Simon: "I don't want to die on this ship."
Inara: "I don't want to die at all."
- Firefly, Episode 8: 'Out of Gas'
I was born on the 26th of September, 1994. Kobe Bryant made his NBA début on the 3rd of November, 1996. I thoroughly consider myself a child of the Kobe Bryant generation. I grew up a witness as he took this Laker team to highs and lows, through the Shaq era, the painful middle years, and finally the age of Kobe, with the last two championships against Dwight's Magic and our age-old nemesis, the Celtics. I watched him come into his own, to transform from a petulant kid to a veteran, evolving in his excellence - all the while growing up myself. I knew it all had to end some day, I just never imagined that the day might come so soon. Suddenly, this season feels irrelevant; suddenly, all the team's other struggles of this year feel inconsequential. The previously-unimaginable has occurred, the constant has regressed to transience: Kobe Bryant is out. Kobe Bryant is out.
Don't get me wrong - this is Kobe - I don't think for one second that he's willing to call it quits at this. He's never been one to listen to his body, and it doesn't look like he's about to start - over 50,000 minutes played sounds like a warm-up to him. If anyone can come back effectively from a torn Achilles, it's Kobe, he of the manic work ethic. But therein lies the problem: Kobe's determination to defy reality and his mortal limitations is well-documented - most recently in his playing 46 minutes per game - only, now it is proven to have consequences. A torn Achilles could occur at any time, admittedly, but I'm not buying that his workload had nothing to do with his injury, not to mention the other two he suffered in the very same game.
I can quite easily visualise Kobe Bryant making his return by the beginning of next season, defying all expectations and the very theory of sports medicine itself. I can equally readily imagine him trying to do too much, too fast; I can see him trying desperately, desperately, to bring in one last championship on his own back, only for his very body to give out under him, taking him out of he game permanently in the form of another injury, one that may adversely affect his quality-of-life for years to come. I hope he's not that foolish; I hope he's learnt his lesson.
Kobe Bryant is not going out like this, that's for sure - but that should hold as equally true in the future as it is now. Unfortunately, the Lakers' contract situation is so positioned for them to go into rebuilding mode very soon, with an ageing squad and a plethora of expiring contracts; it's become painstakingly clear that the team as currently constructed cannot compete. Kobe's not ending his career in another NBA jersey; that leaves his only hope for another championship a front-office coup. Though I ask: if the Lakers bring in, as rumoured, a LeBron James or whatnot, is it really Kobe's championship? Would he truly want that?
The stark reality is that it's now nigh-indisputable that the Lakers do not win another championship in the Kobe Bryant era. Furthermore, medical theory suggests that, while Kobe can (and will) certainly return, he likely won't be Kobe. I see a farewell tour in the making - one last season for Kobe to make the rounds, show a few young folks the works, perhaps treat us to another legendary performance or two, and close the 672-point gap between him and Michael Jordan in the all-time scoring list. There'll be a few flashes to remind us who he was, but I don't doubt that overall it'll be obvious he's no longer the same player. That's the best I dare hope for. And, you know what? I'm not disappointed.
At this point in time, with the Lakers' accursed season unlikely to improve, all that's left to do is to look back and reminisce. Nobody wanted Kobe to go out in such a fashion - nobody wanted Kobe to go out at all - but it was inevitable; Father Time conquers all, as the old adage goes. Just as after a death one looks to celebrate life, in light of Kobe's injury we should look to celebrate his career: five championships, an MVP and two Finals MVPs, fifteen All-Star appearances and four MVPs, thirty-one thousand six hundred and seventeen career points. Eighty-one, sixty-two, eight threes in a half, forty-seven in forty-eight minutes - to list all of Kobe's highlights and achievements would take days. But, as Michael Jordan once noted, highlights start in the gym.
From the brazen rookie to the consummate veteran, the one thing Kobe has always done is work. This work ethic has been with him through the best of times and the worst of times; it's what carried him beyond fifty thousand career minutes. Many speak of how Kobe, young Kobe in particular, always wanted to be like Mike; they overlook how he's taken moves and skills from players throughout history: Hakeem's Dream-Shake, Kareem's Sky-Hook, Jordan's post game - it's all there. Herein lies the miracle of Kobe Bryant: Hakeem's Dream Shake takes advantage of his unnaturally-quick footwork for a big man, Kareem's sky-hook is made unstoppable by his length, and Jordan's post-game worked so well due to his size and hands. Kobe has none of those advantages: he's shorter than Kareem and Hakeem, and smaller than Jordan; while others bullied their way through the paint, Kobe, being a relatively skinny guy, took a beating - not that it ever stopped him. What's his trademark move? The step-back jumper over an outstretched defender (or several), one of the most difficult shots in basketball, yet one that's always available. Others used what they were given, Kobe took what he could. It involves no natural physical advantage, no screen or teammate to help one get open; it's a by-product of sheer work and skill.
