There are individual and team sports – that’s the easy way to separate them, at least. Easy and, well, lazy. Applying a broad brush to anything, instructively, obscures the (important) detail. There are levels to this. Basketball is more of a team affair than, say, baseball, which is effectively bat (one guy) versus ball (one guy) in front of a loose collective of fielders. How it differs to football – choose your favourite kind – is not so much how you play, but how you practice.
In basketball and football, winning and losing are cooperatives. There’s an unbreakable, two-way dependency between each teammate. No quarterback throws a touchdown to himself, no striker is a keeper and no one man – nay, G.O.A.T – ever won a title alone. There’s a reason, though, basketball – not baseball, nor football – was crowned “The City Game.” Hoop, ball, kid. Indoor or outdoor. It’s often learned, then perfected, alone.
Shooting jumpers by yourself is more golf than actual basketball. Those who write texts on such things refer to “closed skills” and “open skills.” A closed skill is applied in a predictable environment and the activity is entirely self-paced. Read: a basket bolted at 10 feet in an empty gym or park. 6 makes or 600. You’re at a driving range and there aren’t even any clubs to blame when you launch one out of bounds.
It’s for this reason basketball is full of personalities who could have and maybe should have taken up golf. The self-motivated, single-purposed among us who rise at 6AM, 3 times a week, to get 500 shots up before breakfast. Those with the unshakable belief that from repetition comes results. The 10,000 Hour crowd. What separates them from the average person is mostly achievable (and very much admirable) and, cruelly, what separates them from the average NBA player is not. Incredible drive minus a winning ticket in the LeBron James Genetic Lottery produces Ganon Baker.* Would he, as far as he’s gone in basketball, have gone even farther in something less reliant on being huge or a world-class athlete? “Ganon Baker – 4 x British Open champ?”
Distil a Baker-esque mix of determination and diligence. Inject it into the son of he who dunked on Kareem/fly kicked him in the head. Now you have something. Joe Bryant, in Kobe’s words, was “a 6’10” do-it-all wing” before 6’10” do-it-all wings were a thing. As is dictated by the law of the family tree, Kobe would have been unlucky not to get an NBA physique. His ambition to make it to the professional ranks can likely be attributed to following in Dad’s footsteps, too. The laser focus with which he chased that dream, though, was born elsewhere.
By his own admission, Kobe didn’t fit in as a kid. In Italy, he was the weird American. In America, he was the weird Italian. Basketball was his way to show everyone, of any and all cultures, who he was. I know this because I watched Muse, Kobe’s self-funded, self-produced and self-narrated documentary – his new super-charged way of showing everyone, of any and all cultures, who he was (and is). It’s almost too obvious he would take this route, an insult to fan intelligence everywhere: Kobe, who has attempted to cut out the middle-man his whole career, cuts out the middle-man for the story of his career. It’s also the way someone who has used the game to derive their own self-worth acts as their chapter is closing. Once you can no longer go out and drop 50, you need to know people remember that you used to go out and drop 50.Muse, in another way, was an admission that there’s nothing documentary worthy left for Kobe. He’s still playing! Why release a movie about your playing days while they’re still going, if you aren’t somewhat convinced all the best moments have already been covered? And how can you simultaneously feel that way and take thirteen 3’s on Opening Night? Kobe seems to have acknowledged he is winding down, then committed to proving himself wrong.
“It’s not at all uncommon to find a person’s desires compelling him to go against his reason, and to see him cursing himself and venting his passion on the source of the compulsion within him. It’s as if there were two warring factions, with passion fighting on the side of reason.” Plato wrote that about Kobe in 380BC as part of his work The Republic. Or at least, he may as well have. To watch Kobe now is to see this in action. There are 9 other players on the court, a group of officials and coaches, and 20,000 people in the stands, but Kobe is playing against Kobe.
“I suck right now.” That’s not Kobe’s answer to a question to how he has been performing, rather to how the Lakers can turn their season around. A positive interpretation is that the resident living legend shouldering the responsibility of failure has a certain nobility to it. Another is that a 37 year old with 20 seasons on the clock feels he is a one man band, which is depressing – both his mindset and the reality of it. The Lakers are so bad there’s a semi-defensible truth to his answer. The counter-argument is that an over-the-hill Kobe’s ownership of the entire team’s wins and losses is exactly why they are bad. Until he stops thinking that way, and begins delegating via leadership style and with ball, the status quo will remain.
It’s not surprising he thinks the way he does. It’s always been him against the world and basketball his weapon of choice. Some may disagree, citing his age and that even the fiercest of competitors have come to terms with their own mortality late in the game. Think Gary Payton, backup point guard, walking the ball up the floor during Miami’s first title run. Or Dirk (hypothetically) agreeing to come off the bench for LaMarcus Aldridge.
The best rebuttal is again, Plato’s: “He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age. But to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden.”
* That is absolutely no knock on Ganon, who is a cyborg, and who’s workouts can only be completed by other cyborgs.