It's really hard to watch Kobe Bryant struggle in the twilight of his career, but it's hard to imagine him going out any other way.
It’s one of the most famous covers in Sports Illustrated’s history, though probably not for the reasons intended.
The image has become iconic. Michael Jordan, in a White Sox jersey, lunging badly at a pitch that’s already passed him by, with the text “Bag It, Michael!” in prominent yellow letters. The cover has become an indispensable part of just about any retelling of Michael Jordan’s short journey through the national pastime. The author of the piece, Steve Wulf, explained in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Jordan Rides The Bus that while he was not responsible for the incendiary cover, his article had a “smarmy” quality. In looking back on the text, it’s hard not to agree.
“He called the first base umpire “the ref.” In the field, he played a single into a double and an out into a single. Though he moves well on the base paths, his best time to first base, 4.35 seconds, is slower than average. At bat he brings to mind a taller, righthanded Rich Gedman-the Walt Hriniak disciple who can no longer hit the ball out of the infield…Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls.”
Wulf goes on to explain that he regretted much of what he wrote about Jordan’s disappointing spring training, and that, in fact, he was impressed by the progress the Bulls star had made when he traveled to Birmingham months later. But, by that point, the damage was done.
Telling hard truths about those we’ve come to marvel at is rarely pleasant, or easy.
For the last few years, a player that many would consider the closest thing to Jordan we’ve seen since his Airness left the NBA, has been grappling with his own harsh realities. The only difference is, Kobe Bryant is still playing the sport that made him a legend. This is not an experiment, a personal journey, or a pursuit of a long-held dream. This is simply the cost of injuries, and the passage of time, coalescing in ways that are unfathomable and entirely predictable.
The numbers don’t lie, and they spell disaster for Kobe Bryant. A True Shooting Percentage of 44.4 percent. (That’s eighth-best on the roster among rotation players.) A Usage Rate of 28.2 percent. (That’s first on the roster among rotation players.) These two things cannot, should not, must not exist together. And the rest of the story isn’t much prettier. A PER of 13.2 (an average NBA player is a 15). A Net Rating of -13.5. A shot chart that is already well on the way to recreating last season’s grotesque horror.
None of this is exactly new of course. Last year, colleague Ian Levy explained how Bryant was actively hurting his team’s chances of victory. That was after the knee fracture that limited his 2013–14 season to just six games, but before the rotator cuff injury that cut his 2014–15 campaign short, as well. And as Jared Dubin noted before the season got underway, expecting Kobe not to be compromised, given the litany of injuries he’s endured, would have been sheer folly indeed.
But with each game that passes, Bryant’s woes appear to take on a deeper, more tragicomic quality. That’s how we’ve arrived at Kobe calling himself the 200th best player in the league, and certain analytic systems suggesting that he’s being quite generous. It’s why, when we read of head coach Byron Scott excusing him from practice due to “anger,” we suspect that it will not be the final time such emotions flare. And it’s the reason we’re able to snicker at the rather merciless lampooning of the state of his jumper, with the aid of a beloved old video game.
And yet, behind all the delightful snark, hides an uncomfortable fact. As so often in this life, we laugh to keep from crying.
There are a few things worth establishing as the season continues to unfold. One is that Bryant has every right to decide, for himself, how long he wages this battle. There is an unfortunate tendency, toward the end of the road, to place the burden of an athlete’s decline on his own shoulders. It’s why Bryant was forced to defend his $48 million contract extension with the Lakers from practically the moment it was signed. But just as Kobe was entitled to take every dollar the organization put in front of him, so, too, is it his prerogative to tilt at windmills, to chase a no-longer-attainable greatness, to play every single minute that is offered to him.
So there will be no call here to “Bag it, Kobe!” It’s not our decision to make, and that’s for the best, because it’s clear how excruciating it must be to come to terms with the present situation. “I don’t think this is his last year,” said his old coach, Phil Jackson, before the season began. “He’ll be fine,” said Scott, his current coach, in the midst of the fight. “He knows he doesn’t suck,” said LeBron James, Bryant’s heir not only in ability, but prominence within the league, “What I see is a challenge to himself. It has zero to do with age. Zero.”
They say these things because what else are they to say? That it’s all over? That hope is lost? That the career of one of the most willful, driven, resolute athletes of our time is destined to come to such an agonizing end? Such painful scenarios are nearly impossible to accept, for the peers who have played and coached alongside, the fans ready to tear through Temecula on his behalf, and yes, the Black Mamba himself, who, self-deprecating quotes aside, still clearly believes that improvement is just around the bend.
“I was being facetious,” said Kobe to the New York Times’ Harvey Araton, regarding his 200th-best assessment, “I really don’t think that.”
When Kobe was asked within that same Times article how he hoped the rest of the league would treat the final stretch of his NBA career, it was unsurprising to see him invoke the ideals of MJ. He related a story, from Jordan’s final All-Star Game in 2003, of a meeting in the locker room, and a promise to compete wholly without sentimentality.
“He and I were catching up in the locker room and he says, ‘You know, I just want you to approach it like any other game, compete against me just like it’s any other game,’ ” Bryant related. “I said, ‘Michael, what the hell about me made you think I was going to approach this any differently?’”
Such clear-headed objectivity, such absence of emotion, is noble in theory, and quite difficult in practice. That much has become clear, as one of the greatest to ever play struggles to justify his place in an NBA rotation. Kobe Bryant, at the height of his powers, could bend basketball to his will, so no wonder it’s so difficult to accept that, after two decades, the game finally refuses to yield.
With 76 games remaining on the Lakers’ slate, it’s natural to hope for a reprieve, a deus-ex-machina on the hardwood that can save us from more of the same. Maybe a few more weeks of game action will return some spring to Bryant’s step, some life to his legs. Maybe the jump shot that appears to have abandoned him will make a miraculous return. Or maybe, against all odds, the ball-dominating gunner we know and love can learn to step back, to defer to his young teammates, to come to terms with his own hoops mortality.
But in all likelihood, what remains is simply more of the same. Week after week of frustration. Month after month of bad basketball. More misses, more losses, and very little poetry. It’s undoubtedly quite hard to swallow.
Which is precisely how you know it to be true.