They Made Camp There, And Torched It
If you were planning on reading this website today, I would instead recommend you spend your time here. Then, and only then, should you bother dragging your skin back this way.
I'm not exactly sure why I became a Kobe Bryant fan. I have no connection to Los Angeles and never rooted for the Lakers. Kobe's time in Ardmore, PA came to an end at the same time mine began, and it's not like I cared about sports then, anyway. When I returned to basketball after a self-imposed hiatus, Bryant and the Lakers were the antithesis of a novel or personal choice in allegiance. But as readers of this site know all too well, I've always been struck by Kobe's intelligence, moodiness and showy mastery of the game.
The Recluse wrote earlier this week that Nash and Duncan see the game as a series of logical problems, which contrasts sharply with Jordan's in-the-moment bloodlust. Bryant has inherited MJ's ruthlessness. Here's the tricky part: He's also got that Duncan/Nash brain-type thing going, except it's applied to the abstract pursuit of the game writ large. And the way Kobe undertakes this is pure Jordan, like he's going for bragging rights off of standardized test scores.
This meta-competitiveness always leads back to going after wins; you'd never call Bryant a cold technician unable to apply or animate his knowledge. But it serves to make what Kobe does on the court both supremely credible and profoundly disturbing. He's a student of basketball, and it shows, and yet his condescension often seems directed at the too-mortal scale of a single game. Yes, Kobe wants to trample opponents. But enlightened thinker that he is, Kobe sees the big picture; to truly be the best, you must see the game itself as the challenge, the trial to be overcome. Everything else should follow naturally from that. It's a twisted form of idealism you kind of have to respect.
The thing is, he's never made the game his enemy. He respects it, holds it in awe, and throws himself at it exactly because there's so much there to work through. It's never been ugly, or personal, between Bean Thousand and the game. So while so much about Kobe's last few years has come off as petty, spoiled, evil, immature, or misguided, I always keep this version of him in mind. And that's why I stay such a fervent Kobe supporter.
On Tuesday, all that was gone. Anyone thinking Kobe was going to "dog it" to prove a point is fucking stupid; I'm not the first person to say this, but it's probably physically impossible for him to not somehow try to win. His pride can't be separated from basketball, and to half-ass games to prove a point would make a mockery of his devotion. But the way I see it, this week he found another way to rot out his very core. Against the Rockets, Kobe didn't just go for his above the team, or shoot too much, or fail to give the ball to Andrew Bynum. He played with a chip on his shoulder that did violence against basketball itself. This wasn't a supremely confident Kobe saying "fuck you" to the difficulty posed by basketball; this was a "fuck you" to the game itself, to everything sacred that justifies seeing it as art and science.
Allen Iverson's made a career out of this same gesture. Love him or hate him, Iverson's someone who has an adversarial relationship with the basketball tradition, or at least the canon. IN PURELY BASKETBALLULAR TERMS, he's a revolutionary, a rebel, who believes that one scrappy, blazing, bad-ass individual can take over the league by doing what he feels. Iverson's style is improvisatory not because he doesn't know the fundamentals, but because he doesn't see the game in those terms. What makes him important, and exciting, is how brazen he is on any number of levels. That's where the audience polarization comes from, and why it makes no sense that I'd love the Warriors but still sometimes grate my chompers at AI's play.
The difference is, Iverson's an underdog, the voice of the streets, and in every way an outsider. Even now, with his influence in the league almost inescapable, he's treated like a problem, or a man looking for redemption. When Allen Iverson dares to take on the sanctity of basketball, it's exhilarating and, not surprisingly, has been taken by a lot of people to mean a lot of very empowering things. He's the worker smashing capitalism, the peasants storming the castle, and all other sorts of liberating, if flawed, scenes of protest and renewal.
Kobe, on the other hand, is so establishment it hurts. He's an apprentice of Lady Basketball, born into the sport in the most ostentatious way possible. If Iverson is the angry rabble, Kobe's the free-thinking nobleman, whose desire to rebel is both comical and self-destructive. The guy that always ends up in bad way in Russian novels, doomed by both vanity and fatuousness. Except in Kobe's case, history is not coming to an end. There's no external pressure for him to suddenly lash out at all he holds dear. All I can conclude is that, definitively, Kobe Bryant has lost his way amidst all this latest drama. In addition to taking his frustrations out on his incompetent teammates, drunken bosses, quizzical coach, scavenging media, and incidental opponents, Kobe's taking a chunk out of the one thing he loves best: good, old-fashioned, complete and universal, basketball.
I know some of you will argue that I'm overstating Kobe's responsibility on the floor. But even if you question some of his decisions in the past, I defy you to think of a game in which he's looked as stupid and obtuse (at least that Game Seven against the Suns had a kernel of rationality to it, something me and Phil Jackson could defend with a straight face afterwards). That was not the Kobe Bryant who even in his most headstrong moments gave off the scene of concentration and deliberation. That's not the player we watch even if his smirk makes us queasy. And it certainly wasn't a Kobe Bryant who could be made sympathetic or engaging; it was an extraordinary man forcing himself to be ordinary, undermining his genius to prove a point about its presence.
Kevin Durant didn't have a good game tonight, but it was certainly an auspicious one. All those shots he missed weren't horrible ideas, nor did they clang off the side of the backboard; his versatility was apparent, he was all over the flow of the action, and he had a few truly deft moves. We got the first few glimpses of the expanse that is Durant's game, a body of enacted knowledge that will only grow as the years go on. In a way, this is what I admired about Kobe without the dark prince aspect: Durant is a conduit for many strains of the sports, sometimes synthesizing them into something wholly new, sometimes parsing them as the situation demands it. He's not a fiery conservative in the way Kobe is, an Iversonian iconoclast (nihilist?), or a Garnett or LeBron-like visionary. Kevin Durant is basketball, past, present and future, even if he's only just beginning to come into focus.