With Lakers guard Kobe Bryant becoming the fifth and fastest player in NBA history to score 30,000 points, Dime is looking at all angles of the five-time champion’s career today. (Hey, we already called him the greatest player since 2000.) It’s equal parts celebration and examination of one of the NBA’s most polarizing and talented players in history.
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Before the five rings, before the 81-point game, the 30,000 career points he eclipsed last night, the icy stares and intra-squad feuds and hilariously dry press conferences, Kobe Bryant existed mostly as a threat within my world.
There had been and would be others. The narrative starved media always needed a “next big thing” — a shiny new figure to outmuscle the old guard.
But this was different. This felt real. When they talked about how Kobe Bean Bryant, a spindly 6-6 shooting guard, could be the next Michael Jordan, I didn’t believe them. I knew others would, though, and that didn’t sit well with this Chicago-born Bulls worshipper.
I was born too late — a year before the first championship in 1991 — to fully comprehend Jordan’s apex, but that almost made my deifying even worse. I knew Jordan mostly from the highlight plays and confirmation of his greatness from older family members. His flaws were nonexistent; in my mind, he’d never played a bad game, never hoisted a bad shot, never missed a defensive rotation.
So, Kobe had an awful lot to live up to. And predictably, he never came close in these eyes. I was biased, sure, but Shaquille O’Neal’s presence in Los Angeles put a 300-pound weight on Kobe as he climbed Mount Jordan. Focus shifted from his singular greatness to the triangle offense and a two-pronged monster verging on dynasty. Jordan had Pippen, sure, but there were times when Shaq was considerably more dominant on the court than Bryant. Pippen could never really say the same. The Jordan comparisons, in my mind, died as soon as O’Neal won that first NBA Finals MVP Trophy with Bryant standing right next to him.
When it comes to pure intrigue and fascination, though, Bryant’s ongoing career — which reached yet another milestone Wednesday against the Hornets — might just have everyone beaten. Over the years, Bryant has undergone a steady transition from conquering hero to beloved villain. He is, bear with me, a bit like Heath Ledger’s The Joker in that regard: cold, calculating, and out for blood, yet also wholly compelling and oddly likeable in his own twisted way. Where The Joker had that horrifying habit of smacking his lips in anticipation, Bryant is famous for a patented under-bite, most often seen after drilling a pull-up three right in an opponents eyes. In The Dark Knight, Ledger threw out a bevy of one-liners, from “Why so serious?” to “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.” Bryant, meanwhile, has a mouth that casually spits manna (and curse words) at reporters. He comes up with brilliant nicknames like “Gatsby” for Steve Nash and scoffs at manufactured narratives. Win or lose, his press conferences are the most compelling the league has to offer.