I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week and thought of Kobe Bryant twice and only twice. One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell’s extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can’t do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn’t do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That’s what he believed.
So when Russell mentioned a current star devouring his book and stealing that specific concept — then thanking Russell for the help — naturally, I expected the player to be LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, maybe even Kevin Durant. Nope.
“Really?” I said incredulously.
And that’s how I learned that basketball’s greatest teammate ever held something of a soft spot for Kobe, someone who’s battled more coworkers over the years than Chevy Chase. Russell enjoys his competitiveness, loves his work ethic, appreciates his respect for history, and over anything else, loves how he borrowed that scouting idea. No other player ever mentioned it to him. Just Kobe. Which didn’t make sense to me. After all, Kobe regards his teammates the same way President Obama regards the Secret Service — these guys are here to serve and protect ME. Why would he need to scout them? What was I missing?
(Hold that thought. Please.)
Later in the day, we were discussing leadership and Russell revealed that he never criticized a teammate publicly or privately. Not once. Not during his entire 13-year career. What was the point? Everyone already knew Russell was their best player — why undermine their confidence by making them doubt themselves, or even worse, making them wonder if he believed in them? How was that productive? Russell believed, and still believes, that a basketball team only achieves its potential if everyone embraces their roles — you figure out what you have, split the responsibilities and you’re off. The less thinking, the better. Early in their playing partnership, Russell asked Bob Cousy to find a specific spot every time an opponent attempted a shot — about 25 feet away from the basket, on the left or right side — so Russell could snare the rebound, whirl around and throw Cousy an outlet pass in one motion. After a few months, they didn’t even think about it anymore. Shot, spot, rebound, release, go. In time, Tommy Heinsohn took off right before Russell grabbed that rebound, as did everyone else wearing white-and-green, and suddenly, the greatest fast break in basketball history was off and running.
Week 14 Picks
(Home team in caps)
REDSKINS (-2.5) over Ravens
Chiefs (+6.5) over BROWNS
STEELERS (-8) over Chargers
Titans (+5.5) over COLTS
Jets (-3) over JAGUARS
Bears (-3) over VIKINGS
PANTHERS (+3.5) over Falcons
BUCS (-7.5) over Eagles
Rams (+3) over BILLS
BENGALS (-3) over Cowboys
Dolphins (+10) over 49ERS
Saints (+4.5) over GIANTS
SEAHAWKS (-10) over Cardinals
Lions (+6.5) over PACKERS
PATRIOTS (-3.5) over Texans
This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 7-9
But that would have failed unless everyone embraced their role, and that’s the thing — everyone has to have a role. In Boston, Cousy ran the break, Heinsohn ran the lane and crashed the boards, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones and (later) John Havlicek handled the scoring, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders handled the perimeter defense, and Russell handled everything else. So it was the “everything else” that varied from season to season, or even month to month — Russell assessed what his team needed and tailored his game accordingly. That’s what made him Bill Russell.
OK, so how do you challenge your teammates without undermining them? Russell’s book covers one example with an enlightening section on Sam Jones, one of the league’s first great scoring guards but someone who feared the responsibility of being great every night. Sam couldn’t handle the pressure; the burden was too big, like having the same term paper hanging over your head 100 times per year. That drove Russell crazy. Eventually, he learned to accept that they just weren’t wired the same way. Sam didn’t puke before every big game. He didn’t measure his happiness by the success or failure of his basketball team. But he also happened to be a phenomenally gifted offensive player, someone who loved taking and making pressure shots. Sam’s laconic demeanor worked against him being a legendary player, but for big moments? It was perfect. You could always go to Sam when it mattered. More often than not, Sam came through.
In the wrong hands, Sam’s career might have gone a little differently. Russell always understood that Sam was Sam — he wasn’t going to bleed basketball like Jerry West did, and he would never obsess over every play of every quarter like Oscar Robertson did. You are who you are. Bill Russell left Sam Jones alone.
