I Remember Mamba

(Michael Gasser for Eephus)

None of us signed on to see the best transposed with the worst.

As a Lakers enthusiast who grew up a fanatic of the Cleveland Browns, I am credentialed to pronounce this Lakers season the worst. An affliction with platform—the most awful sort of sickness. This iteration of the Purple and Gold was 2015-2016’s anti-Warriors. Unpretty without the TLC. (Don’t go chasing waterfalls, Jeannie.) And No. 24? Kid fans who by definition can know no better are going to walk away from this Kobe Bryant with the sense that his game has always been the atrocity trotted out this season.

The Lakers may clean up on Wednesday, but the stench ain’t goin’ away.

***

The Kobe I prefer to remember is a tender young buck, the pre-Mamba anomaly. Harold Miner 2.0. Understand when I say Harold Miner 2.0 that, as Kobe Bryant was ascendant, NBA progressives were on the prowl for an MJ update. The Next Jordan. Space Jam or nah, sport’s largest superstar was actually in early decline.

My preferred recollection reaches just past Space Jam, into better-than-usual seats at Inglewood’s Forum. Del Harris was the would-be Lakers’ savior. (Which just sounds silly now.) The boy came off the bench hella coltish, equal parts sinew and camera-ready smile. Kobe Bean Bryant seemed gleeful, that’s what most stands out. Only the dunks showed fury.

He radiated a gameness for adventure. For all I know the kid felt sprung, no longer tethered to that conventional plan for him to marinate alongside amateurs in Coach K’s locker room; he and Krzyzewski both had shoe deals now.

Make no mistake though, this Kobe the Younger who populates my memory is coltish, not efficient at basketball.

At all. Not efficient at all.

And on the eve of his long-overdue last hardcourt waltz, I summon the thrill of that budding gunner and defensive beast…for the children.

Formative Kobe had the capacity to evoke in Laker fans, simultaneously, naked fear (that the boy might do something terribly hubristic if passed the ball) and spectacular anticipation (that he would perform transcendence). Potential, thine name was Kobe. In hindsight, watching 1995’s high school player of the year out of his depth in Inglewood suggested The Mamba to come: In his 15 gangly minutes per game, he took about one of three shots from deep range, and the three wasn’t so much a thing back then.

It was defense though that caused Kobe’s character to pop. Number 8 may have been over the top in shamelessly emulating MJ. But when he had his tongue out, deep in a crouch and defying opponents to drive, dude was pretty hard to hate on. The force was strong in this one. My Negro shut shit down. More intriguingly this Kobe Bryant character might well take a shot at the wrong basket. And he might shrug it off.

There was just a whole bunch to this boy.

***

By the next time I caught him get down live, the Kobester had maybe turned 20. It was inside the Jordan retirement tour of ‘98-’99, again at The Forum. Latrell Sprewell and the Knicks were visiting. And the potential of LA’s young Italian import was turning less pixelated with each game. The colt was now a stallion. Still, dude was a couple of seasons out from being anointed NBA royalty…and from dumping Adidas for Nike.

He and I were standing in the Forum dressing room. Kobe was supposed to give me something insightful about the meaning of MJ. I was on assignment. So far, Bill Murray had dreamily pontificated on the miracle of the shaved head movement. Hoops insider Worldwide Wes had offered a Jordan-related word or two, down in Charlotte. Don Trump was supposed to be in this ESPN The Magazine piece, but when I told Trump that our interview most likely wouldn’t make the TV platform, he immediately hung up on me.

And Don Ohlmeyer had explained how Jordan, like Tiger Woods, had done that rare sports feat of drawing eyeballs that otherwise did not watch golf or basketball. Could Kobe have become that? My question to them all: How did Michael Jordan expand the idea of excellence for you? And now I was awaiting a response from the guy who desperately wanted to occupy that spot next to Tiger as soon as MJ called his hardcourt days a wrap.

