Why Kobe Bryant Was Basketball’s Comeback King

This article originally appeared at Rolling Stone 

Sports superstars are image conscious almost to a fault, and basketball players perhaps most of all, because they’re completely exposed on the court. Unlike other athletes, they can’t hide behind pads or helmets.

So they carefully cultivate a public persona, create a character for the cameras. This can take the form of a scrubbed spotlessness, a kind of high-sheen Dudley Do-Righteousness (Michael Jordan, Steph Curry), or it can angle toward darker anti-heroism (Allen Iverson, Russell Westbrook), but either way it is manifestly — and sometimes exhaustively — conscious.

These labels are subject to change, especially once a player’s career is over, but we’ve rarely seen a star’s image evolve as steadily and surely as Kobe Bryant’s, who over the course of his 20-year career went from an earnest, middle-of-the-road go-getter to a dire, driven destroyer of worlds. At this point, one of Kobe’s most appealing qualities is that he simply doesn’t give a fuck, but the truth is, he never has, and it’s always been this way, no matter how it’s been packaged.

Don’t believe me? Here are eight examples of Kobe in his DGAF prime.

1. The Draft Diss That Defined Him
Let’s try to connect the dots. In the summer of 1996, the Lakers’ main priority was signing Shaquille O’Neal. In order to do this, they had to clear salary, and that meant moving their starting center, Vlade Divac. Coming off a .500 season and boasting sweet-shooting Glen Rice and plenty of potential, the Charlotte Hornets needed to shore up a frontcourt rotation that had 19-year vet Robert Parish playing the second-most minutes at center. A deal was struck and the Hornets would receive Divac in exchange for whatever player the Lakers asked the Hornets to take with the 13th pick in the draft. That player was Kobe Bryant.

Whatever machinations went on before the draft, and regardless of the questions about drafting a guard straight out of high school when only big men (and only a handful) had made the leap before, the immediate fallout from the trade was good for both teams. The Lakers got Shaq and a good prospect, while the Hornets went 54–28 the next season and general manager Bob Bass was named Executive of the Year.

But just try telling that to Kobe.

Whether Bryant’s agent Arn Tellem actually strong-armed Kobe to Los Angeles or whether this was simply a matter of one team taking the safer, more assured route, there’s simply no evidence beyond Kobe’s insistence on it — even 20 years later — that Charlotte actively dismissed him because they doubted him. This is the fuel, though, the “Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team” that begins his long, esteemed career of not giving a fuck.

2. The Four Airballs
In his rookie season, Bryant mostly came off the bench behind Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, but in the playoffs, the Lakers found themselves in dire straits. Facing the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals, Los Angeles was without current Lakers head coach Byron Scott, and in Game 5 Robert Horry was ejected for fighting, and Shaquille O’Neal fouled out before the game went to overtime. With the score tied and a chance to win, Kobe got the ball. And he shot an airball.

In the extra session, Kobe went 0-for-4, including three more airballed 3-pointers. He ended 0-for-6 from 3-point range in the game, plus 4-for-14 overall, presaging a comment he would make about Deron Williams more than a decade later when Williams went 0-for-9. “I would go 0-30 before I would go 0-9,” he told director Gotham Chopra. “0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game. The only reason is because you’ve just now lost confidence in yourself.”

3. This Picture
Why is Kobe wearing a headband and a hat? What is he doing with his hands? Who thought this was a good idea?

4. Soft Like Charmin
The seasons since his Achilles injury (and more ­— much more — on that later) have not exactly been kind to Bryant. Over the last few years, statements like “He’s one of the most clutch players ever,” have increasingly been answered with questions like, “Is he?” And even after he worked his way back from one of the most devastating injuries a player can suffer, he was faced in December of 2014 with a team consisting of Carlos Boozer, Nick Young, and Ronnie Price. Kobe did not hide his displeasure over that fact after a particularly bad practice.

Debates about Kobe’s effect on his teammates are nearly as old as his career itself, from playing second banana to Shaq in his first three championships to the downplaying of the importance of Pau Gasol during his last two title runs. There have been articles written about the “Kobe assist” that show how maybe Bryant’s relentless shooting is actually a positive.

But this? This is Kobe simply operating at a Defcon 1 level of dickishness. What else can you say about a guy who summed up his feelings about his teammates thusly: “These motherfuckers ain’t doing shit for me.” The fact that this was Bryant’s first practice in weeks only adds to the piquancy. Bryant can say all he wants about tough love and how he really has his teammates’ development and best interests at heart, but it also lets him do what he does best. Which is giving zero fucks.

5. Poor Smush
It’s an unwritten rule in sports (and probably life in general): Don’t throw your former co-workers under the bus. But in 2012, Kobe didn’t just toss his old teammates beneath the wheels, he floored the gas pedal as he was driving over them. “I almost won an MVP with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown on my team,” he said. “I was shooting 45 times a game. What was I supposed to do? Pass it to Chris Mihm or Kwame Brown?”

This is actually the brilliance of Kobe in repose, a window into his psyche. Most of us hold the occasional grudge, but by and large we’re able to forgive and forget, and remember that people are people, no matter their faults. But Smush Parker was, according to Kobe “the worst. He shouldn’t have been in the NBA, but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard. So we let him walk on.”

In fairness, this wasn’t exactly unprovoked — Parker wasn’t shy about criticizing Bryant, either — but come on. This is what my mom used to call swatting a fly with a Buick. Kobe shouldn’t have even bothered giving Parker the time of day, but instead, he gave him the back of his hand, probably because he checked his gym bag and realized he was all out of fucks.

Go to Rolling Stone to read the rest.

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