Among the deluge of tributes to Kobe Bryant floating around cyberspace now is one tweeted by Shane Battier, one of the few defensive players capable of getting under his skin during his imperious 19-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. "Kobe is the greatest competitor I have ever faced. I'm glad he's found peace. I don't know if we will ever see another like him. Enjoy the last 66."
The message captured something of the sense of confused response to Bryant’s news, as if the Black Mamba had shuffled off to the Great Beyond rather than announced his intention to retire from basketball.
Battier was part of a successful – and therefore loathed – Duke college basketball team with a super-sharp intellect who had, since 2001, thrived among the chorus line of NBA's indispensable support players until his retirement in 2014. Battier's unorthodox skillset was based on what the writer Michael Lewis, in a riveting profile, identified as "a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and near invisible strengths".
Chief among those was an academic’s interest in studying his opponents and a detached level of unselfishness. He possessed an overall understanding of the game which meant that even though it didn’t look to the casual observer as if he was doing anything much, statistics illustrated that his presence on the court caused his team-mates to improve.
In many ways, Battier’s NBA career has been the inverse of Kobe Bryant’s, which for almost two decades has been dazzling and brash and egomaniacal and ugly and beautiful and jaw-dropping all at once. Sports superstars, particularly in America, occupy a space somewhere above their actual sport and become indelibly associated with an era, like movies or pop songs.
But Bryant has been a Laker since the summer of Bill Clinton and Monicagate and he has been an effervescent presence through two traumatic administrations of George W Bush and he will all but see out both terms of the Obama administration. Post 9/11, post-recession, Bryant has shown up, bullet-headed in his Laker strip, grinning or snarling as befitting the occasion and year after year doing extraordinary things with a basketball.
At his best, he could not be guarded, which meant that the most a designated defender like Shane Battier could hope to do was limit the extent to which Kobe did-as-he-pleased with the basketball. At his best, Bryant had such an unfair repertoire of attacking gifts as his disposal that he could play it anyway: the show-off pyrotechnic air game and humiliating dunks of his early years; the intuitive passing game with Shaquille O’Neal; and then the arrogant, ridiculous fade-away jump shots – including threes – he perfected in the second decade of his NBA life. And then always, always, a viciously brilliant defensive game.
Bryant enjoyed toying with other players and other teams and he did that so thoroughly and frequently that he could make exceptionally gifted athletes look leaden-footed and clunky and hopeless is his shadow. He was never that bothered with humility and felt sufficiently entitled to bitch about almost every single foul a referee ever called on him and he made the Lakers experience of more than one team-mate an exercise in his misery because of his hectoring that they do more, that they give more, that they be better. He was and will remain a selfish player in that he always believes his shot is the best option: you don’t get to score 81 points in an NBA game without being a little trigger-happy.
For 19 years, Bryant has been symbol of whatever it is the Lakers are supposed to represent. Five NBA championships; one MVP; third on the all-time scoring list. He has been a Laker longer than Jerry West, longer than Magic Johnson, longer than Shaq and nearly as long as Jack Nicholson. A cast of stars have come and gone – both in the Lakers' fabled celebrity front row and on the bench – during the quest for a sixth title to garland the Bryant era.
As Los Angeles began to lose its lustre, Bryant became grimly – and then insanely – determined to just carry the club on his shoulders. It is then that he became his most fascinating as a sporting performer; trying to defy age, reason and superior opponents just to prove everyone wrong.
His last few seasons were either an example of an individual ego grown so monstrous that it was allowed to dominate a major business/ sports club or a completely unself-conscious soul-baring of an athlete determined to wring everything out of himself.
You could have long dismissed Bryant as a brat, but what you couldn’t deny him was a frightening desire to win and to compete and to keep playing, shaking off an Achilles tear, a fractured knee and a shoulder tear to vow to return for another season.
He announced his retirement after a mundane, narrow loss to the Indiana Pacers, when he scored just 13 points in a four-from-20 shooting performance, a stat of which he would have been contemptuous just a few seasons ago. But it is tempting to think that his mind was made up last Tuesday night, when, in a curious alignment of the stars, the Lakers met the current NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors.
For years, the beatnik, irrelevant alternative in California’s NBA schedule, the Warriors, led by their wraithlike genius Steph Curry, were seeking a record 16 wins from 16 games. The prospect of spoiling that party; of shutting the crowd up, of shoving it down their throat, of hogging the limelight, of being Kobe, would have had him revved up for the contest. But there was no contest.
The Lakers are a pale team locked into Job’s $25 million per season – he will bow out as the league’s best paid player.
And the Warriors continued to thrill with their madly expressive, freewheeling style of play. All eyes were on Curry. Sometimes Kobe was on the court. Sometimes he wasn’t. He scored four points and finished one for 14. You had to look for him. That was the killer part. Impossible to imagine as it once was, Bryant was an irrelevance on the court. And the game itself seemed to be pushing towards a new form. Curry has such a slender build that when he was a teenager scouts didn’t think he could even make it to the NBA, let along alter their perception of how elite basketball can be played; pure speed and elusive finesse and a quickfire distance shot the likes of which has not been seen.
That evening was basketball’s coldest rebuke of Kobe; the game’s way of calling time on him. That he acknowledged that himself – composing a poem to the game, to himself – was testimony to the fact that his timing, at least, hasn’t deserted him.
And even though he still has 66 games left to play, the confirmation he is all but gone already leaves a void. He owes basketball nothing. He played with a singular combination of hatred and hauteur and beauty that belonged to the era of Michael Jordan. And it is only becoming clear now why Kobe Bryant was so heightened in his demands and his on-court efforts and his declarations over the past few years. He was afraid that it was going to leave him.