So that was one example. Russell told the other story in Seattle last week, after I asked him how the aging Celtics won their last two titles without a real point guard. They didn’t run the triangle offense like MJ’s Bulls or Shaq’s Lakers so how? Russell joked about “making” Larry Siegfried play point guard after K.C. Jones (Cousy’s successor) retired, then explained how it happened. Russell became Boston’s player/coach before the 1966-67 season, which ended unhappily after Wilt’s Sixers demolished the (seemingly) aging Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. During Game 5, Philly’s crowd chanted “BOSTON IS DEAD! BOSTON IS DEAD!” Russell heard that chant ringing in his ears all summer. After winning eight straight titles, he wasn’t ready to be buried as a basketball player yet. He also wasn’t ready to blow up his team. So he asked Siegfried to replace K.C. Jones. Russell wasn’t asking for a Cousy impression, just someone to dribble from Point A to Point B, call plays and start their offense. That’s it.
Siegfried resisted. He wasn’t a point guard. He didn’t want the added responsibility, nor did he want to chase faster players around. Russell gently insisted. No, thanks, Larry Siegfried said. They had reached something of a stalemate. The modern solution would be dealing Siegfried away, but the Celtics never traded back then — they believed continuity was their single biggest advantage other than Russell. During Russell’s entire playing career, the Celtics only swung one real trade in 13 years: Mel Counts for Bailey Howell. Amazing and true.
So Russell kept cajoling Siegfried, never threatening him, just appealing to him as a friend. Russell wore him down. Siegfried relented. After a few weeks, Siegfred decided that he didn’t want to play point anymore. They did the same dance again. And Russell wore him down again, this time by making it clear this was Siegfried’s best chance to play. He didn’t threaten him or anything, just laid out the landscape. We have me, Havlicek, Sam and Bailey (Howell). All four of us need to play. This is your best way to get minutes, Larry. He kept appealing to him as a friend more than anything. You can guess what happened next. And yes, the Celtics won their last two titles of the Russell era with a shooting guard bringing up the ball. So much for Boston being dead.
As Russell was telling the Siegfried story, I couldn’t help but wonder how Kobe would have handled that situation. Would he have cussed him out? Bullied him? Called him out to a reporter? Pushed behind the scenes for the Lakers to dump him? And how would an obviously stubborn guy like Siegfried have handled Kobe’s reaction? My guess: Siegfried would have pushed back and if he pushed back, he probably wouldn’t have been a Laker for too long. Let’s at least agree that Kobe wouldn’t have handled things like Bill Russell did.
Then again, nobody handled things like Bill Russell did.
Then again, if we’re really comparing Kobe to the greatest players who ever lived — something that seems to be happening more and more lately — you can’t just rattle off his résumé (30,000 points, five titles, 10 first-team All-NBAs, one MVP, two Finals MVPs, etc.) without mentioning the other stuff. Of the 14 greatest players of all time, only Wilt and Kobe needed 10,000-word footnotes to cover “the other stuff.” That list currently looks like this: Jordan, then Russell, then Kareem, then Magic/Bird, then Wilt, then Kobe/Duncan (or Duncan/Kobe), then West/Oscar, then Hakeem/Shaq/Moses. With LeBron lurking in there somewhere. We just don’t know where yet.
You would have loved playing with nine of those guys. The other five? Maybe, maybe not. Wilt was historically selfish, someone who genuinely believed that the best situation for Wilt doubled as the best situation for Wilt’s team (as none other than Jerry West once noted).1 Nobody was moodier or more aloof than Kareem, a brilliant recluse who couldn’t connect with anyone until Magic and Riley came along. Nobody was more demanding than Oscar, the league’s smartest player other than Russell, but someone who treated his teammates like he was an overbearing parent — belittled them for mistakes and left them walking on eggshells. Of course, Oscar was a picnic compared to Jordan, who evolved into a withering, homicidally competitive bully; if you couldn’t handle it, you needed to find another team. And Kobe tried to evolve into a withering, homicidally competitive bully, if only because his idol acted that way once upon a time. Eventually, that’s what he became. For better and worse.
During that day in Seattle, I asked Russell why he stopped playing. The answer came in two parts. First, he didn’t want to keep going if he wasn’t the league’s best player. Once he felt himself slipping imperceptibly, he decided to retire midway through the 1968-69 season, only telling his friend Oscar Robertson and nobody else. It wasn’t about the physical grind for Russell, or even his body breaking down. Before every game, he worked himself into what he described as “a rage.” That was just part of his process. He spent the day visualizing that night’s game, thinking about his opponent, playing out sequences in his head, revving himself up, basically. If you think of basketball like chess, it makes a little more sense — Russell always wanted to be two or three chess moves ahead of everyone else. He didn’t block shots in the moment. He blocked them five hours earlier. By the time he slipped on his uniform, Russell had already played out every possibility and determined every reaction. Carrying that knowledge into the game, and executing it, required an unfathomable amount of mental energy. Once he felt that energy slipping — not his skills, the energy itself — that’s when he knew he needed to leave.
