Tag Archives: Kobe Bryant

Dear Basketball

Dear Basketball.

That’s the title of the short film Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for. An Oscar! His 5 championship rings weren’t enough; Kobe also won an Oscar.

Since his untimely passing more than a week ago, I’ve found myself consumed by Kobe content, including but certainly not limited to watching Kobe’s short Oscar-winning film.  I’ve been reading articles. Listening to podcasts. Watching old highlights.

Through all the reading, listening, and watching, I started to wonder why I was so interested.  I’ve known for a long time that Kobe was an imperfect person – with reason to think he did something horrible to a young woman in 2003. And I grew up watching Michael Jordan in his prime, so I’ve also known that Kobe is an imperfect player.  Why, then, is it so hard for me to stop thinking about him?

For a few days, I thought it was because Kobe is the basketball star whom I’ve got the most in common with.  I was a freshman at Penn in Philadelphia when Kobe was a high school senior – and a phenom – at a local high school.  He played a game on Penn’s campus, and sold out the arena. Years after that, when he was at the peak of his powers, I found myself living in LA for a year, and went to a Lakers game.  I grew up as a Knicks fan, so attending that game while living in LA was the closest I had ever come to being a home fan cheering on an all-time great superstar.  As such, Kobe, simply by being right around my age and overlapping with me in both Philadelphia and then LA, was the closest thing I ever had to a “peer” in the NBA.

But, that explanation for why I couldn’t stop reading, watching, and listening to people talk about their memories of Kobe felt insufficient.  Kobe had 5 championship rings, which he won as one of the most dynamic players our sport has ever seen.  He also won an Oscar.  Me?  I’ve got a basketball blog that only 3 people read, and 1 championship ring which I won in high school by riding the coat-tails of 11 guys who were much better at basketball than I was. Plus, I proudly think of myself as someone who would never do anything so terrible as the best possible explanation of what Kobe did with that young woman in 2003.  No, Kobe and I don’t really have much in common.

There are other easy explanations.  Kobe’s death shows all of us the need to appreciate every moment and take nothing for granted.  His death touches all of us who are parents – especially those of us who are #girldads, because of his explicitly expressed gratitude for being blessed with multiple girls. But those don’t explain it, either. My father died when I was 19, and I already live my days fully aware that tomorrow is promised to none of us. I was already quite mindful of the need to spend as much time as possible with my kids.  Plus, I love my son as much as my daughter, so while I’m a #girldad I’m also just a dad.

As I’ve tried to make sense of why I feel such a need to consume yet more content about Kobe’s legacy, what I keep coming back to is basketball.  Dear Basketball.

Dear basketball has brought me multiple friends whom I wouldn’t have met had we not met playing basketball together, and has fortified multiple other friendships that otherwise would have probably only have been casual acquaintances. Since Kobe died, I’ve been in touch with many old friends whom I only speak to occasionally.

Of all the superstars we’ve seen, Kobe stands alone as the one who was most consumed by basketball, and was the most transparent about his love for basketball. Kobe gave his soul to the game, and he embodied the soul of the game, in a way that almost makes it hard to separate one from the other. Kobe never left his team to take an easier path to a title, like a few modern superstars did. In fact, Kobe all but pushed Shaq away so he could come closer to fulfilling his own basketball potential.  He never took less than his market value to give himself a competitive advantage like many modern superstars have – in Kobe’s mind, he was the competitive advantage.  He never engaged in “load management,” like many modern superstars do.  Rather, Kobe engaged in pain management, so he could most effectively play through the pain of multiple injuries.

At the same time, Kobe reached outward.  The stories we’ve heard since his death tell us that he used his platform both to teach and to learn; reaching out to people whom he thought could be helped by the wisdom he had acquired, while also reaching out to people whom he thought had something to teach him.  We’ve learned that Kobe reached out to countless women basketball players, and came to be viewed by many of them as an influential voice pushing for gender equality – even after having been credibly accused of rape.

In sum, Kobe Bryant, more than any other player we’ve seen, represented both the competitive spirit and camaraderie that are the ying and the yang comprising the soul of basketball. The more work he put into kicking ass on the court, the closer it brought him to his teammates, fans, and even opponents.  It was Kobe’s unique form of work-life balance; be so ruthlessly dominant on the court as to create a platform for building meaningful relationships off the court.

It’s not irony, it’s harmony.

Explaining how his Mamba Mentality applies to all of us, Kobe said “You have to dance beautifully in the box that you’re comfortable dancing in. My box was to be extremely ambitious within the sport of basketball. Your box is different than mine. Everybody has their own. It’s your job to try to perfect it and make it as beautiful of a canvas as you can make it. And if you have done that, then you have lived a successful life. You have lived with Mamba Mentality.”

That, I think, was Kobe’s greatest gift: making millions of people think they each had something in common with him.  It turns out that my initial instinct when he died – that I was upset because Kobe was the NBA star whom I had so much “in common with” – wasn’t incorrect.  In fact, it was widely held, by millions of people.  And that’s the point.

