Kobe Bryant and I – Understanding basketball’s bard and his complicated legacy
Kobe Bryant had a clarity of thought or a grander vision that was a refreshing break from a lot of NBA stars who never looked beyond themselves. That his most used quote – life is too short to hold grudges – isn’t basketball or sport-specific speaks volumes about the person he was.
I can’t pinpoint the exact reasons for it but my roll number in school was always 24. It could be because I never changed schools. I am sure the size of the school -- we had some 600 kids in total with no ‘divisions’ in classes – also played a role. It was pretty much the same set of 40 kids from class one to twelve.
Or maybe I was just lucky.
In the mid-2000s, when puberty was kicking in and sports started becoming an integral part of my ‘male’ existence, I started searching for heroes and teams to support. It was an integral part of your identity. David Beckham was a heart-throb so it wasn’t entirely surprising that a lot of us started modelling our lives and hairstyles around the Manchester United midfielder. Formula 1 was also at its peak so Michael Schumacher inevitably drove into my life (thanks partly due to my elder sibling’s undying love for the Prancing Horse’s arch-rivals McLaren).
Strange as it may sound, a close friend’s ‘demo’ version of Electronic Arts’ NBA LIVE PC game was my introduction to the world’s most popular basketball league. The TV timings of NBA didn’t really favour school-going kids in India (watch TV in the morning was a big NO in most households) but the game got us hooked and we ended up skimming through TV time listing in newspapers every day to find the right time to watch the highlights. Lakers’ superiority in the era and franchise’s global appeal meant inevitably we were all watching the LA team in the highlights packages. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that there was only one hero for all of us – Kobe Bryant.
Becoming a fan
From the moment I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary
In the Great Western Forum
I knew one thing was real:
I fell in love with you.
For people my age, who caught on the NBA wave post Michael Jordan’s retirement, there was only one true hero. On burning-hot cement courts we would try to mimic the Black Mamba’s moves and his epic partnership with Shaquille O’Neil. My large frame meant I often took up the Center’s role but make no mistake, we all wanted to be Bryant. This meant shooting ‘three-pointers’ with paper balls from your designated seat in classrooms to the waste basket in the corner and shouting “Kobe” each time you succeeded.
But in 2006-07 season, something – perhaps insignificant in the grand scheme of things -- happened that actually changed my life. Kobe changed the digits on his jersey from 08 to 24 -- the number he had in high school at Lower Merion.
In a tiny city in Southern India, a child with the roll number 24 cried ‘destiny’.
Kobe was already a big star by then but my own journey as a fan had roots in that season. In hindsight it does seem like a silly reason to follow a player but when has logic ever been a prominent reason in fan culture?
LeBron James’ emergence as the new superstar and my own position on the court as a Center meant I started watching less of Bryant post 2010. But that didn’t kill the fandom; it just widened the ways I looked at Bryant.
The Lakers’ star was perhaps ‘beyond basketball’ in so many ways. A childhood in Italy, where his father played professional basketball exposed him to a different culture as opposed to the kids growing up in America. His love for football was one thing that stood out. He also had a clarity of thought or a grander vision that was a refreshing break from a lot of NBA stars who never looked beyond themselves. The fact that his most used quote – life is too short to sit around and hold grudges – isn’t basketball or sport-specific speaks volumes about the player he was.
Basketball was his job. His first love. But you got this feeling there was more to the man. Kobe was beyond basketball. And that was a feeling amongst most Lakers fans which perhaps explain why they refused to protest even as the team got bogged down by Kobe’s wages in the latter stages of his career.
Kobe Bryant was a black hole that the Lakers management could not evade. Which is strange for a franchise that has always housed legends of the game. It was a sacrifice they were willing to make for Kobe’s 20 years of service. Lakers doing that for someone tells you so much about the person.
A complicated legacy
“I try to look at my legacy and how it impacts the future of the game. I’m not looking at my legacy from the standpoint of where I fit in with the greatest of all time. For me, it’s a moot point and a shallow argument.
“I think the most important thing and the most beautiful thing is how your legacy impacts the generation of players to come. If what I’ve done and what I’ve stood for these 20 years has impacted the players today and the players tomorrow in a positive way, in a way they can then carry that legacy on themselves and impact the generation to follow, that’s much more significant than where I stand in history,” said Bryant, in a conference call after announcing his retirement.
As an early-career journalist and a long-time Kobe fan, those words had sounded like a poem during the call. Yes, Kobe was a poet with words but looking back, the question by the Associated Press journalist had actually been on Kobe’s legacy. The reporter was in fact indirectly hinting at the big blot that clouded Kobe’s career – the 2003 sexual assault case.
The player had found the right words to evade a potentially damaging question. In fact, he has never once agreed on his assault after making an out-of-court settlement with the victim. He made it sound like he thought there was consent even in his apology statement in 2004. After the allegations, Bryant signed a seven-year contract valued at $136 million over seven years, and regained most of his endorsements including Nike, Spalding, and Coca-Cola. It didn’t affect his image then. The ‘blot’ continues to go missing in the obituaries flowing in.
Art vs Artist
I remember having a casual conversation with a fellow journalist about our sporting heroes a few years ago. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius… they had all turned villains by then. Where do we draw the line? Does Tiger Woods’ beyond-the-field activities make him less of a golf hero? This came back down to the age old art vs artist debate.
The #MeToo movement and the increased overall awareness meant the end of my long-term association with the player. For years I had chosen to not speak of Bryant’s past. Thankfully, in LeBron I had found a star that was more in sync with my own politics. Someone who stood by what he believed in than someone who reminded you of an astute politician or a wily court jester from the tales.
But the 15-year-old in me will miss the Kobe Bryant I once loved. He was the star who got me hooked to the sport. He was, in so many, my first basketball love. We as human beings move forward but that first love and that first tingling feeling in those teen years, will always remain special. And for that, I will forever be thankful to Kobe.
This morning I woke up with a lump in my throat. The images from the helicopter crash continue to haunt me. Memories continue to barge in.
There was a slight reshuffling in our roll numbers after class 10 with new students joining the small class and some leaving. My roll number changed to 23 for the new two years. It didn’t have any significant impact like Kobe’s shift to 24. But in 2020, with another Lakers resurgence under LeBron dominating the news, and Kobe’s sudden death causing a deluge of memories in the head, the roll number change incident comes back to haunt me. LeBron wears 23.
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye - Dear Basketball by Kobe Bryant