I know that sounds impossible, that no human being could actually think that way. But if you think of Russell as a genius — which he was — it might make more sense. Here’s an example: A few years ago, Russell’s wife2 searched his name on eBay and found someone selling a DVD of one of Russell’s college games. She bought the DVD and surprised him with it. They started watching the game: San Francisco (Russell’s team) and Oregon State.3Bill Russell could rattle off every play before it happened. Not a few of the plays. Not half of the plays. Every play. For a random college game that happened in 1955.
“I can’t do that anymore,” Russell said last week. “I’m older now. If you showed me an old game now, I couldn’t remember every play, just most of them.”
Anyway, Russell mined that genius through his 35th birthday, winning his final NBA title in his final game — in Los Angeles, in Game 7, with celebratory balloons hanging over the court that never ended up dropping. The greatest winner in sports history learned about those balloons before the game, felt the anger building inside him, embraced it one last time. “I knew we would win,” he says now, and when he says it, you believe him. His career couldn’t have ended any other way.4
Every great basketball player reaches that point differently. Bird and Magic had to retire. Wilt’s body broke down. Same for West. Kareem stayed one year too long. Oscar, Hakeem, Shaq and Moses kept playing until nobody wanted them anymore. Jordan left at the perfect time, missed the attention and (unfortunately) came back. Only Russell nailed his exit. I have a feeling Duncan will do the same. But Kobe? Your guess is as good as mine. He might be wired like a champion boxer, someone so competitive and relentless that you’d have to knock him out (or in Kobe’s case, embarrass him) a few times before he reluctantly called it quits. Or, he might retire for a year or two, then return like Jordan did, unable to accept life after basketball. The romantic version? Kobe wins a sixth title, passes Jordan in career points, then drops the mic and moves back to Italy — playing well into his forties, torching inferior competition, draining six 3s a night, and reinventing himself as Europe’s most famous basketball player.
Many NBA observers believe Kobe will handle his inevitable decline poorly, maybe even more poorly than Jordan’s last two Wizards seasons. That’s the reason Phil Jackson retired two years ago: He even admitted as much during our lunch together, saying that he didn’t want to be coaching Kobe Bryant when Kobe wasn’t Kobe anymore.5 Even with Kobe still slinging his fastball in Year 17, it’s morphed into another unhappy Lakers season — at least so far — and like always, Kobe has emerged as a lightning rod. His defenders maintain that Kobe hasn’t been this efficient offensively in years, that you can’t blame him for Dwight’s back, Nash’s leg, Mike Brown’s brain and the cast of nobodies on his bench. His detractors believe it’s been like watching Kobe Karaoke: As soon as things threatened to go south, Kobe started pushing for a new coach, blasting teammates and hogging the ball in close games. He’s the most polarizing superstar since Wilt for a reason.
Even his harshest critics marvel at Kobe’s inspiring battle with Father Time, how he keeps churning out the same numbers — 25 per night, every night, night after night — after reinventing his inside/outside game much like Jordan did. Only Tim Duncan has better footwork. Only LeBron competes as consistently hard. And nobody works harder during the offseason — even now, after playing 17 seasons, after making over $300 million, after battling a slew of injuries ranging from “annoying” to “how the hell is he playing?,” after hitting a point in his career when basketball just shouldn’t mean as much anymore. Unlike Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant can still work himself into that “rage” every night.
We know what’s driving him: Kobe wants seven rings (one more than Jordan); he wants to be remembered as the greatest Laker of all time; he wants to at least be mentioned with Jordan; and he understands the sheer power of numbers better than anyone. You can pick apart his top-five candidacy pretty easily. He was the second-best player on three of those five title teams (not the best). He’s only been voted “Most Valuable” once. He never held the “Best Player Alive” belt as emphatically as Jordan did, or even LeBron or Duncan did. And unlike Bird, Magic and Michael, his team seriously considered trading him one time (in 2007).
