Kobe Bryant's lonely imperiousness

Even at his peak, Kobe Bryant made greatness look grueling. He had every gift, every natural blessing — but he made having them look hard. He could do whatever he wanted on a basketball court, but being in charge of that kind of skill was exhausting, and the strain showed. It was as if he had to keep the Amazon flowing with nothing but his own force of will. The scorn he directed at other players — at rivals, at his own teammates — always seemed to come from a place not just of superior ability but also of superior suffering. You call that a river? He defined himself through his talent, but in the sense of someone who takes pride in carrying a heavy burden without mislaying it. He had contempt for anyone whose burden was smaller, or who didn’t take it as seriously; this was why, after he’d made something of himself, he couldn’t go on tolerating Shaq. His stringency and his ferocious responsibility to himself left him sealed inside a closed circle. People wanted to be like Mike. When Kobe came around, they wanted to get the hell out of his way.

He wasn’t humorless, nor was he above showboating. But where Michael Jordan’s little backpedaling shrug was a gift to the crowd, a way of inviting fans in, Kobe’s smirk was a provocation. Jordan knew instinctively that the final inch of dominance was earned through a certain lightness, and he cultivated it as ruthlessly as his jump shot — the tongue-waggling, the pranks at the All-Star Game, the celebrations where he wept unself-consciously or seemed to float in the air. It was theater, but it completed the aura of invincibility; here was an athlete whose supremacy was so unshakable that he could afford to act unconcerned about it. Kobe could never be unconcerned, because unlike Jordan (or LeBron, or Shaq, or Kevin Durant, or Allen Iverson), he didn’t inhabit his talent so much as angrily oversee it. His smile had a way of making moments feel more tense, of ratcheting the stakes to a level at which only he could cope with them. It wasn’t in him to be generous. If you’re Superman, you can have fun flying; if you’re the CEO of Exxon, oil is never a joke.

Those are the opening two paragraphs to a magnificent piece on Kobe Bryant by Brian Phillips. This was a money quote to me: “He made misanthropy look like a key ingredient in a team sport.” Not a single teammate invited to his wedding. Not a one.

I love that we have so much more data with which to understand the value of basketball players in a sport like basketball which has so many interaction effects (Kirk Goldsberry's piece is an exemplar of the form). But Phillips' piece is a type of piece I hope we don't lose in sportswriting, a form of exploration of the fans' emotional relationship with particular players.