“‘Scuse me, dog,” interrupted the largest mammal ever to address me, one Shaquille O’Neal. I was between him and a jumbo exercise ball. Kobe’s giant, respectful teammate effectively separated me from Bryant’s locker. I had to make my way back, around the big ball.

Then, Kobe Bryant told me… nothing good. Zip, zero. At least, I can’t remember what he said or even whether the words even made it into the magazine piece. You see, the 20th century professional athlete’s main language, far and away, was physical expression. Just about every time they were asked to put their lives into words disappointment resulted. The more spectacular the jock, the greater the satisfaction chasm. Steve McNair would soon let me down similarly. Shaq improved his standing by not speaking another word to me.

Like most of us, 1998 Kobe knew little of branding. If he thought of it at all, he probably thought about cattle. This guy may have spoken a few languages and lived a bunch of places, but he was still just a jock who would have been a junior in Durham. Phil hadn’t given him Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle, an exceptional novel I imagine Kobe at least projected on if not fully consumed. The young man was two years out from even meeting Vanessa Laine. His narrative was up in the air.

Break into Act 2: The prince would shoot, pass and D his way to way to two titles. He sports the hell out of his brand-new crown. Then, after a disastrous postseason trip to Colorado, he finds something to say.

Of equal import? A new way of advancing his narrative: The way of the hated.

***

It’s all about the how.

There’s this joke I have been telling at parties since I moved to Portland, a politically-liberal burg that happens to be a hotbed of Kobe hatred.

The joke rarely gets a laugh.

Basically, I inform folks that Kobe Bryant has been far, far more internationally famous than everyone off the Nike campus has known, that Asians all across their continent make sculptures and paintings of the man, that tens of thousands poured into the streets of Istanbul just to lay eyes on him.

And when the inevitable mention of objectionable behavior in 2003 arises, I break in with, Ya gotta understand. In those corporate cultures, a god like Kobe’s gonna have a two-to-three rape deal. It’s standard. And if he fails to use the rapes up someone calls during the last week of the fiscal year to remind that these assaults don’t roll over.

Now then. I think of this tiny party that just crashed you as a celebration of America. The closest thing to patriotism in my lit repertoire. How I tell it is everything. There’s bad and then there’s bad.

I cite Kobe finding something substantive to say after 2003-2004 because he had been this close to becoming yet another vacuous athlete from the MJ paradigm. (Please see the “K.O.B.E.” rap single for evidence.) Instead, charges of sexually assaulting a White woman had dude flying to Colorado court dates between games and on the news not called SportsCenter. Bryant was indeed reaching that new, non-sports audience, but in the worst way. It emerged that Kobe had fed Shaq’s name to the cops. His relationship with the superstar center went out the locker room door, along with his street credibility.

(Jackson’s leadership from the bench that season remains, in my opinion, one of the under-appreciated coaching performances I’ve witnessed. No way that torn team should have advanced to the Finals.)

Out of this painfully public fiasco the Black Mamba was born. Kobe’s new persona was that of a young champion tasting the first meaningful loss of his life, and not experiencing said big loss on a field of sport. Shit was real. Not Mike Tyson real, but pretty real. In a world of managed sports product, here was a loss we weren’t prepped to see; even Jordan’s dad got murdered outside the frame. Kobe Bryant lost his reputation and maybe for the first time envisioned a future full of darkness. We got to see all of this: cool.

The sex charges and its accompanying humiliation were terrible. Yet, via the Mamba alter ego, it set up Act II lovely. Bean the Younger could never have thrived in the wake of such scandal. The Mamba articulated what Kobe the Younger might never allow himself to think.

We may come to think of the act break as advertising’s realest ever.

Sans Shaq, Mamba scored more than he could imagine, lost more games than he had since his freshman year of high school, and explored the contours of the villain role. This snake was openly black and could be bitter with reporters. It swore and wore his intelligence on his sleeve. The character was performative. It shielded.

The nightmare teammate rep took flight. Seemingly overnight, the visage of Kobe Bryant changed from friendly to severe. Like the head of a turtle. Or a snake.