But you can’t take two numbers away from him: 30,000 (points) and five (rings). It’s all about pressure over time. He can’t beat Jordan conventionally. Looking at the career regular-season averages
Jordan: 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG, 50% FG, 84% FT, 27.9 PER, .250 WS/48, 5 MVPs
Magic: 19.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 11.2 APG, 52% FG, 85% FT, 23.0 PER, .208 WS/48, 3 MVPs.
Bryant: 25.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 45% FG, 84% FT, 23.5 PER, .185 WS/48, 1 MVP
it’s no contest. Jordan wins by any calculation.6 And Magic remains the second-best guard ever, at least if you’re going by those numbers. Career playoff averages don’t help Kobe’s case, either.
Jordan: 33.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.7 APG, 41.8 MPG, 49% FG, 83% FT, 28.6 PER, .255 WS/48, 6 rings, 6 MVPs
Magic: 19.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 12.4 APG, 39.7 MPG, 51/84%, 23.0 PER, .208 WS/48, 5 rings, 3 MVPs
Bryant: 25.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, 39.3 MPG, 45% FG, 82% FT, 22.4 PER, .157 WS/48, 5 rings, 2 MVPs
We’re still not arguing. Jordan’s 33.5 PPG remains the highest ever — nobody else even cracked 30. Magic’s 12.4 APG remains the highest ever — nobody else even cracked 10.2. Remember my 42 Club to account for players who averaged a combined 42-plus points, rebounds and assists in the same postseason playing at least 13 games? Only Jordan, Wilt, LeBron, Elgin, Pettit and Russell belong to the Career 42 Club. So there’s that.
Back to “pressure over time” — Kobe knows that the totality of his career numbers, along with a certain number of rings (and really, five might be enough), might be enough to sway history his way. Look at this
Jordan: 13 All-Stars (3 MVPs), 10 first-team All-NBAs (1 second-team), 1 Defensive P.O.Y.
Magic: 12 All-Stars (2 MVPs), 9 first-team All-NBAs (1 second-team), 0 Defensive P.O.Y.
Bryant: 13 All-Stars (4 MVPs), 10 first-team All-NBAs (2 second-team), 0 Defensive P.O.Y.
and keep in mind, Kobe is still going. Now look at this.
Jordan: 1,072 games, 41,011 minutes, 32,292 points (fourth all time), 214.0 WS (fourth).
Magic: 906 games, 33,245 minutes, 17,707 points, 10,141 assists (fourth), 155.8 WS (22nd).
Bryant: 1,180 games, 43,077 minutes (17th), 30,016 points (sixth), 166.01 WS (17th)
And the playoff numbers
Jordan: 179 playoff games, 7,474 minutes, 5,987 points, 1,152 rebounds, 1,022 assists.
Magic: 190 playoff games, 7,538 minutes, 3,701 points, 1,465 rebounds, 2,346 assists.
Bryant: 220 playoff games, 8,641 minutes, 5,640 points, 1,119 rebounds, 1,040 assists.
If you were wondering, Jordan and Kobe are the only members of the 5K/1K/1K Playoff Club AND the 4K/1K/1K Playoff Club. And again, Kobe is still going. Which is an entirely different conversation.
The most durable NBA superstars ever were Kareem and Karl Malone.7 Kareem won Finals MVPs 14 years apart, lasted 20 solid years, started in Finals series 18 years apart, played 1,797 games (including playoffs) and averaged 22.2 points in the ’87 playoffs when he was FORTY years old. (We didn’t need to give Kareem a statue — he’s never going to die. He’s going to live until he’s 400. He’s not human.) And Malone lasted 19 years, played 1,669 games (including playoffs) and averaged 20-plus points for 17 straight seasons. Like Kobe today, Kareem and Malone were maniacal about taking care of themselves (Kareem with yoga, Malone with weights), but Kobe’s era has offered decided advantages in conditioning, dieting, workout equipment, stretching routines, surgical techniques and even goofier advantages like napping (and the science behind it), sneakers (much better today) and the Internet (and the ability to study opponents on sites like Synergy). If ever an NBA player could play for a quarter of a century, and thrive for at least two solid decades, it’s Kobe Bean Bryant. He’s a basketball machine.
And that’s what makes “the other stuff” so frustrating. Nothing that happened this season has been surprising because it’s happened, in various forms, during so many other Laker seasons. Once upon a time, he called out Shaq — now he calls out Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. He still says things like “If it doesn’t get better, I’m going to kick everyone’s asses,” and you still can’t even tell if he’s half-kidding or not. He’s only been successfully coached by one person the man who happens to be the greatest NBA coach ever.
