Appreciating Kobe Bryant, basketball’s last megalomaniac superstar
Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller discuss Kobe Bryant’s legend, legacy and relevance in the league almost two decades into his career.
Like it or not, Kobe Bryant is as relevant as ever despite being well outside the MVP race and despite the Lakers sitting at 5-16, well outside the playoff race. Because he is Kobe, he draws oodles of attention. And so we decided to do an edition of Flanns & Zillz on him. Enjoy!
ZILLER: Kobe is going to pass Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list very soon. I could say that’s the last time this season Kobe will be legitimately newsworthy. But that’d be a horrible prediction. (As bad as us picking the Pistons for the playoffs. You had the Pistons too, right?)
The truth is that Kobe is a notable figure even now as the Lakers ease into a role as the West’s least essential team. As you expertly showed in this week’s Sunday Shootaround, he has gotten wiser and more reflective as he’s aged. But he still comes off as wholly unrealistic about L.A.’s status and perhaps his own. I mean, he thinks the Lakers aren’t that far from being a good team again!
That lunacy — err, lack of self-awareness — is endearing. But is it also destructive? To me, it sets up future drama as reality that this might take a while creeps in.
FLANNERY: I didn’t have the Pistons. IN YOUR FACE, ZILLER. (I had the Hornets.)
Kobe will always be noteworthy because of his fan base and the fact that he plays in Los Angeles for arguably the most recognizable team in the league. As one of the Laker scribes reminded me when I caught up with them last week, Kobe fans are not necessarily Laker fans and vice versa, so you have two enormous groups of interested parties following his every move.
That said, I honestly can’t tell what his endgame is here. He’s clearly smart enough to know what the Lakers have — or don’t have — and what they may — or may not — be able to do in the offseason, right? But I think there’s an element of him not wanting to give in ever and that means constantly reaffirming his confidence in the team’s direction. To concede even a tiny amount would be to accept defeat and that’s anathema to his persona.
If anything, I think this is his way of trying to maintain some kind of control over his future, which he has very little control over at this point. That’s got to be a little unnerving. Is it destructive? Probably.
ZILLER: More destructive might be Byron Scott’s coaching. I was stunned Kobe and Mike D’Antoni fell out given their history, and it seems like only a matter of time before it happens to Kobe and Scott.
On one hand, Kobe must know the roster is overmatched almost every night. But D’Antoni had his teams in L.A. playing better than this. And Kobe is undefeated in his career against coaches. The defense is so bad I think Scott might be one and done. This gets back to reality vs. what Kobe sees. But what’s your thought on Scott’s role and chances?
FLANNERY: No one could win with this roster, so I don’t think Byron has a fair chance. But what did he do to deserve another shot? His tenure with the Cavs was an abject disaster. The stuff about not shooting threes is comical, given the way the game is played today. Everything about his tenure says transitional coach to me, but what do I know? I didn’t inherit a team.
You mentioned earlier about Kobe getting ready to pass Jordan on the scoring list and I think that’s something that warrants further investigation. I always thought it was eerie how Kobe modeled himself after MJ. He insisted the other day that he’s not about breaking records and all that stuff, but I get the sense that you don’t buy it. You think that’s his primary motivation at this point?
ZILLER: It looks like a primary motivation from my seat. There’s perhaps no single piece of evidence that points to Kobe as a self-modeled Air Apparent and athlete driven only to be heralded as the greatest individual player ever. The proof is all anecdotal: the MJ poses such as the tongue, the voracious appetite to shoot, switching to a jersey number one higher than Jordan. But it’s a lot of anecdotal proof!
In a sense, it doesn’t matter if Kobe is primarily driven by personal accolades; that’s a perfectly valid ethic. But the pose that it’s not true is unbecoming of someone who considers himself to be void of bullshit.
My feeling is that Kobe is motivated by many things — titles, money, having a robust fandom and maybe most of all personal pride. But I certainly think stamping his name all over the record books is high among those driving forces. Again, not a bad thing. Just own it.
FLANNERY: That’s fair. Here’s the thing that really interests me: How do we view a superstar? Kobe, I think, appeals to a lot of people because he’s always insisted on playing the role of the superstar. He’s the dude that scores the points, takes all the important shots and sets the agenda. That was Jordan’s role and of all the next Jordans Kobe is the only one who wanted anything to do with that legacy.
On the one hand, that’s admirable. I’ve been around this league long enough to know some dudes really want no part of that life. On the other, we have a lot of evidence that making the right basketball play at the right moment takes a lot more stones than simply jacking up a contested jumper and living with the consequences. LeBron could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he just bricked a few 20-footers every now and then.
Look at the next generation of stars: AD, Steph, even Durant. That dominant alpha male persona isn’t their thing. The Kobe method of superstardom is on its way out and I’m not sure we’ll see it again anytime soon.
ZILLER: That’s so true. In some perverse way, it makes appreciating Kobe as the last of his breed more urgent. It’s the end of the basketball megalomaniac era.
FLANNERY: Pour one out for Kobe. It’s taken almost two decades, but I can finally appreciate him on his level.