***

These years before The Return of Phil were just the soft launch. The Mamba rebrand officially began with changing from Lakers uniform number 8 to 24. Commissioner David Stern had entrusted the domestically radioactive star with opening the NBA in Asia. Outside of Los Angeles, Kobe couldn’t do anything for the lion’s share of White America except play that ball. The Unwelcome Mat was more than just a Colorado thing. Even beyond the country’s unreconciled views on race and mental health and shadowy details of the imbroglio itself, there was the matter of how Kobe Bryant was evolving into a symbol for a kind of one-on-one basketball. Only Iverson earned more ire.

In the Naismith County of the American hoops mind, these superstars’ play was anathema. In Beijing? Before the people, who had only seen Jordan on tape? The Mamba show was crazy good. What’s 81 in a land that knows nothing of Wilt? The greatest show on Earth, that’s what. The Chinese were not so much checking for NBA analytics gurus.

Also, the new isolation yielded hip hop bonafides that had been beyond Bryant’s privileged youth. “Fuck the coach’” rapped Lil Wayne, the hip hop artist whose career most aligned with Bryant’s, “I keep shooting like Kobe.” Number 24 was a bad man, who happened to have a wife and two little girls down in Orange County.

It was Lil Weezy who debuted the No. 24, on the stage of a packed rap show. Perhaps you missed that plot point. Either way, we could not be having this last week of homage without living a little bit in that darkness.

***

My younger son flew up from South Pasadena to see the Lakers play the Blazers last Thanksgiving weekend. For budgetary reasons, this was our first time together seeing the Lakers live. We debated along the walk to Moda Center from a Blazers stronghold called Spirit of ‘77. The argument was over the Lakers legend’s retirement date. I felt playing was not sustainable. The boy thought the career would be called at season’s end.

My 14-year-old is of the generation that, enabled by the NBA 2K series, roots more for players than for teams. It’s like, he sorta digs the Lakers, but not as much as his hometown New York Knicks. And at the end of the day he just wants to play as Steph. But he gets who Kobe is. Knows his story. Not so much on a season-by-season, statistically-broken-down basis, just the narrative high points and the undeniable truth born of playing as this Laker on Xbox.

I’d give the old guy shooting warm-up shots a 78, at best.

The Moda Center was sold out, boisterous in vibe, as usual. Where the kid watched L.A. fall behind, then make a run, genuinely captivated, I self-snarked through pain. For I had experienced Bean the Younger. Maybe there’s a cheat code that allows my son to throw the ball off a backboard and then catch the rock and jam. We’d be seeing nothing like that tonight. Indeed, the whole of us got a steady diet of ill-advised treys, struggle shots over the likes of Allen Crabbe. The Kobe I wanted my boy to finally see live would have had Crabbe for lunch.

The Blazers backcourt of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard combined for 57 points while Kobe and Jordan Clarkson put up an extremely inefficient 40. One of five from deep. I will go to my grave believing that my game-long exhortations to, “wrap it up, bro” cut through the crowd noise and helped convince the vet to announce his retirement on the next day. You are welcome.

In hindsight, what led to Wednesday is the only plan that Kobe Bryant has followed since he called that press conference in 2003, and that’s advance his narrative on his own terms. The team titles and supporting cast members (Smush Parker and Phil Jackson and Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard and Swaggy P and… you know the rest) emerge and fade and the Mamba moves ahead, devouring market share. We’ve consumed epic and immersive storytelling, the Truman Show with hops.

Hero Ball did a lot for Villainy, Showtime-style.

I am just glad the part where he plays basketball is over, because these last two seasons it was beyond the boundaries of taste. Almost a crime.

(Michael Gasser for Eephus)
(Michael Gasser for Eephus)

 

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Donnell Alexander is a creator of cultural content. Dock Ellis once told him a bananas story about trippin’ and a-pitchin’. A Portland-based freelancer, he has served on the writing staffs of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, LA Citybeat, LA Weekly, ESPN: The Magazine, and the Chico News & Review.