Wolf on the Rock
January 8, 2015 1:39 PM   Subscribe

"Great athletes sometimes find themselves in these clarifying final acts. Shaq retired in a cloud of chummy nonchalance. Jordan went out on a play that completed the perfection of his all-important legacy (and then came back to screw it up, in a move that told us just as much about what drove him). Most of the time, though, careers wind down in ways that mean nothing except that time is passing. Remember Karl Malone in Los Angeles? This season is the distillation of the go-it-alone challenge Kobe set for himself back when O’Neal and Phil Jackson left L.A., or even sooner — Kobe, remember, is the star player who invited none of his teammates to his wedding. (It’s a wonder he invited his wife.) He can’t win, a fact that has no apparent bearing on the fury with which he is trying. We’re seeing Kobe stripped of everything except the will to succeed, a will that persists despite being hopeless. We’re seeing him face his doom with a fearlessness that is ludicrous, profane, and maybe slightly inspiring. We’re seeing the existential Kobe Bryant." Grantland's Brian Phillips on Kobe Bryant.

via FreeDarko's Bethlehem Shoals who called this "THE BEST PIECE OF BASKETBALL WRITING I HAVE EVER READ."

Previously: Brian Phillips, Kobe Bryant, Free Darko, Brian Phillips AND Free Darko
posted by davidjmcgee (23 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was excellent. Good sports writing makes me wish I cared about sports. loved this line:

Nick Young would tear Kobe’s throat out just to appear in this sentence.
posted by shmegegge at 1:48 PM on January 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


My knowledge of professional basketball hovers slightly above nil, but this was still a good article. I'm a fan of this line:

He was a narcissist, but a strangely impersonal narcissist, like a general whose army happens to be deployed inside himself.

That would be at home in Wizard People, Dear Reader.
posted by Green With You at 1:52 PM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Kobe Bryant is the modern Achilles.

(is my slatepitch)
posted by selfnoise at 1:54 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


And yet the earth turns.
posted by noaccident at 1:55 PM on January 8, 2015


If Kobe and Jordan had ever been on the same team it would have been like that time a psychologist made three men who all thought they were Jesus live together for two years.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:18 PM on January 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Face his doom? Jesus, there's overwritten sports journalism and then there's making it sound like an athlete is going to die if he doesn't win.
posted by clockzero at 2:18 PM on January 8, 2015


Sports and sports writing fill a really interesting place in the world of letters. For centuries, we've had warfare, religion and kings to use as objects about which we write and think. Achilles, Jesus, Louis XIV, etc. And now we have Kobe Bryant, Rhonda Rousey, or Tim Tebow fueling the same kind of thinking. I like it.

Sports, in comparison to reality, has the advantage of being essentially meaningless. Lionel Messi is astounding and dominant, but his dominance (despite what soccer fans will tell you) doesn't actually matter in the same way that Napoleon's dominance mattered. But most of the same kinds of character traits, emotions and interpersonal dynamics still exist, and so we can still write about life and death and "alpha dogs" etc. And then we can laugh about it and move on, because Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan still don't matter to anyone who doesn't want to care.
posted by DGStieber at 2:29 PM on January 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


Face his doom? Jesus, there's overwritten sports journalism and then there's making it sound like an athlete is going to die if he doesn't win.

That's almost the case here. Kobe isn't just a good player. Heck, he's not even just a great player. He was the guy that people said would be the greatest ever. Not winning is tough on every athlete, but if you are driven to be the best of all time then it's a referendum on your entire career.

Kobe is going to retire as the "not quite Jordan". That's great if all you ever wanted to be was a professional basketball player. It's another thing entirely if your goal was to have Jordan be "not quite Kobe".

Likewise Tiger Woods, who will be viewed not as the man who won 14 majors, but as the man who failed to win 19.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:47 PM on January 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I grew up watching the showtime Lakers. I saw Magic play Jordan at the Forum, and I've seen Kobe play at the Stapler at least once or twice a year since he started.

I think it'd be hard to say, without resorting to statistics (which I don't follow), who is/was the better player.

Remember, Jordan was playing what was then an innovative, faster and more physical kind of basketball that a lot of the pros at the time had trouble adjusting to. That style had become dominant by the time Kobe got big. It seems to me that Kobe didn't pose the same kind of Outside Context Problem to his contemporaries. He just did it better then everyone else.

And Tiger Woods' name will be better known than Nicklaus' before too long, by anyone who isn't an actual golfer or golf fan, thanks to the generational impact of TW's time fronting for Nike & EA Games, among others.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:06 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Face his doom? Jesus, there's overwritten sports journalism and then there's making it sound like an athlete is going to die if he doesn't win.

Perhaps Phillips was using the word doom as Tolkien did, to mean fate or decisive moment, not necessarily death or destruction. Perhaps.
posted by stargell at 3:14 PM on January 8, 2015


There's also a huge difference between not being able to win a particular game and never neing able to win a pro game again, which is what Kobe's facing. The whole article is about the imminent end of Kobe's career and the absurd death throes he's going through in denial of it.
posted by LionIndex at 3:27 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think it'd be hard to say, without resorting to statistics (which I don't follow), who is/was the better player.

