kobe-no_country_for_old_men_series_1

“Friends hang sometimes, banners hang forever.”

It may be the hungriest line ever carved into the fabric of comradery in sports. The reminder that winning, not whining, is the ultimate goal—recalling a time when the giants had less off the court and therefore, perhaps, more at stake on it. Simply put: it was an era with a more personal edge. That cuts to the bottom line, the point to it all, and few athletes of the last quarter-century embodied the hunger to win like Kobe Bryant.

He’s not a basketball player anymore, he’ll tell you; he’s a businessman, conjuring up ideas and identifying young investments in the sports world through his new Kobe Inc. enterprise. He’s already found one success through his interests in The Player’s Tribune and another in a new coconut sports drink. He’s been eying film projects next, it’s said. He’s been trademarking phrases and hashtags, too, or some shit.

“Friends hang sometimes, banners hang forever.”

See, those are Bryant’s words, or the Mamba persona or whatever you want to call it. For so many years it was hard to tell the difference between Kobe the player and Kobe the socialite. The off-court Bryant had to be just as much of a prick didn’t he? Enough of an ass to wave off a Karl Malone pick in his first All-Star game? The kind to force a tug-of-war that ended with Shaquille O’Neal, one of the greatest centres of all-time, shipped out of Los Angeles to carry his favour? The one that “Draked” Andrew Bynum’s career with an epic parking lot rant? Shit. Did Bryant (and Nike) create the Mamba persona just so we could tell the difference?

Because that’s the funny thing that happened on the way to retirement. Bryant became the guy-you-love-to-hate-and-hate-to-miss. This, after years of wishing he was just gone. Thing is, Bryant isn’t going anywhere and he’s buying up enough catch phrases and taglines to keep reminding you for a long time. According to ESPN.com he has copyrighted, patented, or has a patent pending (depending on who you talk to) on several of them including “Dream Epic”, “Create Forever” and the burgeoning “Hero Villain”, which may be the most Kobe description ever. Still, the one that stands out is the one I want to ask him about. It relates to a point blank question I never got to ask during his annual visits to Toronto, my microphone crushed between thirty others with game night questions paying the bills. The phrase is a reminder of the query I held quietly for Bryant over many years.

“What made you this cold?”

And now his trademarked mantra seems to answer my question.

“Friends hang sometimes, banners hang forever.”

It would be a polarizing response because it intercepts our ideal of what we want our sports teams to be. It might be the most asshole statement ever told to a regular Joe. A true sign of loyalty to the bands not the mans. To the prize not the guys. To him not you. And yet it is honesty backed by proof that never made you question its sincerity. It was pure. Because you have to be that beautiful hero-villain to pull it off. Cold of heart.

There are many who didn’t mind Bryant’s take towards Shaq, Malone, Bynum, Philadelphia or Utah. But was it always truly about winning? Or was it about winning his way? Do that and making enemies becomes inevitable because everybody wants to do it their way. The owner, the general manager, the coach, the maxed-out players, the guy throwing peanuts with a zip-line toss two rows up. Bryant fucking did it though, as painful as it was at times to watch, as alienated as it made him for years and even as relationships chipped and cracked and often crumbled, he became more and more fascinating to watch. More destined for greatness.

That was when Bryant first approached Jordan status, but he was not held aloft. He was not beloved and adored and chased. He was the sort of sublime talent that rose up out of the ashes of Michael, a comic book arc that had Bryant threatening but ultimately falling quite short of his hero’s place in history. His language, his mannerisms, both for the press and on the wood, was built to a fucking carbon copy of Jordan’s swagger.

And yet he was different, in the way that each fingerprint must be. Where Jordan’s unparalleled competitiveness seemed to be born from a young and often challenged child’s dream, Bryant seemed unapologetically self-designed and carefully engineered to be obsessed with winning. He was the Ivan Drago to Jordan’s Rocky. The latest in a long line of memorable Hollywood contenders.

