Over the last few weeks, there have been a ton of great stories remembering Kobe Bryant and his impact on the NBA, but one of the best was from Jorge Sedano of ESPN, who talked to players like Shane Battier, Tony Allen and Jalen Rose about what it was like to try and stop the late Lakers star from scoring.
One of my favorite parts was Battier, the generally reserved defender dubbed “The No Stats All-Star” by Michael Lewis in an iconic New York Times profile, admitting that despite his cool demeanor, he wanted to beat Kobe as bad as Kobe wanted to beat him:
“Inside, I was a raging bull,” Battier said of their head-to-head showdowns. “I wanted to beat him more than I wanted to beat anybody.”
And while Bryant said on multiple occasions that Allen was the defender that gave him the most problems during his career, the showdowns I — and I’m sure at least a few of you — will always remember most were his battles with Battier. Whereas Allen was like a rabid junkyard dog for Bryant to try and fend off, his battles with Battier were more like a chess match between two grandmasters, each making little moves and tweaks to set up their next one. It was a war of basketball technique at the highest possible level by two of the game’s greatest thinkers.
It’s fitting that Battier saw things the same way, literally referring to their matchups as “the ultimate chess match” on the “Brodie and the Beard” podcast last year, during which he admitted that his infamous hand-in-the-face defensive strategy was just a mental attempt to bait Bryant into trying to prove the method didn’t work.
“The funny story about the hand to the face, and Kobe... said ‘that didn’t work, I had so much muscle memory I saw right through it,’ (but) the reason why I did that was not to make him miss. That wasn’t my aim, which he thought it was. It was to try to get him to prove that method didn’t work. And by trying to prove that method didn’t work, the only way he could do that is take his worst shot, the long-dribble jumper, and so that’s all I cared about.
“Whether he made it or missed the shot I didn’t care, but I knew he was doing the thing that was most beneficial for me and the most harmful for his efficiency by taking that shot, so that was the game within the game within the game within the game that Kobe and I played with each other, and it just was the ultimate chess match. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it right now, but he’s the only guy to ever really bring out that level. I’m just really sad we’ll never get a chance to talk about that in person.”
But while Battier fought admirably in those battles he — and the rest of us — will never forget, even he would have to admit he ultimately lost the war. Bryant won the only playoff series they faced off in 4-3, and had a 20-17 edge all-time in their matchups during the regular season.
And despite Battier being at the forefront of the “Kobe Stopper” dialogue, he didn’t really do that, as according to the invaluable Basketball-Reference, Bryant averaged 28.6 points per game against Battier’s teams on 43.3% shooting. While his efficiency was slightly lower than his career average (44.7%), that is nearly four points more than Bryant’s scoring average over the totality of his time in the NBA (25 points per game). And in their one playoff series, Bryant scored more (27.4) points per game than his playoff average (25.6) on higher efficiency (45.3% vs. 44.8%). Do you think maybe he noticed all the people saying Battier could slow him down?
Stats noted, there’s no shame in those results. That was just Kobe. He was Thanos. He was inevitable. You might slow him once, but he’d adjust and win in the end.
In fact, if there is anything this proves, it’s that in case there was any doubt, there really was no such thing as a “Kobe Stopper.” Or, in the words of Kobe himself:
Battier may have wanted to beat Bryant, but as was the case with most players during his storied career, that was easier to want than to do. Still, it’s fun to listen to those players reminisce about how hopeless it felt to try, and so if you’re feeling nostalgic and want to remember better times, Sedano’s story is definitely worth a read in its entirety.