Kobe Bryant Remains A Double-Edged Sword

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Like most things involving the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer, Kobe Bryant’s recent and admittedly over-blown decision to publicly chastise his teammates was predictably met with both an understanding nod by some and the usual disdain and criticism of others. This is nothing new for Bryant, as the 19-year veteran has probably been the most polarizing sports figure over the last decade and a half.

If anything, what is actually surprising is the contingency that somehow expects Bryant to change his ways this far into a Hall of Fame career. Not that additional adjustments couldn’t have at least opened the door for a smoother transition into the next era of Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball but, again, an expectation of that makes us ask: just which Bryant have you been watching all of these years?

Especially when you take into account – love it or absolutely hate it – in Bryant’s mind, this is the path that has led to the five titles, MVP awards (regular season, All-Star and Finals) and myriad other accomplishments and accolades along the way. More than any of the movements, mannerisms or fadeaways, that undeniable competitive nature matched only by a supreme self-confidence he shares with mentor Michael Jordan are easily their greatest similarities. It is what drives them. It’s what motivated each of them to outwork their contemporaries even while possessing more talent than most. That’s also part of what has led to the reputation each man has embraced that has ranged from difficult to downright adversarial when it comes to their demands and expectations with teammates.

Although Bryant might not win a popularity contest among the league’s current crop of star players, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone from within the league that doesn’t shower him with praise and admiration when asked for an opinion on the enigmatic all-time great. They respect the drive it takes to compete so feverishly even when on many nights his current Lakers (8-17) are clearly over-matched.

While so many of us tend to focus on the faults within his aging game, especially in a year where his usage rate has climbed to 34.1 (second only to Russell Westbrook) coinciding with his player efficiency rating falling to just 19.1 (ranked 52nd), opposing players and coaches still routinely rave about Bryant’s ability and willingness to play 35.6 minutes per night at the age of 36 and following consecutive season-ending injuries.

Even with those faults, Bryant, if anything, has been the model of consistency as his current 25.5 PPG, 4.9 APG and 5.0 RPG are right in line with his career averages. With this year’s team much more likely to be headed to next summer’s lottery than actually participating in playoff basketball, the truth of the matter is Bryant is already playing his legacy years whether he acknowledges it or not. He may be battling it out with Nick Young, Jordan Hill and Jeremy Lin, but Bryant’s reality is that most of his efforts are now against the ghosts of yesteryear as he continues to carve out his very own section of basketball’s history books.

Upon moving into third on the all-time scoring list, it was only fitting that Bryant received an instant reaction from two of his lifelong idols in Jordan and Magic Johnson amid a flurry of congratulatory tweets and Instagram posts from both current and former players.

After praising Bryant’s achievement via Twitter, Johnson went on to share additional adulation and praise:

“Laker fans, we’ve been so blessed to watch Kobe Bryant, one of the top five or six best players ever, play in a Lakers uniform!”

Jordan was also just as complimentary in his assessment of Bryant’s feat.

“I congratulate Kobe on reaching this milestone,” Jordan said in a statement released on Monday. “He’s obviously a great player with a strong work ethic and has an equally strong passion for the game of basketball. I’ve enjoyed watching his game evolve over the years and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next.”

The Jordan vs. Kobe debate isn’t likely to end anytime soon. It’s a popular ‘barbershop discussion’ (or social media discussion) these days. Without stoking the flames, one of the more discernible differences between the two is in how their decisions and acts are judged by some analysts and fans. While Bryant is questioned for holding the feet of teammates to the fire after what he clearly deemed an unfocused or unmotivated effort in practice, we regale Jordan for his competitiveness even though he famously decked current Golden State Warriors coach and former teammate Steve Kerr in the face for reportedly disagreeing with him during a drill in practice.

Anytime you not only follow a living legend (their careers overlapped for four seasons) but are also clearly the closest thing to him, you’re going to face your share of criticism and doubts whether entirely fair or not, and if Bryant himself were being honest, he’s never really been one to shy away from the comparisons. The truth is, while Bryant has shamelessly and wisely “borrowed” from Jordan’s game, he’s also done the same with Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and even Dirk Nowitzki among others.

Bryant is like a walking, barking, snarling museum of basketball history that NBA fans still get the benefit of watching live for the time being. His current contract expires following the 2015-16 season, but with over 55,000 minutes (regular and playoff) on his legs we know absolutely nothing is guaranteed.

Perhaps the most telling part of the scene in Minneapolis wasn’t just how surprisingly sheepish and appreciative the normally steely-eyed Bryant was when being presented with the game ball and acknowledged by the crowd, rather it was the look of inevitability in his face as things began to sink in. As he was being hugged and congratulated by teammates that were literally in kindergarten when his journey began, it’s almost as if a part of Bryant quietly acknowledged things coming to an eventual end. Realities of that nature can be quite sobering, especially for someone that has reached the pinnacle of success so often throughout his career.

Bryant’s maintained intensity may not be for everyone, but for those of us that watch those Hardwood Classic games on late-night NBA TV with a slight tear in our eye(s), he’s the final link to a time when the game had a slightly different vibe. Of course, we all love how the game has shifted and advanced over the course of his career, but it actually makes what he’s still able to do at this age that much more impressive. Bryant has been described as both a gift and a curse, but that unflappable desire is exactly why he’s been able to consistently make the seemingly-impossible somehow look routine so often throughout his career.

That may no longer come in the ‘Fro-be’ version that attacked from any and every angle and usually up-and-over the top of anyone that dared to get in his way (Go to YouTube and search “Kobe dunked on”), but the fact that he’s still finding the energy to produce at such a high level at this point is almost as impressive as any feat from his past.