wasn’t it? There we were, on a soft spring morning in 1996, out in the leafy suburbs, in the Lower Merion High School gym, assembled by this hot shot kid, all full of himself, decked out with tinted aviator glasses perched just-so atop his meticulous coif, and he is calling the proceedings to order, saying, “Hi, I’m Kobe Bryant and I’ve decided to take my talent…” a pause for dramatic effect… “I’ve decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA.”
Remember? Remember thinking, “What a pair of gonads on this kid”? And the man with you, a man who knows basketball, really knows it, said: “Forget the arrogance. He can play. Not just play but dominate. Know what the players call him? ‘The Truth.’”
But he’s a teenager for God’s sake.
“I’m telling you, this kid could be the second coming of MJ. Check back in 15 years.”
You got it.
• • •
NEWS ITEM: On Dec. 14, 2014, Kobe Bryant passed Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 32,292 points. Karl Malone is second and Kareem Jabbar first.
We’ve been chewing on this for about a decade and a half now. Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant? I submit a short list for your consideration: The best five players I have covered since 1956:
It isn’t even close. Really. Whatever he wanted to do, he did. One season it was written that all Wilt could do was score and rebound. So he announced that he would lead the league in assists. Which he did.
Even now, some 40 years since he last played, his name still appears in the record books, page after page after page.
And he was wicked strong—Walt Bellamy, a strapping seven-footer, recalled being met above the rim by Wilt: “First he elevated me and then he dunked the ball and then he dunked me.”
Of all Wilt’s statistics, for all of the routine 50-point, 25-rebound nights, and there were tons of them, the most unique was this—he never fouled out.
The Big O. Inventor of the triple double. The numbers are staggering: For the 1961-62 season he averaged 30.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.1 assists per game. Time magazine put him on its cover.
In his first eight seasons he never averaged fewer than 29.2 points, eight rebounds and 9.5 assists. Nor was he some mindless, self-absorbed gunner—he averaged 18.9 shots a game.
In fact, he redefined the position of point guard. He was 220 pounds of hard rock muscle and he would linger out on the perimeter, sizing up what was needed, and then begin backing down and breaking down his man. He was too strong for smaller players and too quick for bigger ones.
He made the game his, controlling the pace of play and all of its subtle rhythms. Jerry West: “He’d put you to sleep. You’d look up and you were down a dozen, and you’d ask how did that happen and the guy next to you would say—‘O’.”
Blacksmith strong. Cobra-quick. First he was a man among boys and then a man among men and then… well, it’s a small, elite roll call up there atop Mount Olympus….
He plays with a glowing ferocity and as the others before him he sees the game, all of it, unfolding before him, and gauges how best to serve his team, determine who should have the ball, and when and where. It is as though the game slows down for him and he sees all 94 feet.
Too, there is also the little matter of versatility. He can play, à la Magic Johnson of another era, all the conventional positions—the sleek small forward, the Muscle Beach power forward, the post-up pivot, the set ‘em up point and the quick draw shooter.
There is a problem, however, and a gnawingly familiar one. Age. It comes in the dark of night in the guise of injury. At the beginning you might sit out a game because there’s a twinge you never felt before. Then two missed games become three, and now it’s a week, then 10 days.
The hurts take longer to get better and eventually they don’t get better at all. It’s called mortality, friend… mortality.
LeBron, Mortality… Mortality, LeBron.
NEWS ITEM, Dec. 17, 2014: Kobe Bryant sat out his third straight game to rest his sore body. The 36-year-old Bryant said his knees, feet, back and Achilles tendons are all sore.
NEWS ITEM, Dec. 20, 2014: Kobe Bryant came back from a three-game rest to notch a triple double—28,11,11—to lead the Lakers past Denver.
So he can still rev it up, still churn out those triple doubles, those sky walker sorties…only… only not as often and even though he still averages 24, is still among the league’s top half dozen scorers… it gets harder and harder, until a man lets a little thought creep in… the R word. Retirement?
Is that what we’re witnessing now? The Last Hurrah of Kobe Bryant? If it is, then let us give him his due—he came in carrying anvil-sized expectations… he was hailed as the successor to Michael the Archangel. At a time when everyone yearned to Be Like Mike, here came Kobe, and, yes, there are still those who wonder if the next Mike wasn’t right there under their patrician noses all this time.
Kobe didn’t shirk from it. He was true to his talent, didn’t squander it, put in the effort, lived in the gym. (“What do you do after you’ve made 1,000 jump shots? Make 1,000 more.”)
Once, when he was asked about Kobe, when Kobe was young and he was not, Michael said, a bit wistfully: “I remember when I had that much energy.”
Now it is Kobe being asked the question.
And then there was the time when a little girl asked MJ: “Is it true that you can walk on air?”
And he smiled that smile that glowed like candle light and told her: “For a little while.”
• • •
It’s been a long, long road from that soft spring day in that gym at Lower Merion High when that hot shot teenager was brashly proclaiming his intention, and that man who really, really knows the game was telling you just wait and see… just wait and see….
So we have.
He knows whereof he speaks.