At this point, it’s easier to remember Kobe’s unhappy Lakers teams (by my count, nine8) than the happy ones. His best teammate (Shaq) left Los Angeles on such hostile terms that they didn’t talk for years. His second-best teammate (Gasol) looks totally broken, just a head case, a totally different player from the one who single-handedly almost vanquished our Olympic team five months ago. His third-best teammate (Andrew Bynum) got shipped to Philly and traded shots with Kobe on his way out. His only great coach (Phil Jackson) quit the Lakers and wrote a 2005 book that fearlessly tore Kobe to shreds with astonishing candor. His two non-Phil coaches since Shaq left have lasted 43 games and 83 games, respectively, before Mike D’Antoni took over. For reasons known only to him, he still takes shots at former teammates like Kwame Brown, Slava Medvedenko and the one and only Smush Parker, who landed in a bizarre Facebook-fueled feud with Kobe in October. I say “bizarre” because Smush was playing in China at the time. And because it was Smush Parker.
It’s just a different way to lead a basketball team: through fear, through conflict, through bullying, through the media. He leads by example, and if you don’t like that example, he reminds you how many rings he has (with the implication being, “Shut up”). When Jackson and Derek Fisher were around, Kobe’s leadership was actually effective — something of a good cop/bad cop dynamic developed, with Kobe pushing the team competitively and the other two guys handling everything else. Now it’s just him.
Sometimes, you wonder if Kobe can see the forest through the trees. He might be turning on Dwight Howard already — you can see it — a crucial development since Dwight could simply flee to Dallas, Houston or Atlanta next summer. Howard’s missed free throws are driving Kobe batty; he can barely hide his disdain on the court anymore. Same for Howard’s trying-too-hard-to-be-jovial routine and a general impression that Howard doesn’t live and die with the result of every basketball game. From what I heard, Kobe already played the “You don’t know anything about winning championships!” card with Howard — during a scrimmage last week, when the second team beat the first team partly because Howard checked out (he wasn’t getting the ball enough), followed by Kobe blistering him. That same week, Kobe needled Gasol publicly for not sucking it up with knee tendinitis, saying he needed to “put your big boy pants.” The whole thing is strange. Really, really weird to watch. Especially for me, just one week after hearing the greatest winner in basketball history say that he never criticized a teammate — not once.
When we were preparing for our NBA Countdown show on Wednesday afternoon, I told Magic that Russell/teammates story if only because I knew he’d appreciate it.9 We started discussing the various ways to lead a basketball team. Magic settled on four, believing you could lead by example, by intimidation, by being a communicator (talking all the time, like Magic did) or by some combination of all three, or even two of the three. He didn’t believe there was a right way or a wrong way. He believes basketball teams assume the personality of their best player, for better or worse. And that’s always been the case. That night on television, Magic declared that Kobe misses Jackson and Fisher, with the implication being, Those guys helped Kobe so much more than anyone realized.10
We’ve never asked Kobe for his feelings on leadership because we know the answer — he posted his thoughts on Facebook during the bizarre Smush Parker embroglio. I thought it was the strangest moment of Kobe’s career, and possibly the most incredible, depending on how you feel about his 81-point game. Here’s what he wrote. My thoughts off his thoughts are in parentheses.
Leadership is responsibility.
(So far so good.)
There comes a point when one must make a decision. Are YOU willing to do what it takes to push the right buttons to elevate those around you? If the answer is YES, are you willing to push the right buttons even if it means being perceived as the villain?
(Translation: I don’t care if I take heat for pushing my teammates. I really don’t. Say what you want. I can take it.)
Here’s where the true responsibility of being a leader lies. Sometimes you must prioritize the success of the team ahead of how your own image is perceived.
(I’d be more prone to believe this if Kobe didn’t spend so much time obsessing over how his image was perceived — he’s the same guy who nicknamed himself “Mamba” and changed his number. Of course, maybe he wanted the perception of his image to include the words “Just as demanding as Jordan was, just as much of a bully, so that’s another thing they had in common!” Who knows?)
The ability to elevate those around you is more than simply sharing the ball or making teammates feel a certain level of comfort.
(Look, I’m trying hard not to get snarky here. I’m trying really, really, really hard.)
It’s pushing them to find their inner beast, even if they end up resenting you for it at the time.
