According to Kobe Bryant, he freaking sucks right now.
This is an accurate self-assessment.
A player who shot more times than he passed through his first three games, hit 20.7 percent of his threes and couldn’t help his team win a game against a slate of opponents nobody expects to make the playoffs could very fairly be described as one who sucks.
Kobe, ironically, is shooting straight on this point.
But let’s all hope this brief encounter with reality, this unusual shift into step with how just about everyone else views him, doesn’t foul up what was looking like a perfectly on-brand finish for one of the most delightfully delusional, maniacally competitive athletes ever to live. Let’s hope this whole “I freaking suck” business is just Kobe looking for doubters wherever he can, even if he has to look inward.
Let’s hope it’s an attempt at self-motivation.
Let’s hope it’s not a concession to the truth.
Because we (or at least I) much prefer the Bryant who defines his own truth. The one whose late-career inefficiency, poor shot selection and generally destructive on-court behavior was obvious to everyone but him. He heard us all talking about his diminished effectiveness. He saw the preseason rankings that pegged him 25th a year ago and 93rd this season, and he was upset by them—even when, in hindsight, both figures were wildly generous.
He didn’t care what the stats said, what critics claimed. He kept playing mostly the same game and saying mostly the same things because that’s what Kobe has always done.
He acts out. He defies. Even if he’s acting out against the obvious and defying the logical.
And that’s how I want him to keep acting: as though he’s still an alpha who can expect not to suck, even when there’s so little evidence to suggest that’s possible. I mean, Bryant is 37. He’s playing in his 20th NBA season after tearing an Achilles (basically a death sentence for NBA players) and losing huge chunks of time to knee and shoulder surgeries over the past two years. The fact that he’s able to get up and down the floor at this point is something of a miracle, given his age, injury history and absurdly high mileage.
Kobe has never viewed his skills, his success or his ability to buck the odds as a miracle. More like a birthright, really. And it’s made his final seasons fascinating.
If you think about it, Bryant’s legacy is that of a single-minded, hyper-confident competitor—a player who absolutely refused to compromise at any point during a very long and extremely successful career. He bypassed college, entered the league with egregious levels of swag (before swag was even a thing), butted heads with the most dominant big man and coach of the modern era and basically did things his way. All the time.
And it pretty much worked.
So I don’t want a Kobe compromise. I don’t want to see him holster the bad shots or dial back the “King Kong ain’t got s–t on me” bravado.
I want him to end this thing (assuming this is Bryant’s last season) angrily. Fighting. Straight up raging. Because as impressive as the rings and scoring titles and certain Hall of Fame status are, those don’t really define Bryant as much as his pathological desire to conquer—whether the target was the game, opponents, or limitations in general. Bryant needs to stay in character because his greatness is so wrapped up in how he’s done it—more so, maybe, than what he’s done.
It won’t go well, of course. He’ll continue to miss lots of shots and grow even more frustrated. But that’s better than the alternative: Watching Bryant, the most preternaturally competitive hooper we’ve seen since Jordan, bow out and give in.
Even if he’s lost the ability to dominate today, let’s hope he never loses the belief that he’ll dominate tomorrow.
Rage, Kobe. Rage.