By showing us so much of himself, Kobe gave millions of people something they felt connected to; whether as a competitor, a fan, a #girldad, a teacher, a student, or simply as a human on a continual journey of self-improvement. In turn, his death has made us appreciate how much we have in common with each other.  During this time of extreme divisiveness, while we’ve got a leader who says “I alone can fix it,” and whose every impulse is to turn us against each other for his own personal benefit, Kobe told us that the thing which made him different – the Mamba Mentality – was available to each of us. Kobe took what made him distinctively different, and he shared it with us. The ying and the yang of basketball, extending far beyond basketball.

At the end of the day, I think that’s why this death resonates so deeply; it has given a divided nation an opportunity to focus on how much we have in common.  For starters, we’ve got shared memories of watching Kobe Bryant play basketball.  Plus, we’ve got injuries to overcome, mistakes to put behind us, and dreams we want to fulfill, all while building the most meaningful relationships with our friends and families as we are able to.

For helping us see, even if just for a short while, our commonality, I send a salute up to the Mamba In The Sky, and, with the deepest of gratitude, I say…

Dear Basketball,

Thank you.

 

 

 

1 Comment:

  • Anonymous

    I’ve read a lot on Kobe the last week and a half. No one nailed it better than that. Great work Rosie.

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Sometimes I think I’m the only basketball fan left who thinks Carmelo Anthony was ever any good, let alone who thinks he’s capable of helping a currently-competitive team. I regularly talk to friends (even though I have only 3 readers, I have more than 3 friends) who think Carmelo ruined the Knicks.  I’ve got friends – nearly all of them Knicks fans – who think Carmelo was a terrible basketball player, even in his prime.  A small number of them think Carmelo ruined the league. At least one of them blames Carmelo for global warming, one blames him for the  government shutdown, and another one said “If not for Carmelo, then Trump never would have gotten elected.”

Carmelo’s not a winner, they say.

Well, sure.  He’s not a winner.  If you discount all the winning he did, that is. But let’s not do that. To fairly evaluate Carmelo’s legacy, let’s start by acknowledging the winning wins that Carmelo won.  He burst onto the national scene as a freshman phenom, bringing a Hall of Fame coach his only national championship in one year at Syracuse. So, if Carmelo’s “not a winner,” then he’s not a winner who just happened to win a national championship in one year playing college hoops.

Perhaps it was a coincidence. Plus, it was only one year.

Looking beyond that one year, we see that Carmelo is also USA Basketball’s first four-time men’s Olympian, the first four-time men’s medalist and the first men’s player to win – yes, WIN – three Olympic gold medals.  Carmelo didn’t do all of that winning while riding coattails.  In the U.S. Olympic men’s career record book, he ranks first in points (336), field goals made (113), field goals attempted (262), rebounds (125), 3-point field goals attempted (139), free throws made (53) and free throws attempted (71); and second in 3-point field goals made (57). [Don’t take my word for it, the details are here.]

I wish I was as bad at winning basketball games as Carmelo is.

But what about the NBA? If you believe that NBA winning is the only kind of winning that’s really winning, then neither his NCAA nor his Olympic winnings will mean anything to you.  So, let’s ask… did Carmelo do any winning in the NBA worth mentioning? Nah, except for all the winning he did in Denver during his 7+ years there.  In the season before landing Carmelo, the Nuggets were a pathetic 17-65.  Then he arrived, and in his first season they went 43-39.  For each of his 7 full seasons there, they were in the playoffs. In other words, they WON enough games to make the playoffs. Aka #winning. And, in 08-09, they WON a few series in the playoffs.  Maybe it’s a coincidence.  Or maybe Dahntay Jones and JR Smith were a lot better than people give them credit for.

Perhaps, but I’m not convinced. (No offense to Dahntay Jones.)

Lastly, there’s his time on the Knicks.  Carmelo’s the only Knick since Patrick Ewing left who was the best player on a team that won the Atlantic Division. I swear, they won it. The whole division. There’s a banner hanging from the rafters and everything.  He’s also the only Knick since Ewing left to be the best player on a team that won a playoff series. (Oh, by the way… Spare me the ridiculous fantasy about how far they were destined to go around a core of Amar’e Stoudemire, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari. The only people who should get excited thinking about such a team are knee surgeons, physical therapists, and tattoo artists.)

That’s some worthwhile winning, if you ask me.

Before going further, I should put my biases on the table.  My parents met at Syracuse, both of my uncles went there, and one of my aunts, and also my mother-in-law. So, I cheer for the Orange, and I continue cheering for their players when those players move on  to the NBA.  Thus, I’m predisposed to like Carmelo.  And, I grew up a Knicks fan. Patrick Ewing’s Knicks were a central part of my childhood, and I completely lost interest once they pushed Ewing out the door.  After more than 10 years of having no reason to root for the Knicks, Carmelo arrived, and made them competitive again.

There, you know my angle. Let’s proceed.

Why the Carmelo hate? To be sure, part of it is substantive. Carmelo’s an imperfect player.  His defense is not a strength.  And his assist numbers don’t suggest a guy who makes his teammates better.

