NBA Dime Drop - Kobe Bryant: The Imperfect Man Who Chased Perfection

The shadow of Kobe Bryant looms large over the NBA this week, following the tragic helicopter crash in Los Angeles last Sunday, which killed all nine people on board.

There is shock, grief and sadness running throughout the sports world, that has overflown into the wider world. And I’ve had difficulty processing it all. 

I’ve questioned whether or not the public response would have been anywhere near as widespread had such a tragedy not involved a sporting icon. Sadly, I think it wouldn’t. I’ve wondered what this says about us and our humanity.

I’ve worried that the legacy of Kobe will be polished and cleaned. Presenting a skewed, photoshopped, perfect account of a man who’s flaws and imperfections were significant.

And now I worry that the Bryant family, following the loss of both Kobe and thirteen-year-old Gianna, will not be afforded the privacy and time to mourn properly, by an invasive media searching for stories and content. The irony of me typing that sentence within a column, about Kobe, is not lost on me.

It goes without saying that Kobe was one of the greatest players ever to step onto a basketball court. Entering the league as a seventeen-year-old, he was effectively the first guard to make the jump from high school directly to the NBA. He was cocky, confident and brash. It was clear early on that he possessed one of the fundamental qualities needed to succeed. The willingness to fail.

I remember the 1997 Playoffs, the four airballs in Utah. One air ball would have made most rookies hesitant to shoot again. Four could have defined the career of someone made of weaker stuff. But not Kobe. The Adidas marketing campaign that followed, of him working out in the summer to bury that experience, was awesome. I still have the CD-ROM.

He was one of the rarest of sporting talents. A player who combined the most elite physical gifts with an even rarer tireless and obsessive work ethic to create a skill-set very few athletes in any sport can ever flirt with, let alone consistently maintain for two decades. 

On 11 January 2006, in his final season wearing the number eight, I got to witness Kobe Bryant in person for the first time. He’d been on a tear coming into the Rose Garden, dropping 45, 48, 50 and 45 in his previous four games. But the Lakers, who would finish in the seventh seed, lost by 10 points to a lowly Trail Blazers squad destined for a 32-50 season.

Kobe sucked. I was so disappointed. I offered him no caveat for his teammates. No consideration that this was his fourth game in six nights. He shot 3 of 13 from three.

And then I checked the box score. 44 minutes. 12 of 13 from the charity stripe. Four steals. 41 points. Forty. One. Points. Kobe might not have been in the rhythm that night. He might not have had his legs. But he gutted it out and did the little things that required effort, attention and repetition to (more than) get by. He took care of the details. 

I left the Rose Garden that night, wondering why my expectations for him were so high? And what kind of number he could put up, given half the chance? Eleven nights later, we all got to witness what that looked like, as he stuck 81 on the Toronto Raptors.

And that’s how I’ll choose to remember Kobe, as an example of the extremes of our imperfect humanity. We all strive for greatness. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we succeed. Often we fail. But don’t define someone by their best or worst performance. Define someone by the effort they put into the little details, that we so often overlook.

Weekend Watchables

Kobe’s four airballs versus Utah, 1997

Kobe 81 points, 2006

Dear Basketball, 2017

You can hear more from Mike weekly on the Double Clutch Podcast, the UK’s leading NBA podcast.

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