In a clever bit of marketing, Nike Basketball turned a classic movie line on its ear for Kobe Bryant's final All-Star Game on Sunday night. "You either die a hero," Harvey Dent said in 2008's The Dark Knight, "or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
It's a brilliant line, one that neatly distills Nietzsche's bit about gazing into the abyss down to its bare essence, and adds a raw fact of our existence – namely, that living itself wears you down to a nubbin – for good measure. It also points to the inherent hypocrisy of our national obsession with glorifying flawed human beings: It's only matched by our desire to see them torn apart once we've raised them up. In other words, the whole thing was very Kobe.
At a time when villains and antiheroes carry more currency than saints, Bryant has embraced the role of villain like few players before him. When LeBron James first left Cleveland for Miami, he tried it on for a while before, by his own admission, "getting back to loving the game and having fun with the game." For a while, it looked like Blake Griffin was going to take the full heel turn and become the all-dunking, all-glowering asshole of the NBA, but instead he focused on making lovable ads for Kia Optimas, both on and off the court (while still finding time to punch out equipment managers).
Bryant, by contrast, is always trying to cut his opponents' throats out, even in the All-Star Game – last year's event brought a post on the Players' Tribune where he wrote:
Maybe I'm just old school. Maybe my line of thinking is that of a rotary phone. Maybe this smartphone generation enjoys sharing games of domination. Maybe they like taking turns. Maybe they enjoy competing passive aggressively.
Either way, I refuse to change what I am. A lion has to eat. Run with me or run from me.
But something is starting to change, perhaps inevitably, in the way we view Bryant as his career winds down, and Nike was trying to sum up that zeitgeist with its All-Star Weekend tweet. "Stay a villain and dominate long enough to become the hero" is the sincere hope of everyone waiting out the statute of limitations on a crime. Sure, it's just a marketing slogan, but having seen Bryant at All-Star Weekend and this season overall, there's a kernel of truth to it. In his old age, Kobe is trying out hobbies like poetry and photography. ("This is what I see," he writes in a new Players' Trib photo gallery, although tellingly, none of the pictures are taken from his point of view – instead, he is the star of each snap, like a character in a movie.) And, of course, he got to take his victory lap through the All-Star Game.
Tied with Bob Pettit for most All-Star MVPs at four, it would have been maximum Mamba to go full try-hard in the game to snatch that fifth one, but he didn't. Finishing with 10 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds, he was clearly out there to have fun. "I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking with them on the bench," he said afterward, although of course "fun" for Kobe still means sticking it to his opponents, at least a little bit. "I got a chance to stop Pau [Gasol] in the post, redeem myself from what he did to me when Chicago came to town. But all those things are just fun."
He went into full heartwarming mode by playing a bit with both Chris Paul's and Dwyane Wade's sons:
After LeBron clowned on Bryant during his interview with Craig Sager, Kobe laughed it off. "This is what I'll miss," he said. "That interaction."
Put it all together – the garlands, the tributes, the complete sets of Air Jordan sneakers – and it starts to feel, well, weird. This is for the guy who just over a year ago yelled at his teammates, "You motherfuckers are soft like Charmin in this motherfucker!" The guy who told Smush Parker he "needed more accolades" before he could talk to him. The guy who counts Derek Fisher as his closest and best teammate on the Lakers but never had Fisher over to his house.
But maybe Bryant's greatest contribution to how we understand the game is more than either his rings or his legendarily prickly and single-minded dedication to his own achievements. Maybe it's the way he forces us to wrestle with contradiction in an arena that prizes the either/or of wins and losses above nearly all else. Maybe it's not our view of Bryant that's changing – from hard and unyielding to softer and nostalgic – but our viewpoint itself.
The hero becoming the villain becoming the hero tells us less about the journey and more about the human; how the forces of good and bad aren't at war inside him, but rather in collusion. They are the yin and yang; they need each other. In that sense, the journey begins again constantly, as alluded to by Bryant as he talked after the game about what's left of the rest of his final season.
"You try to forget about what happened the first half of the season in a sense of what our record is, and take this break to come in and feel like you have a clean slate, right?" he said. "Mentally approach it as you're 0-0, and see if we can't get better."
The Lakers probably won't. The ironic thing is, in his final act, Kobe Bryant just might.