(I think that’s the most fascinating thing Kobe Bryant has ever said. Seriously. He just explained everything. I don’t even think he was exaggerating or writing those words for effect. It might be as simple as “Every time I lay into Gasol or Howard, it’s because I am pushing them to find their inner beast, and I don’t give a shit if they resent me for it.” Does he feel like Gasol responded so beautifully in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals — 19 points, 18 rebounds, nine offensive boards — partly because Kobe pushed him to embrace whatever an “inner beast” is called in Spanish? Why do I feel like he does?)
I’d rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate.
(WHOA! GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! Are you reading this????)
I wish they both went hand in hand all the time but that’s just not reality.
(Translation: I need to read Second Wind again.)
I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success.
(Translation: Hey, Smush Parker, tell me how my ass tastes.)
Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.
(That’s a great quote. I couldn’t agree more. I wish I could go back in time and use this as my high school yearbook quote instead of the embarrassing David Bowie passage that I picked.)
This is my way. It might not be right for YOU but all I can do is share my thoughts.
(Hold this thought.)
It’s on YOU to figure out which leadership style suits you best.
(And actually, Magic Johnson agrees — so he might be right.)
Will check back in with you soon.. Till then
(For the record, I end all my e-mails with “Mamba out” now.)
Could Kobe’s Facebook post evolve into his own version of Second Wind? Why not? It’s everything you ever wanted to know about his basketball career in 219 words. Which brings me to one last story involving a Hall of Fame center. Three years ago, I drove down to San Diego to interview Bill Walton for my NBA book and we ended up arguing (in a good-natured way) about Kobe right after he won the 2009 title. My book argued that success hinged on “The Secret” of basketball — that it wasn’t actually about talent, but how you sacrificed your game and meshed with teammates. Walton maintained it was more like a “choice,” saying it was every player’s responsibility to find his own destiny. And that path was going to be different for every player. Walton believed that I didn’t like watching Kobe that much because he didn’t play basketball the way I liked to see basketball played. That was my choice, just like it was Kobe’s choice to play that way.
And that’s what Kobe described in that Facebook post. He’s making it painfully, glaringly clear — after weighing every possibility, interacting with as many people as possible, and reading everything he could read, Kobe made the conscious decision to become this basketball player and this kind of leader. Just know that he put some real thought into it. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he read Second Wind or hijacked that scouting-the-teammates trick. Kobe considered everything — every angle, every nuance, every trick, everything that could possibly help him — and determined what made sense for him and him alone. He wants to keep winning titles. He wants 40,000 points. He wants to be immortal.
He’s also running out of time.
So, if the coach isn’t working? He needs to go. If the new center isn’t trying hard enough? He needs to try harder, or else. If the old center can’t snap out of this crazy funk? Then he needs to put on his big-boy pants and suck it up. Kobe Bryant would rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate. Kobe Bryant figured out what leadership style suited him best. Kobe Bryant doesn’t care if you think he’s a villain. Kobe Bryant wants to win and keep winning. Like Bill Russell before him, it’s HIS job to make THEM better. He just does it differently. And if you don’t like it? He doesn’t care. This is his way. Mamba out.
This column has been updated.
Filed Under: NBA, Series, Sports, The Sports Guy
More from Bill Simmons
Complete Column Archives: Grantland Edition
‘Bill Don’t Lie’ Podcast: Tom Haberstroh on the Cavs, Blake Griffin, and the Future of the Miami Heat
‘B.S. Report’: Chuck Klosterman on the NFL Draft, Hack-a-DeAndre, and ‘Mad Men’
The Tim Duncan Question
‘B.S. Report’: Jimmy Kimmel, Cousin Sal, and Bryan Curtis on Mayweather-Pacquiao
See all from Bill Simmons
See all NBA
See all Features
As prepares to take the court for the for the final time, we asked readers to share what he meant to them and to share some of their favorite memories.
Tell us, what does Kobe Bryant mean to you?
Below are some their responses and personal photos:
Father Time won't defeat his legacy
Kobe Bryant isn't just a basketball player. He is a way of life for fans in Los Angeles and around the world. His work ethic, his tenacity, his complete drive to be the best and win at all cost inspires and motivates us as fans throughout our daily lives. At work, at school, through competition. The mentality he has instilled on us all helps us overcome struggle, face adversity and never be satisfied, while always remaining humble.
