It’s become trendy to bash the embellished exhibition we witnessed on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The Staples Center doubled as a de facto runway for Kobe Bryant’s retirement. Soft defense and referees who gulped the whistle were on display for a conga line of luminaries that rivaled the red carpet on Oscar night. Social media served as an echo chamber for his fans, from Kanye West to Dirk Nowitzki to POTUS and FLOTUS.
And Kobe delivered, scoring 60 points in the most elaborate swan song in history, a solo that rivaled ‘Stairway to Heaven.’
Kobe haters say it was a perfect microcosm of his career, during which the sheer force of his skill, will and ego eclipsed his teammates, making the game a showcase of his talent rather than a referendum on winning.
And it puts yours truly in the odd position of defending him. Kobe Bryant largely embodied all the hallmarks of the modern NBA. He was a me-first gunner who got tendonitis taking 50 shots per game to score 60 points, and had to wake up his teammates during timeouts to remind them a game was going on.
The only problem is he won… a lot. In the zero-sum game that is sports, where rings shine with solar intensity, Kobe’s five chips equal that of the Lakers’ patron son — Magic Johnson.
Yet we regard Magic with godlike reverence. Along with Larry Bird, Magic literally saved the sport. He picked it off the trash heap of the ’70s, when there was more talk about kilos of cocaine than pick-and-rolls, when the NBA Finals actually aired on tape delay.
Since Michael Jordan retired, the game has slipped into some kind of cauldron, at least in terms of perception. It’s not nearly as sexy to pass the ball as it is to dunk it. Perhaps no one exemplifies this more than the All-Star in my backyard — Carmelo Anthony — who has been hailed as a hero despite never sniffing the NBA Finals, much less a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
So what’s the difference between Carmelo and Kobe? Well, winning, for one thing. Further, while Melo has similar talent on offense, and can match Kobe shot for shot, he falls woefully short on defense. Carmelo Anthony is largely allergic to that side of the ball. No one ever confuses him with Bill Russell or Gary Payton.
Kobe Bryant was first-team All-NBA on defense nine times — tied for the most in history.
And, for all his faults, Kobe has that certain thing the greats often do… a maniacal mechanism that makes him love winning but hate losing even more. Jordan, Magic and Bird had it. Pat Riley has it. The great ones can’t remember every shining moment, but they remember every bad one. Every double-dribble, bungled pass and wayward buzzer-beater is archived and on eternal loop.
While Kobe clearly isn’t MJ, he clearly isn’t Carmelo either. In fact, it’s hard to think of Kobe’s doppelgänger. Maybe Kobe is just Kobe.
No one has played more or done more with one franchise than Kobe Bryant has. His litany of deeds is too long to list here. Let’s just say that on a Laker franchise that has dominated the basketball for 60 years, and has more Hall of Famers than any west of Boston, Kobe is arguably the greatest ever. If you don’t believe me, just ask the one who most of us would label as the greatest Laker ever. That’s right, the Magic Man himself defers to Kobe. Whether that’s modesty or myopia is not for us to decide. But it’s his call to make, not ours.
And let’s not forget the other, singular Laker, who just happens to be the league’s logo. Jerry West, one of the five greatest guards to hold a basketball, went on to win 10 NBA titles as a GM. When it comes to total body of work, from the hardwood to the executive suite, no one has had an NBA career anywhere near his. West is a big fan.
Kobe could be the preeminent in purple and gold. The man played at an obscene level for at least 18 of his 20 years. He was an 18-time All-Star who scored more points than anyone in history except Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. And, as mentioned before, he was a nine-time, first-team All-NBA on defense.
For perspective, here’s where the world was when Kobe Bryant was drafted (by Jerry West, of course)…
Derek Jeter had yet to win Rookie of the Year.
The average price for a gallon of gas was $1.17.
Bill Clinton was still serving his first term, about to run against Ross Perot for his second term.
The “Macarena” was the top song in Billboard.
Cuba Gooding Jr. had just won an Oscar for Jerry Maguire.
The top non-fiction book was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
Rick Pitino was coaching the other team in Kentucky.
George Burns had just died.
Mad cow disease was wrecking England.
Princess Di was divorcing Prince Charles.
The Dow had topped 6,000.
Erik and Lyle Menendez were convicted of murder.
So slide on your stone-washed jeans and long wool coat, slide in your VHS copy of Clerks or Pulp Fiction or Good Will Hunting for the 10th time. It’s time to reminisce, and admire the man who played two decades of basketball at a level worthy of an Oscar.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.