But, I humbly submit, he’s an all-time great player in spite of those imperfections. I think there’s a few reasons why he gets so much hate.  For starters, he entered the league with sky-high expectations, during an era when it would be very difficult to win.  When he entered, multiple top-15 players of all time were already established forces, such as Kobe, Duncan, and Dirk.  If he was going to win, he needed to be better than those guys — or at least needed to have more talent around him than those guys had. And, he entered in the same draft as LeBron and Wade – only a few years ahead of Curry and Durant.  Once we acknowledge that Carmelo wasn’t as good as Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, LeBron, Wade, Curry, or Durant, then why is it even fair to expect him to win a championship? Unless he was on a team with meaningfully more talent than their teams had, there’s no reason to think he would win a championship. Not only did he not wind up with more talent around him than those guys had, but those guys started JOINING UP WITH EACH OTHER during his prime, making it even less likely that he was going to win. LeBron joined with Wade.  Durant had Westbrook, then he joined with Curry.  Carmelo had Landry Fields.  Why does he get crushed for falling short of an expectation that was never reasonable?

Another part of what drives the Carmelo hate is that defensive prowess (or lack thereof) is harder to measure than offensive production.  It’s widely understood that Carmelo isn’t a great defender.  But how bad is he?  Because we don’t have a great way to measure, it’s easy for his detractors to say that his defensive shortcomings wash away his offensive skills. It’s my humble opinion that many of those detractors push the point too far.  Of course, defense is important.  But, for starters, Carmelo has averaged 6.5 rebounds per game over his entire career.  I’ve always been taught that rebounding is a part of defense, because the possession isn’t over until you secure the rebound.  Plus, Carmelo has scored 25,551 points.  His defense would have to be quite terrible to nullify so much scoring.  Consider the guys 5 spots above him on the all-time scoring list, and the guys 5 spots below.  That list of 10 guys includes: Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, John Havlicek, Kevin Garnett, Alex English, Reggie Miller, Jerry West, Vince Carter, Patrick Ewing, and Ray Allen. It’s quite an impressive group. I’ll put aside the defensive shortcomings of Alex English, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen, and stipulate that Carmelo’s the worst defender amongst that group of 10.  Even so, he’d have to be a uniquely terrible defensive player to be among that group of scorers and have his scoring be nullified by his defense. I’m talking like foul-a-shooter-in-the-act-of-shooting-during-the-same-possession-you-already-got-called-for-defensive-three-seconds-and-do-it-multiple-times-per-game level terrible.  I mean, woh crazy crazy terrible. He wasn’t a top defender, but he wasn’t that bad.

More than anything, though, I think two things drive the Carmelo hatred. One of those things is hindsight.  We basketball fans do a funny thing: we admire the skill of young superstars, and expect that they’ll one day earn a ring if they play at a high enough level for long enough.  But, once those players age, if they never got over the hump, we’re quick to discard them as failures.  The line between a superstar with potential to carry a team to a title and a player we dismiss as a superstar-in-disguise who actually never had that potential is very thin.  Carmelo joined a 17-65 team, and had them in the playoffs during his rookie season.  That’s much more than Anthony Davis did (in the ’12-13 season, New Orleans was 27-55), or Damian Lillard (also in ’12-13 Portland was 33-49), or Giannis (in the ’13-14 season, Milwaukee was 15-67). We still talk about those guys as players who have the potential to win, but, if they never win a championship, will that make them “losers,” too?  What about Russell Westbrook?  James Harden?

Most importantly, I think what drives the Carmelo hatred is our inability to celebrate any achievements other than rings. More than at any time during my basketball fandom, the collective body of basketball fans seems to celebrate the top 4 teams in the league, and also the bottom 3.  They buy into the idea that “you’re either on the short list of favorites to win a title or you should be tanking.” Once you buy into that idea, then there’s little room to appreciate a guy like Carmelo.  Without a great supporting cast, it was a longshot for him to be on a top 4 team (remember, during an era including Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, LeBron, Wade, Curry, and Durant among other all-time greats).  And having him meant you weren’t going to be anywhere near the bottom 3.  So, if the only things worth being are “top 4” or “bottom 3,” then Carmelo doesn’t bring you to anywhere worth going.

I don’t buy into that mindset. By that line of thinking, 23 teams in this 30 team league are wasting their time by even showing up for games, and most games that get played have no reason for being played. The thing is, I like watching games, both in person and on TV. The games have got good food, loud music, pretty cheerleaders, t-shirt cannons, mascots, and entertainment during timeouts. I don’t begrudge the teams who play in those games for showing up, putting on their uniforms, and trying to win.  In fact, I’m glad they do.  It allows me to watch the sport I love played at a high level.  Call me crazy, but I believe the radical belief that anyone who is able to score more than 25,000 points while showing up for those games is a pretty good basketball player. Even if he’s lousy at defense.

Say what you want, but Carmelo’s presence alone made the Nuggets competitive for 7 years.  After that, he brought the only excitement to MSG that we’ve seen since Ewing left. If you want to convince yourself that these achievements count for nothing, then all I say is Hate On, Haters.  I look at Carmelo and see a flawed but great basketball player – good enough to win a championship in the right circumstances. The fact that he never found himself in those circumstances doesn’t wash away his many achievements.

 

 

 

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