He had genetics too, with his father, “Jellybean” Joe Bryant, a former NBA hoopster and European pro. Sonofagun. He spent years growing up overseas. With an early passion, good bones and mad skills the junior Bryant returned stateside and dominated out of Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania, enough to skip college and get drafted straight to the NBA. There was still enough doubt around him to be traded as a 12th pick from Charlotte to come off the bench as a rookie in L.A. before crashing his way into the starting line up and championships rings. He rapped, stole scenes, waived off Malone. He was viewed as disrespectful and spoiled, and combined with the usual old-guard resistance, Bryant was not exactly the welcomed face of change among his peers (years later, in an attempt at one last title shot, Malone joined Bryant’s Lakers for what was ultimately a failed run).

Maybe it was as simple as a Chris Child’s chin-check, being “sonned” by Shaq, the war of disrespect with Malone, the doubt… whatever it was that helped drive Bryant into the last leg of his career, his last two titles and final years of dominance, was always festering. He had to become the underdog he was never born to be, the kid with all the breaks who had to finally prove himself as the man amongst men. It was always going to come out; it was just a matter of how and when. There seemed no other release for the relentless hours in the gym, on the court, above the rim or twenty-four feet away and everywhere in between. Every single day.

Somewhere along the way Bryant became cold. He did. And while you may have last seen his death stare on YouTube, eyeing down the owner of a camera aimed at his dining family, the glare was ever-ready on the court for opponents too. The heart-ripping gesture versus the Phoenix Suns in the playoffs, the fist-pumping, full hand salute after his career-defining fifth championship over the Boston Celtics in 2010, the curling scowl that twisted his lips over clenched teeth following a clutch play, or a buzzer-beater or 81 points in a single game. It wasn’t just watching a genius at work, it was revenge.

At some point he embraced the love and hate and saw them as one. He stopped rapping, got tatted and became the Black Mamba under a recharged corporate support team. He became the hero-villain. Yet still, few veterans longed to play with him despite his championship prowess, before and after the back-to-back wins with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and co. That as much as anything may have cut short Bryant’s run. He scared people away with his demonic drive. It was not the way most people did things. He was less diplomatic than Jordan, a ton less charismatic than Shaq and less physically gifted than the new kid LeBron James. What he wasn’t dogged him, as much as what he was.

While it’s true, the second to arise to Jordan comparison prominence – Tracy McGrady – eclipsed much of Bryant’s prime playoff years with some of the best statistical performances of the century, he never threatened as a champion. Besides, it was no match for Bryant’s insane engine, stubbornness and sheer will. The third in line – Vince Carter – whose image laid foreground to the iconic, ear-ringed MJ silhouette on the cover of ESPN The Mag in 2001, turned pretender rather quickly. Carter relinquished leadership with the Toronto Raptors to become a travelling second-in-command man. Soon after injuries took McGrady out of the conversation, much like they’d do to Bryant over the last three years of his career. Ultimately those losses of games robbed him of any chance at Jordanesque lore.

Bryant is Michael Corleone because he climbed the ladder. He wasn’t a slam-dunk draft pick. He was a draft-night trade. He wasn’t the heir apparent. He was a fourth option. He wasn’t a gimme as model spokesman, especially after sexual assault allegations in Colorado, from which he recovered in spectacular fashion. He is The Godfather because he’s been through all the levels and survived. Even the final act of Francis Ford Coppola’s third Godfather film, in basketball parlance, works for his narrative; a survivor left alone among the fruits of his labour, his powers taken long ago by injury and the ferociousness of his youth. Moved on. He’s recalling vaguely… dancing with Phil Jackson, dancing with Odom, with Gasol, or at his greatest, with Shaq. The Big Kate. The ups and downs and the tragedy and victory of it all.

“Friends hang sometimes. Banners hang forever.”

