the team that drafted him. Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets.
Leadership and The Kobe Way
After re-watching both this interview and the one that Kobe did with Ahmed Rashad, I noticed he took great pride in his leadership, something that again ties into that Jimmy Kimmel Live video. There’s no room for fun on Kobe’s Team. In order to be a leader, you have to hold people accountable. You’re not going to please everybody, he told Rashad. You don’t need to be friends to win championships, he told Simmons. Leadership is lonely.
When asked about his mentors—sources he tapped into for their leadership—Phil Jackson naturally came up. Yet the Zen Master failed to make a direct appearance in Kobe’s Showtime documentary (per Ahmed Rashad). The reason? Kobe said Jackson’s influences permeated throughout his career and that it would be doing the great coach a disservice by only mentioning him in passing.
When prodded about how the Knicks and present-day offenses implement Jackson’s notorious Triangle Offense, Bryant was quick to point out in the GBBH interview that it remains effective in today’s NBA…with none other than Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. The passing and ball movement, Kobe said, is all derived from Triangle principles. But is this the coaching and leadership that Kobe really wants and provides?
The hypocrisy is so blatant. A quick glance at his astronomical usage rate throughout his NBA career—peaking in 2006 at almost 40 percent—would seem to contradict the very principles he espouses in leadership. The impressive fall-away mid-range jumpers and fadeaway isolation post-ups are not exactly reminiscent of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs that surgically dismantled LeBron James and the Miami Heat with ball movement and possessions that often saw the ball in each of the five Spurs players’ hands. Which Phil Jackson does Kobe admire? The one who preached ball and player movement or the one who let him run the offense as he saw fit? Bryant didn’t believe in Phil too thoroughly anyway, evidenced by the coach deciding to leave the Lakers in 2004. This forcing an all-time great player and coach out in the same year is often overlooked in favor of that heralded “loyalty” label. But it is The Kobe Way.
Today’s stars have proven that much of what Kobe believes to be true is false. The Spurs ball movement is quite opposite of Kobe’s high singular usage rate. The belief that basketball success requires respect and not friendship has been repeatedly disproven. LeBron’s friendship with Dwyane Wade is well-documented. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are clearly good friends as well as savvy basketball professionals. Steph Curry and the gang were able to recruit Andre Iguodala when the time came. Joakim Noah’s unwavering loyalty to Derrick Rose is heartwarming.
The Kobe Way became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Who else is going to take the shots?” fans of Kobe said, when Kobe was on the floor in recent years and still shooting the ball at a league-leading rate despite his advancing age. Who was it, though, who hindered star acquisitions (as did a $48.5 million contract)? So now Kobe’s left with the bed that he made. The desire to turn to no one but himself and that reluctancy to share the ball comes back to haunt him. And it fulfills the belief that he, and only he, can be the solution on the basketball court.
Chemistry wins. Contrary to everything that Kobe Bryant says that he believes in, when you have guys that genuinely like each other, sharing the ball and sacrificing the individual for the good of the team becomes second nature. And sacrifice for the good of the team has been proven to win championships, which was (again, ironically) the only goal Kobe had coming into the league (per the Rashad interview). The environment that Kobe Bryant created did/does not foster this type of chemistry and despite it’s repeated success, he neglects the reality, much like many other things I’ve highlighted.
The beauty about Kobe Bryant is that he is so technically sound that he can and has overcome the traditional path to success. His individual ability on the court puts him alone with only a handful of other players in history in terms of pure basketball skill. What separates him from the truly greatest basketball players of all time is the failure to recognize what is necessary for a team to succeed. What it truly means to be a great overall player which includes making your teammates better, as Charles Barkley said in a recent episode of Inside the NBA. There is more to basketball success than the ability to hit shot after shot.
“I should have won seven,” Kobe told Ahmed Rashad. He should have, but he will never understand why it didn’t happen.