This move encapsulates what it is to be Kobe Bryant: nothing about his body ever suggested an all-time great; that, coupled with his attitude at age seventeen, quite comfortably explains why he was drafted as late as he was. He had no size advantage, no otherworldly athleticism (beyond, of course, that which is often seen in professional sport), no Dwight Howard or LeBron James-esque physique. He had his work ethic and his mind, and used them to develop his skill-set through tireless work and research at all hours, dedicating his life to his craft, rendering it an art-form. That's why, as recently as two seasons ago, a 33-year-old Kobe Bryant was still considered to be competing with an in-his-prime LeBron James for best player in the League. Of late, the inevitable occurred, with it becoming blatantly obvious that, at least on a day-to-day basis, James had surpassed Bryant, but the fact that Kobe was still in the conversation despite his age serves as an ode to his magnificence.
The age of Kobe is fading while that of LeBron soars to untold heights; what LeBron James is doing now is unstoppable, immense - scary, even. He seems like a god on the hardwood. But I could never bring myself to love him as I love Kobe; something about him off-the-court just seems artificial. Moreover, I fail to see any subtle beauty in his game, the way it is embodied in Kobe's - I don't see the footwork, the calculation, the patience, the strike. I see a man who is indubitably one of the greatest natural athletes in history taking his talents to the hardwood, and excelling, at that; but I quite simply don't see Kobe's dedication and brilliance. Whereas Kobe Bryant's body of work - his play, his dealings with the press, his life - seemed timelessly classic, organic and teleological, LeBron's seems manufactured and marketed, a by-product of the ADHD-addled modern era of 24-hour entertainment. Basketball is something that LeBron James does, on his path to making money and a name for himself; basketball is something that Kobe Bryant is.
Not to detract from the former - it can no longer be doubted that he's one of the greatest to ever play the game, and at this point in time it's becoming increasingly likely that he will eventually overtake Kobe in the annals of history; we can't begrudge him that. This saddens me greatly - not because I think LeBron doesn't deserve the honour, but because I worry that Kobe, fading from grace as LeBron ascends, will be forgotten, viewed merely as a precursor to the age of LeBron. That would be a travesty. Kobe may not be the greatest to ever play, let alone a perfect player; he had his foibles and idiosyncrasies - shot-selection, petulance in his youth, a tendency to lack arc on his long-range jump shots, turnovers, stubbornness, take your pick - but what he was was truly special. These intrinsically human flaws juxtaposed with his acutely inhuman focus to characterise his persona: dedicated, genius, manic - above all, transcendent. His greatness has been overlooked by so many for so much of his career, now is the time to make amends.
The League will go on, as will the Lakers; they were a great franchise before Kobe Bryant (and even Jerry Buss), they'll continue to be one in the years to come. The League is in one of the best positions it's ever been in - the Lakers are unfortunately rather worse off; however I don't doubt they'll rebuild effectively. The framework exists for the age of Dwight, and, with the number of expiring contracts the Lakers have, the front office certainly has the tools to build around him. I do believe that a squad led by Dwight could win a championship, or several - particularly considering that a healthy and clued-in Dwight is one of the few forces which can hamper LeBron James. I don't, however, imagine that this will ever be 'Dwight's squad' as it was Kobe's; I simply don't see over a decade of unparalleled excellence with this franchise in his future.
Beyond Dwight, there'll be other stars - some might even be better than Kobe - but there'll never be another Kobe, and that's a veritable tragedy. It is, therefore, fitting that the injury that brought him down occurred in a tendon named after the famed hero Achilles, a legendary warrior like Kobe. Unfortunately, it did not occur in any great victory equivalent to the sacking of Troy; there will be no legends woven around the moment. It was, ultimately, a tragic farce, Kobe Bryant playing a ridiculous number of minutes trying to salvage a doomed team.
The Mamba bit its own tail, the vino fell off the rack and shattered - irrespective of how well-aged it was, there's no putting it back in the bottle. Sure, go looking for a new drink, but don't forget this vintage - there'll never be another quite like it.