To be a basketball writer—a good one, anyway—you’ve got to approach everything with a certain degree of cynicism. It’s more dynamic to be able to say “what we’re seeing is the greatest shooter of all-time” or “this is unquestionably historic”. You want those lines. For many of us making our living off of sports writing, you need them. Hyperbole sells, regardless of whether or not you’re right or wrong.
Sad to say, most of the time, it’s just exaggeration. You read it right and left, up and down on the screen. Sports, like any form of art, are usually viewed through a contemporary lens. The intensity, the drama, the emotion. All those intangibles add up in your brain and well up in your chest. What you’re witnessing, what you’re hearing, what you’re feeling, it’s all right in front of you. You’re experiencing it. It feels more important than something that happened 40 years ago; something that you weren’t even alive to remember.
That’s why Noah Syndergaard feels like the most powerful right handed pitcher we’ve ever seen, even though we live in a world where Roger Clemens still lives and breathes. LeBron feels like the most unstoppable force on the court ever, though we’re only a decade removed from Shaquille rocking the rims. Dean Ambrose feels like the freshest new face in professional wrestling, but I liked that face better when his name was Rowdy Roddy Piper and he did the same exact thing thirty years ago.
We want to write that what we’re witnessing is historic. That we’re special because we were here to remember and experience the greatest ever. Because we felt it. But for the writers that want to paint a picture with as full view as possible, those experiences are going to be few and far between. It behooves the best to be cynical. To openly wonder—in fact, openly expect—that the newest player to come down the block can’t be the greatest ever. After all, there are 60, 70 or 100 years of history racked up in these professions. The odds of you seeing something that ranks as the best, or even one of the best becomes more and more remote by the day. Cynicism is the currency of our time. That’s what great reporting is based on. Not believing until we’re made believers.
Going into last night’s finale versus the Utah Jazz, my cynicism was at an all-time high. I was ready for Kobe Bryant to leave the game of basketball. For me and many other Lakers fans, his career ended on the court three years ago when his Achilles ruptured in a contest versus the Golden State Warriors. The driven, unstoppable madman in a purple and gold jersey died that day. That injury started a cavalcade of maladies that reduced the immortal Black Mamba to another sports cliché—a washed up veteran whose body no longer bent to his will to persevere. It was devastating, but three years can do a lot to massage our mourning.
Kobe attempted three comebacks since then, the first two derailed by a different injury, including a broken knee and a torn labrum in his shoulder. He finally made it all the way back this season, playing in 60+ games though cratering in his productivity. By many metrics, Kobe was one of the most harmful players on the floor this season, registering historically low shooting percentages despite a sky-high usage rate. He rated as one of the worst defenders in the league and somehow led his team—with the second worst record in the league, mind you—in points and field goal attempts. By many accounts, he was considered the least helpful rotation player in the league. I can’t say I disagreed. In his last year, the Lakers had gone through their worst season ever with him at the helm, a traveling circus that detracted from the real issue at hand: a flailing front office, one of the worst coaching staffs in the NBA and a massively dysfunctional, immature roster. I love Kobe Bryant, but I don’t love him more than I love the Los Angeles Lakers. I was ready for them to be a real NBA franchise again.
And then, last night.
Kobe started out of the gates looking strong, though his shooting percentage didn’t necessarily reflect that. He shot 7 for 22, but his legs looked sturdy and his attempts weren’t falling short of the rim. He was attacking the basket and looking not like the Mamba of the past, but at the very least the best version of what he’s become. It was a joy to watch, though it felt as if he couldn’t keep this going for the whole game. And he didn’t. Mostly.
By the third quarter, Kobe looked absolutely gassed. Huffing at the corner of the key, the camera zoomed in on Bean as he squinted and raised up the corners of his mouth, an expression of sheer exhaustion I had only seen from him a handful of times. Bryant had shot 27 times thus far and played nearly the entire game. He looked as beat as he did during Celtics-Lakers Game 7, a Finals rematch that expended all of the Mamba’s mental and physical energy.
His legs were done. His shot was flat, coming short out of his hands on a straight line to the rim. He meandered up the court like a prizefighter after ten rounds with the World Heavyweight Champion. The magic of the arena was dissipating, but the crowd was still humming. The Lakers were down double digits and the result felt forgone. My cycnism, it seemed, would be finally—and regretfully—vindicated.
When Kobe leaves the game, many have said that it’s not necessarily the championships or the points or the dunks that they’ll remember. It’s going to be his unbelievable work ethic and supernatural will to win.
I’ve always thought that was a load of bull. He’s always going to be introduced as five-time champion Kobe Bryant. If not that, it’ll be third leading scorer in NBA history Kobe Bryant. His will to win is a memorable descriptor to be sure, but more realistically, he’d be remembered as a man with an unbelievable competitive spirit and a work ethic that’s second to none. Will to win? Does that exist? It’s a cliché. A silly, sports cliché. The cynic in me does not bend to that.
But then I watched the fourth quarter last night.
Kobe… willed his team to win.
His legs returned. His shot regained life. He attacked the basket with a ferocity that I thought had long left his bones. He had an underbite. The underbite. He went for 40 points. Then for 50 points. Then for 60 points. It was magical.
I hate saying it. I hate clichés. I hate believing the unbelievable when there’s nothing but my eyes to make me believe. But Kobe Bryant willed himself back into that game. He willed his team to a victory. He defied his body and forced himself past his physical limits. He needed to win that game. The Lakers needed every single point for that victory, just their 17th on the season. It was sheer dominance made even more astounding considering how far from dominant he’s looked this year. It was the unbelievable that made me believe.
It’s what Kobe Bryant does. In his very last NBA contest, KB took those feelings in your chest that make you believe you’re seeing something historic and used them as fuel for his performance. Those very same feelings that help you to defy time and history and cold, hard evidence were what steeled his body and got him back into the game. It was one of the greatest performances I’d ever seen. Considering everything surrounding his season and his career, it was one of the most special and memorable performances in league history. Does that sound like hyperbole? Absolutely. But all the cynicism inside of me can’t deny that it’s true.
I don’t believe in the unbelievable. I’m trained not to. But Kobe Bryant is a winner. The 60 spot was amazing. So was the career-high 50 shots he put up. The fanfare around his last game was incredible. But none of that was as incredible as him willing himself to victory.
I keep on reviewing last night in my head. Quarter after quarter, possession after possession. It doesn’t feel conceivable. But that’s the point. It’s not. And Kobe gave us one last reminder of why he’s one of the very best of all-time.