Bryant has shown far too often how willing he has been to pay the price that comes with that code. He dared to unflinchingly exhibit the bravado and kill or be killed mantra that often drives elite athletes, and while we thought it was the thing that made him hard to crack, it was that which was letting us in. In the end, if any athlete has the right to coin that phrase, protect it and hold it down, it’s Bryant. Hell, Michael Corleone died alone in a courtyard, an apple rolling out of his cold dead hand. Kobe dropped 60 in the last game of his career, surrounded by 20,000 people, each shot attempt a last gasp effort against father time. The ball was the apple; the last make was the roll. A cold dead hand drops a mic. Mamba out.

We think different of the dead. We remember them in a much brighter light when they are gone, because in the end, that’s often what shines through all the bullshit. And yet here is Bryant, from the grave, behind Kobe Inc., threatening to undo the sentiment, unafraid to tear it down and start all over again. Ready to risk the goodwill built up over the last two broken years.

Because the new love everybody has for Bryant’s hero-villain is not so much a conversion as it is a conditioning. It’s taken time for you to warm up. It’s why he feels so well suited to begin his next act as a businessman. He’ll leverage the brand and expand, trying to get into the same rare air as the greats, only this time the stakes are even greater. In the business world there is even more cutthroat competition. Just ask Jordan about his ownership experience with the Washington Wizards. Michael endures mostly now because of business not basketball, and his brand continues to cement and fix itself into the fabric of not only North American, but global culture. That is Bryant’s goal too.

You’ll say it’s more of his arrogance, his inability to softly go. You might also say it’s a reminder of why many guys balked at playing with/for Bryant when he may have needed them most, in the end when he wasn’t quite enough. Behind his career-ending, baby-kissing NBA tour, stood the same seething, relentless, heartless Mamba, unable to rely on his supporting cast for one last push, accepting of his fate but unwilling to go soft. You’ll say a lot of things, but you won’t say you’d have it any other way. Because it’s Kobe. There is no other way. There is an ultra-competitive streak combined with a mad man’s work ethic that fuels his obsession. That drive rarely has an off switch. Maybe that’s the biggest reason why there is a Kobe Inc. Why there was so much friction between he and his teammates. Why his people booed him in Philadelphia. Maybe that’s why there was Colorado…

There will be another to soar as Bryant once did. There always is. But manners change, and Bryant’s was of a frictious and scarring nature in the heat of battle, one not so often seen. His old school knuckle-drag was a direct contradiction to the ass-slap happy NBA of today, and the discipline behind that approach seems less encouraged now. In many ways Bryant led his generation as the bridge era, the gap fillers between gods and the gatekeepers. Players have never had so much power in the NBA as they do now, and it was Kobe’s generation that ushered in the absurd money of today.

Dude rode helicopters to work. You might say that’s so L.A. but it’s not like everybody did it. Bryant did. It’s part of what reminded us that he was living on a different level, and the coziness Kobe often exuded behind his luxuries sometimes felt like he was rubbing it in. Kobe still rides in helicopters but the ride is different that it was all those years ago. There is less smugness, more matter-of-factness. It seems necessary now. As if it always was.

This is about the next level of legacy, one even harder to achieve than the accolades he piled up as a player. In another life, Bryant came admirably close to his Airiness. Expect no less an effort in the next.

When it comes to basketball – the foundation of whatever he does next – it’s doubtful anybody chooses to do it the way Bryant did it. That’s what’s gone; his relentless chase of glory no matter the cost or personal sacrifice, with an on-court callousness and off-court sway completely orbited around winning. He did it by navigating a dimly lit, unkempt path through the treacherous brush of fame and fortune and most importantly, game. Along that path came some of the brightest moments the NBA has ever seen, but they were made so in part by the darkness and coldness he embraced while walking that seldom travelled way.

 


Our #NoCountryForOldMen series depicts aging gunslingers of the NBA, and their journey out to pasture away from the game. Catch it all season long at Press Basketball.