Kobe Bryant is a bully. It seems crazy that it’s taken me this long to figure out something so plainly obvious, but after excoriating his teammates during a practice a few days ago, he explained, “You gotta be able to talk back a little bit, and honestly it’s fun…it’s nothing personal.”
Here’s the thing: It’s always fun for the bully. It’s never personal. Consideration of those trampled underfoot is literally below the bully. The bully’s worldview is one in which everything must be reduced to competition, with the bully’s victory all but inevitable. I hated being bullied – hated competition in the way only the very competitive can hate it – and so, I thought, I hated Kobe. It all made so much sense two days ago, before Kobe passed Michael Jordan for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Thirty minutes after Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, in which he surpassed Jordan’s mark of 32,292 career points on a pair of free throws, Bryant sat at a table surrounded by cameras and reporters, his feet in a bucket of ice. When asked what he was feeling as he stepped to the line, he said, “The crowd’s really waiting to see, so don’t F this up.”
Bar none, the best development during the late stage of Kobe’s career has been his candor, so when he began to address that rant in practice, it revealed not so much the human heart that can make us forgive the bully as it did the hardened one that’s requisite for a certain kind of generational greatness.
“When it comes to basketball, that’s just what I am naturally,” he said. “I think the competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people. You peel back what’s inside of a person to compete and be at that high level. It scares a lot of people that are comfortable just being average. If you look at Michael’s retirement speech, you really got a chance to see how he ticks and that scared a lot of people. That’s just the reality of it: you can’t get to a supreme level without kind of channeling the dark side.”
Seeing it there flat on the page, it sounds like so many Kobe quotes: dickish, conceited, almost Sith-like. But hearing it, you realize it’s also honest. There’s a part in Citizen Kane where Kane’s personal business manager, Mr. Bernstein, says, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.” In other words, the greatest impediment to achieving any individual goal is every other goal you have. And Kobe – more than just about any other player and maybe more even than Jordan himself – has shorn away nearly everything in his life that isn’t basketball. It’s heartening, then, to hear that the thing itself still brings him joy, at least of a sort.
“Positioning,” he said, when asked about what he’s been working on with Laker great James Worthy. “More footwork. Angles. Spin moves. I enjoy learning. It’s fun. It’s fun to constantly try to figure out new things, figure out things to do better.
“Gotta pay attention to detail,” he added. “You gotta love what you do. It doesn’t feel like I’ve worked a day in my life. I love learning and I love challenging myself.”
During the game, the Associated Press released a statement from Jordan congratulating Kobe and instantly, social media began picking it apart, looking for shade (“I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next”) or making jokes. But even with all the competition between them, is it so hard to believe Kobe and Jordan can’t have tremendous mutual respect?
“That’s the most important thing to me: playing for the respect of the greats,” Kobe said. “I feel like I’m a part of that culture, part of that brotherhood.”
It’s easier for us to think of Jordan and Kobe hating each other, harder for us to realize they have more in common with each other than they do with any of us. This moment of surpassing Jordan in all-time scoring – a total that accumulated slowly, even when it included an 81-point game and multiple 50-point outbursts – hit Kobe harder than it seemed he was ready for. After the second free throw, the game was stopped and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor presented him with the ball he’d just shot as the crowd and the players gave him an ovation.
“I’m used to being the villain,” he said. “So when you have moments like that, when you’re not expecting a hug and you get a hug, it feels pretty damn good.”
But the moment also passed and the Lakers won. What got Kobe out of bed this morning likely wasn’t the idea of catching Karl Malone for second on the scoring list, but this craft he’s dedicated his life to: the repetition, the footwork, the timing, the feeding of that constant curiosity about what the game can be.
“Learning,” he said, when asked what he’s playing for this season. “Learning, learning.”