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.

Kobe vs MJ

"One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader," Jackson writes. "Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence.  Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones."

“One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader. Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones.”

"No question, Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender," Jackson writes. "He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense."

Those are excerpts from Phil Jackson's new book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, coming out Tuesday, in which he compares Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan.

This bit was especially revealing.

Jackson also revealed that the sexual assault charges levied against Bryant in 2003 temporarily clouded his outlook of the Lakers star. The situation "cracked open an old wound" because Jackson's daughter Brooke had been sexually assaulted by an athlete in college.

"The Kobe incident triggered all my unprocessed anger and tainted my perception of him. ... It distorted my view of Kobe throughout the 2003-04 season," Jackson writes. "No matter what I did to extinguish it, the anger kept smoldering in the background."

I am definitely going to pick up that book. Too bad Phil Jackson hasn't coached more of our generation's leading players. I'd love his insight into, say, Lebron James or Tim Duncan.

Leadership is not self-justifying

Kobe Bryant posted a long status update on Facebook, of all places, about why he's a douchebag:

Leadership is responsibility.
There comes a point when one must make a decision. Are YOU willing to do what it takes to push the right buttons to elevate those around you? If the answer is YES, are you willing to push the right buttons even if it means being perceived as the villain? Here's where the true responsibility of being a leader lies. Sometimes you must prioritize the success of the team ahead of how your own image is perceived. The ability to elevate those around you is more than simply sharing the ball or making teammates feel a certain level of comfort. It's pushing them to find their inner beast, even if they end up resenting you for it at the time.
I'd rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate. I wish they both went hand in hand all the time but that's just not reality. I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success. Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.

Of course, my interpretation may be solely mood affiliation, but he also signed his post "Mamba out" which is about as damning as any evidence you could enter in the court of public opinion.

Rafe Bartholomew theorizes the status update was addressed to Smush Parker, who Kobe savaged publicly last week. Because as you know, great leadership is calling out your teammates publicly, then following that up with a passive aggressive Facebook status update. The only part of the Mamba moniker that rings true is that Kobe is indeed a snake.