I've watched a lot of games and statistics don't precisely quantify a better player in a team sport, as opposed to golf for example. There are teammates that you want to play with because they understand your strengths and weaknesses and help you to play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Magic Johnson was one of the best at this as he could score on almost any possesion but didn't always shoot. He kept his teammates involved.

Considering the era, before the three point shot, I think Oscar Robertson had the best ratio of scoring to assists. Good players help the team.

And then there is Kobe who believes that he is the team.

Watching some athletes age you are saddened. I'm reminded of Ali.

I like watching Kobe Bryant fail.
posted by vapidave at 4:19 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Magic Johnson was one of the best at this as he could score on almost any possesion but didn't always shoot. He kept his teammates involved.

I've argued many times that there is a case to be made that Magic was the best all-around player ever, precisely because of his court sense and phenomenal passing.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:13 PM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think it'd be hard to say, without resorting to statistics (which I don't follow), who is/was the better player

Fortunately fivethirtyeight.com recently answered this exact question.
posted by smokysunday at 5:32 PM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Kobe Bryant is the modern Achilles.

(is my slatepitch)


It's Homer? It's the Iliad? Read a book!
posted by The Tensor at 7:40 PM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Nate Silver is clearly a very very smart person and definitely my election bookie but Once And For All: Michael Jordan Was Way Better Than Kobe Bryant only answers the question of who would win were they to play one-on-one, not who was the better person to have on your team. And only maybe that. [I happen to agree with him re: Jordan v Bryant] But; there are a lot of athletes that play in team sports who have outstanding individual statistics because they played on a team where their supporting cast was above average but less than stellar. John Stockton holds the NBA's record for most career assists (15,806) by a margin of more than 3,000, as well as the record for most career steals (3,265) but never won a championship.

I think the best illustration of team play being more important than simply adding statistics is Basketball at the 2004 Summer Olympics in which

Carmelo Anthony
Carlos Boozer
Tim Duncan
Allen Iverson
LeBron James
Richard Jefferson
Stephon Marbury
Shawn Marion
Lamar Odom
Emeka Okafor
Amar'e Stoudemire
Dwyane Wade

Finished, um, third.
posted by vapidave at 7:43 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


 Jordan went out on a play that completed the perfection of his all-important legacy

What a bizarre statement to make. Jordan almost certainly pushed off against Bryon Russell on that play.
posted by euphorb at 9:44 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Isn't a Jordan foul not getting called on the game-winning play a perfect representation of his career and legacy?
posted by fullerine at 11:10 PM on January 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


An article on ESPN several years ago pointed out that both Bryant and Jordan used (sometimes imaginary) vendettas against opponents to motivate themselves, but Jordan pushed his team to win the game and Bryant pushed himself to score more points than his rival regardless of the outcome of the game.

Bryant comes close to Jordan on offense (due to his derivative playing style?) but Jordan was a better defensive player over their careers.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:46 AM on January 9, 2015


Bryant ran Shaq out of Los Angeles. Does anybody have an excuse for that?

Kobe tell me how my ass tastes.
posted by bukvich at 6:13 AM on January 9, 2015


there are a lot of athletes that play in team sports who have outstanding individual statistics because they played on a team where their supporting cast was above average but less than stellar.

One of the other guys who writes for 538 wrote a long but absolutely fascinating thing about Dennis Rodman that gets into some of these player vs. team issues. It's also a great thing to read if you would like to see a graph where Dennis Rodman by himself halves the correllation line between offensive and defensive rebounding for all of NBA history or another where Rodman is 7 standard deviations over the mean in rebounding percentage in a dataset containing only seasons that led the league in rebounding percentage.
posted by Copronymus at 9:20 AM on January 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'll admit to my bias upfront in that I'm a die-hard Lakers fan and a big Kobe fan in particular. My move to Southern California coincided with Kobe's rookie season and I think the first or second Lakers game I ever attended in person was the 1997 playoff game where Kobe missed a last second shot against the Jazz, so I feel something of a personal connection having witnessed his entire career on a local level.

Kobe is coming back this year from missing nearly a full season (and a part of the previous season + playoffs) due to a severe injury. It is also his 19th year in the league. Given that, I have a hard time seeing how one could really feel any schadenfreude over Kobe no longer being as elite of a player as he was in his prime. The guy has 5 rings, 2 NBA Finals MVP's and a league MVP on his list of accomplishments. If the worst thing you can say about him is that he was not quite as good as the absolute best player ever to the game in the history of the sport's existence (and arguably the greatest athlete of all-time period), I think that is a pretty fantastic resume.
posted by The Gooch at 11:26 AM on January 9, 2015


"Jordan almost certainly pushed off against Bryon Russell on that play."

Jordan shoved Byron Russel in the ass so hard he sent him half way down the key.

But if the league won't call it? Kareem was fouled on every single play, offense or defense, that he participated in.
posted by vapidave at 11:56 PM on January 11, 2015


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