Nobody can truly master the art of basketball. There is too much to learn, too much to do. And then, even if you somehow spent a lifetime learning the moves of every artist, savant and genius that has previously played the game, you'd then have to learn it all over again. The game is ever-changing, and creativity is at its heart. Therefore, mastering the game consists not just of learning what the previous masters have done, but utilizing that knowledge to forge a new way forward. With so many different players, so many different styles, and an infinite number of new possibilities, there is no way one person can learn how to do everything possible on a basketball court. But one man has come closer than all the others.
Kobe Bryant is not the best basketball player in history. He's not the best basketball player at any one thing. Players like Ray Allen and Steve Nash are better shooters. Magic Johnson was a better passer. LeBron James and Michael Jordan are/were better athletes. Kobe can't dominate like Shaq or Wilt Chamberlain, can't anchor a defense like Bill Russel or Dwight Howard. But, when Kobe's legacy has been fully and finally written, he may just be able to lay claim to being basketball's greatest master.
This is not the same thing as being the best player ever to play the game. If Kobe's career ended today, he would not be remembered as the greatest ever. In fact, he would have to accomplish quite a bit on top of his already successful career in order for all but the most ardent fans that Kobe belongs at the top of that list. But the greatest master of the game? That's an argument Kobe definitely belongs in. Mastering a craft, any craft, requires innate talent, but it also requires dedication and focus. You'd be hard pressed to find anybody who has dedicated their lives to basketball with quite the same intense focus that Kobe Bryant has.
Kobe grew up around the game because his father was a professional basketball player in Italy. He started playing the game at age 3, and never slowed down. For 31 years, Kobe has devoted his life to learning this game more thoroughly than anybody ever has. As a child, he would watch tapes of Magic and Bird because he could not watch the games live in Italy. There are stories of him trying a new move for the first time one night, and using it perfectly in a game the following night. He is a shooting guard, and yet he might have the best post footwork of any player in the league, in part because he sought out Hakeem Olajuwon to train him. At 34 years of age, with 17 years of experience, Kobe shows no signs of slowing down. His diet is specifically designed to assist him. He often spends every waking moment between games preparing his body for the next battle. He flies to Germany to receive cutting edge medical procedures just so he can keep going.
And then there is what he's done. Kobe Bryant has put on some of the greatest individual basketball displays the world has ever seen. 81 points. 62 points in 3 quarters (outscoring the opposing team all by himself). The slew of 40 and 50 and 60 point games. 35.4 points per game. Oh, and five rings to boot. He's only got one MVP trophy, "only" two Finals MVP's to his name. But he's achieved more than enough individual and team accolades to ensure a legacy as an all-time great.
In the end, however, Kobe will be most remembered for being the most devout student the game of basketball has ever had. He may never be remembered as the best at any one thing, and he probably won't be remembered as the best player to ever lace them up. But he just might be remembered as the hardest working, most dedicated man to ever play the game. Kobe Bryant is the master of his craft, and that is a title he'll be happy to have.