Kobe Bryant had the habit of going through people – rivals, teammates, reporters, anyone who irked him. And just about everyone did.
During the twilight of his career, ESPN bumped him out of the top rank of its annual list of the NBA’s best players. Someone asked Mr. Bryant if that bothered him.
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve known for a long time they’re a bunch of idiots.”
All great athletes have confidence. Mr. Bryant was stitched together from nothing but.
Which is why his death on Sunday in a helicopter crash at the age of 41 is so jarring. He didn’t seem like the sort of person who would tolerate an untimely death, however ill-fated.
Eight other people, including Mr. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, were also killed.
They often say of very talented, slightly tormented people that they are a study in contrasts. Mr. Bryant only had one aspect – the front part, as he was coming straight at you.
Until a mid-career sexual-assault accusation made admiring him an ambivalent exercise, you might have said he was the emblematic 21st-century athlete – self-absorbed, ruthless and an absolute delight to watch.
He won five NBA titles with the Lakers, the only team he played on, as well as a franchise with which he seemed in near-perpetual, low-grade war.
He is linked in the public imagination with Shaquille O’Neal, not just because they were so complementary on the hardcourt, but because they were so uncomplimentary off it.
Most basketball pros are savants. Mr. Bryant was unusual in that he was designed to be one.
His father played professionally overseas. Mr. Bryant was raised itinerantly in Europe. He spoke Italian as well as he spoke English. He was home-schooled and treated as an experiment in human excellence.
He came back to the United States as a teenager. He turned pro out of high school at 18. He’d often reference the fact, in some sneering variation of “But how would I know? I never went to college.”
He was touted upon entry, but still doubted. The Lakers traded a well-liked veteran, Vlade Divac, in order to acquire his rights. Mr. Bryant set out to make sure those same people all hated him.
When Karl Malone – the second-leading scorer in NBA history – offered to set a pick for him in an all-star game, Mr. Bryant turned to him and said, “Nah, I got it.”
Mr. Bryant was 19 at the time and not yet a starter for his own club.
For a while, he was balanced between two possibilities – as either the next Michael Jordan or the next “next Michael Jordan” who ended up an epic bust.
But his self-assurance, coupled with a Herculean work ethic, turned him into one of the greatest offensive players in history. Which was fortunate, since Mr. Bryant wasn’t inclined to let anyone else shoot the ball.
In 2000, Mr. Bryant led the Lakers to their first title since the Magic Johnson era. He’d helped resurrect the most beloved franchise in the sport. They won titles the next two years as well.
Mr. Bryant was no longer the next Jordan. He was the new Jordan. A Jordan who didn’t just approach his on-court work like an assassin, but talked like one off it as well.
“As far as one on one, I’m the best to ever do it,” Mr. Bryant once said.
Since he treated every game as a contest between his ability to haul up 40 shots against five other guys’ ability to stop him, that was Mr. Bryant’s way of saying he was the best, full stop.
In 2003, he was accused of sexually assaulting an employee at a Colorado hotel. The charges were ultimately dropped and a settlement reached. Mr. Bryant released an apology that stopped short of an admission.
In the way of things those days, Mr. Bryant’s popularity didn’t suffer much. But it was now impossible for him to be the face of the league. So he became the NBA’s anti-hero instead.
In those early years of the century, Mr. Bryant was a social-media star before there was social media. The best pros did not tend to make news unless it was the feel-good kind. Most players followed Mr. Jordan’s example – speak sparingly and, when forced to do so, say nothing. Mr. Bryant treated the traditional media the way people now treat Twitter. He used it as a stick to poke his enemies. If he was upset, you wouldn’t hear it directly from him. You’d hear it from him on ESPN or in the L.A. Times.
Attempting to explain a down season on a mediocre Lakers team, Mr. Bryant said: “I was shooting 45 times a game. What was I supposed to do? Pass it to [teammates] Chris Mihm or Kwame Brown?”
Was he right to say it? Probably not. But however capricious, Mr. Bryant was rarely wrong. He made news. He spun the cycle. He saw the future of the entertainment business, and it was not nice stories about good guys saying kind things.
Given the NBA’s penchant and popularity for creating drama, that may be Mr. Bryant’s richest basketball legacy.
In 2006, he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. He would later call the feat “a testament to the imagination,” as if he was the first person to think of scoring a lot of points.
His career stretched more than two decades. The final years didn’t amount to much more than a triumphal march. In retirement, he won an Academy Award and was refashioning himself as an advocate for women’s sport.
For years, he’d been through regular cycles of consideration and reconsideration. Was he underrated? Was he misunderstood? Did he get away with it?
Now that he’s gone, those will intensify.
Few people will agree on what Mr. Bryant meant, not just to basketball, but to popular culture. He was the hero and the villain, which may be why he fascinates more than a typical sports legend.
All that can be said with confidence is that Mr. Bryant was utterly unlike any of his peers, and that they are right not to try copying him. There’s no point in being the second original.
The Globe and Mail, January 26, 2020