In a political culture of red versus blue, a sports culture of you versus us, and a general culture of black or white, Kobe Bryant might have been more aptly nicknamed for the areas his career spent the majority of its time in: the ambiguous shades of gray.
This season, and especially this week, has been marked by breathless thanks to Kobe for what he meant to the writer. This isn’t to say those articles haven’t been touching, nor that the sentiment is lost on me to any extent whatsoever. One of the greatest traits of Kobe’s career is just how much he meant to his fans. Few athletes in the history of sport will come close to that relationship, but, I can’t help but feel like that’s telling only a part of the story.
To me, the greatest takeaway from Kobe’s career is how it forced us to recognize the shortcomings of black-and-white thinking. As such, looking back at his career without thinking of both the achievements and shortcomings would be selling his time in the NBA short.
Look at how this current generation of athletes is covered. LeBron James was a choker, until he wasn’t. Peyton Manning couldn’t win the big game, until he could, and the second of those big games came because of a dominating defense. Still, it didn’t matter. He walks away with two Super Bowls. Steph Curry is the greatest thing to happen to the NBA since lord knows when, unless folks think his style of shooting is bad for basketball.
Where is the room for actual critical thinking? How is this a decent way to analyze our sports? Conversely, listen to conversations about Kobe.
To take it a small step further, LeBron is mocked for his Instagram photos and high-school-level subtweets. Analyzing Bryant was so much easier and more interesting when he put himself on video to say something to the extent of “Of course I want Jason Kidd over this Bynum kid.” Was it the best way to handle it? No. But did it make for a more meaningful conversation? I’d say so.
“Sure, he won all those rings, but he wouldn’t have won those three without Shaq.” “Great, he walks away with five rings, but look at the state in which he’s leaving the Lakers.” “Sure he’s a closer, but might it be time to turn away from the hero ball he made his name off?” “Yes, he was one of the most exciting players we’ve ever seen on a basketball court, but there’s also that whole situation he had to deal with off of it.”
At few (if any) points in his career has Kobe been considered anything singular. Just as in the sentences above, there seemingly always remained that “but”. This is what I’ll remember him for, and it’s something we should hope we get back to, especially on the larger platforms on which sports are covered.
Nuance is fun, after all, isn’t it?
Waiting for athletes to fail just to point our fingers from on high when they do is about as cynical way to watch what should be entertainment.
We will continue building athletes up, only to tear them down. In the era of the internet, this will never go away. Only the great ones will find a way to climb that mountain we built up for them with abstract and arbitrary expectations based on some impossible-to-define grading system that always favors the critic.
When I’m asked how I’ll remember Kobe, the great plays will obviously stick out. The championships will race across my memory. The losses will stick into my heart like the daggers Kobe dealt out to countless opponents. To go with that, though, I’ll also think about this last contract and his refusal to take substantially less than he did to bring in another star. I’ll think about how Byron Scott was hired and remained employed — at least partially — to placate this farewell tour.
The cool part: Of course that’s how we should remember him. If all athletes thought like Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki, owners would have all the leverage to basically demand stars take pay cuts while they make millions hand over fist. Without Kobe’s undying desire to take that final shot (and in his prime, make quite a few of them), we don’t have the ammunition to have some passioned conversations on how late-game possessions should go.
For me, the greatest compliment I can offer and what I’ll forever cherish about Kobe is that, here, as we are mere hours away from his retirement, a larger part of me than I ever would’ve anticipated is ready to move on. This sentiment would be impossible without Kobe’s own incredulous honesty as the years went on. I can only hope we see more like him, and the shades of gray return to how sports are covered.