I’m inclined, right now, to say the end of Kobe’s career is, in bigger terms, the end of precisely nothing.
This comes back around to the vaseline-lens retrospective reflex that credits players—great players, anyway—with leaving something like a legacy behind in whatever sport they played. This never works in, say, football, even though we do an awful lot of thinking about this or that player’s legacy. Football is a chaotic clusterfuck, even under the best of circumstances: there are too many players on the field at a given time, too many players on a team, too much complexity. Maybe you will see it as working to football’s credit that a single great player is almost never enough to elevate an otherwise not-special team into a champion, let alone fundamentally change the way the game is played. Fine. The NFL is trash, but, fine.
Baseball is similar, but for different reasons. A given player’s impact on his sport is kept in check by virtue of how infrequently he actually interacts with the ball. Baseball’s structural rigidity means that the best hitter in the world is only allowed to come to the plate as often as the weakest slap-hitting tomato can on the lineup card. Hell, even a generational starting pitcher doesn’t take the mound more than 30 or so times a season. The marks great baseball players leave on their sport are historical, and are romanticized for precisely how cleanly and identifiably they fit into a relatively stable, self-consciously timeless narrative. Outliers are celebrated, but the sport...shit, man, you’ve seen Field of Dreams.
Basketball is a little different. The sport itself has a more open form, with fewer players on the court and more room for personal expression. These and other factors—the relative importance of innate variables like height and leaping ability, the amount of interplay between teammates, the interchangeability of roles—mean that a single superstar player (think LeBron James) can not only drag his replacement-level teammates to greatness or near-greatness, but can alter the entire way the sport is played for a generation.
I’m thinking, here, of the Jordan era. Jordan’s dominance was, at least in part, attributable to his physical advantages over other wing players of his time. Jordan was a prototype, the big, loping, physical guard. As his career progressed, the NBA changed: Chicago’s rivals resorted to mugging him, so Jordan took his game closer to the block, where his physical advantages were most pronounced but also where he’d be less subjected to the crunching fouls given on drives to the cup. Jordan’s patient, methodical, mid-post brilliance combined with the league’s hunkering response to create the aesthetically brutal, low-scoring basketball of the 90s.
A whole generation of kids grew up modeling their games after Michael Jordan. This worked out to be a growth enterprise, because the NBA spent the mid-90s into the early aughts searching for players to fit Jordan’s type, the alpha-dog wing scorer. The NBA was going through an ugly phase, and this search returned a lot of junk: guys like Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, Ricky Davis, and, God help us, Darius Miles were pegged and, ultimately (and to varying degrees) miscast as players of the type, mostly by virtue of nothing more than that they were of a certain size, and could leap a little. At the other end of the spectrum, this trend begat Vince Carter, and Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant. Some of these guys were prized for what they could replicate from Jordan’s oeuvre, the rest were at least strapping enough to be tossed in front of the alpha wing as a physical barrier.
And Jordan was, himself, seen as a kind of one-man wrecking ball to replace the all-court wizardry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The NBA moves in these epochs—hell, maybe the other major sports also do, but the NBA’s are uniquely defined by the superstars of the time. Not just that they were great, but that the whole NBA zeitgeist was formed around their particular shape.
I feel like I’ve lived through a few of these eras, now. Michael Jordan changed the way teams built their rosters and the actual rules of the sport. Shaq gave us Michael Olowokandi and Eddy Curry and Hack-a-Shaq and plunged the NBA into a decade of pretending stiffs like Bryant Reeves were valuable player types. LeBron ushered in the notion of real positionless basketball, ultimately broadening the NBA’s imagination for what could be done with guys like, for example, Draymond Green. Steph Curry is, right now, dramatically and possibly permanently changing the way NBA teams defend the three-point arc.
It’s a thing to think about, now, while so much is being made of Kobe’s retirement. It will be weird, I think, to not have Kobe around in the NBA. Or, anyway, it’ll be weird at first, and maybe only to the extent that you’ve considered late-career Kobe as really existing in the NBA at all. The Lakers have been performing Kobe’s retirement process for several years now, as the realization slowly settled in that the only thing of note left in his career was for it to end. Like the Sixers, who haven’t been functioning as a real NBA team for a few years now, the Lakers haven’t played a meaningful NBA game since 2013—for some of us, Kobe is long gone, and this season has been an odd bureaucratic process.
And so it’s starting to seem like a lot of the grand Kobe rhapsodizing is rote, perfunctory, and even performative. It’s hard to pin down exactly what Kobe’s lasting impact on the NBA really is. That the NBA spent most of Kobe’s career gradually shifting away from the brand of basketball that inspired his ascendence is mostly a testament to Jordan’s singularity as an alpha wing scorer. Frankly, no one in the years since, including Kobe, has been anywhere near efficient enough playing that particular brand of basketball to make it really sing, even as the NBA has instituted rules designed to open up the floor and discourage the kind of hunkered defense that was a response to Jordan in the first place. Kobe is, himself, a callback to the greatness of an NBA prototype, but mostly, during his peak years, the NBA cast about in a post-Jordan hangover, fitfully trying to plug in a series of successors. Kobe was the best of them, but the league was never remade in his image.
This leads to the uncomfortable probability that, really, so much is being made of Kobe’s retirement because Kobe gave everyone, including NBA and Nike marketers, a year of notice. What went unsaid in Kobe’s early announcement is its implicit reason for existing: that Kobe Bryant believes he deserves a grand retirement tour. Which is kind of perfect, really. Kobe’s mostly been a lingering stench in LA for a few seasons now, and his retirement is now fully a formality. The guy was reviled, even Nike’s last-gasp Kobe ads acknowledge this. The only real testaments to Kobe having existed at all are accolades and the current, dire state of the Lakers. If we weren’t putting on a pageant to acknowledge his passing, the only signal of his final exit would be an immediate overall improvement in the quality of NBA basketball.
So, I dunno, what I’m saying is this: don’t watch Kobe’s last game tonight. Steph Curry and the Warriors are closing in on a nearly impossible record. Tonight, in Los Angeles, history will strut around and grope for significance. La di da. In Oakland, history will be made. Don’t be a rube.