Kobe Bryant the basketball player is retiring, but to me, there is something beyond that which remains, and can't be defeated by Father Time. The "Mamba Mentality" will live forever in myself as well as millions of others, and the mark this man has left on the game will never ever be forgotten.
"There is beauty in the struggle"
— Nick Caro, Sydney, Australia
Kobe Bryant was the Lakers legend of my generation
My family has lived in Los Angeles for the last 40-plus years, so I'm very fortunate to have been born into the Laker culture: one of the greatest franchises in sports history. My grandpa had , my dad had [Earvin] "Magic" Johnson and I'm so lucky to have had Kobe Bryant to dominate the league these past 20 years and be the Laker legend for my generation.
No other Kobe moment stands out more to me than during the 2010 Finals in when Bryant jumped on to the announcers table and threw his arm out toward the crowd screaming, "Five!" The Lakers had beaten the wretched in a seven-game series, earning him his fifth NBA championship.
Finally beating the Celtics in the Finals after losing to them two years prior, was something he HAD to do. Not only as a Laker, but as a competitor. You can feel the joy, the relief, and the sense of victory just pouring out of him. As a diehard Laker fan, watching that with my family is something I will never forget.
Kobe Bryant has not only changed the way I look at basketball, but he is the sole reason I gained a love for the game in the first place. His championships, his seemingly endless scoring runs, his greatness is what drove me to love the game. But his dedication to Los Angeles and to the Lakers during the rough losses, the missed playoffs seasons, the injuries is what made me appreciate and look up to him not only as a player but an idol. He has set the standard for what it takes to be a legend in the NBA.
— Brandon Pascual, Los Angeles
He's not the best since [Michael] Jordan, he's the best with Jordan.
Simon Nosworthy, Sydney, Australia
From his first season
I went to a Lakers game during Kobe's rookie season. My seats were near Chick Hearn's and 's broadcast table and, as older fans remember, they were not the best seats in the house.
Kobe was not a starter at the beginning of the season, but you could tell the extreme confidence he had when he played as a rookie. He had a couple of flashy moves, but the one that stands out is the where he stole the ball and did a 360 dunk. He ended up with a career-high up to that point in the season of 21 points. Little did I know that was nothing compared to what he was going accomplish during his career.
— Adrian Brindis, Los Angeles
Keeping up with Bryant around the world
Kobe Bryant means everything to me. I was born in L.A., but moved to Europe at a young age. But that didn't stop me from waking up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. before school to watch Kobe Bryant play the game I love. My alarm would sound, and with the entire house still asleep, I would grab my laptop and immediately go to NBA League Pass.
One time, I remember refusing to go to a New Year's party with my family because the Lakers game started at midnight in Europe, I stayed home and watched the Lakers go up against the Nuggets, and honestly it was a memorable New Year's because it was different.
Kobe Bryant also inspired me on the court. As a [shooting guard], I would learn moves from him and translate it to my games. I'd wear my Kobe kicks (I owned Kobe IVs, Vs, VIIs, VIIIs), Kobe shorts and walk into the gym to practice. My friends would yell, "Here comes the White Mamba."
Kobe actually visited Greece a few times and we participated in a tournament to get to play in front of him. My team didn't win, but I won the tournament's [three]-point competition, was interviewed by MTV and got tickets to go see the game where he was in attendance.
When I got accepted to USC, I came back to the States to be close to the Lakers organization and to see Kobe Bryant play in person a couple times. It was the best decision I ever made, and now I look forward to going to his last game on April 13, having bought tickets at face value MINUTES after he announced his retirement in November.
— Aram Palamoudian, Los Angeles
More than game
When my best friend was dying of cancer, I would go to the home she was at and I would watch all the games with her. That helped her smile when so many things didn't. When she passed, the flowers were purple and gold. Thank you, Kobe Bryant.
— Diana Corral, San Fernando
Meeting Bryant at the Forum
I met Kobe Bryant when I was about 16 years old at the Great Western Forum at the tunnels. My nephew and I were waiting for the players as they left the Forum. We were at the fence and Kobe came out of his car.
He was saying "hello" and signing memorabilia and there was a small kid who kept screaming on the top of his lungs, "Kobe!" As Bryant approached, the kid asked if he could have his shoes. He smiled, took off his shoes, signed them and gave them to the kid. This memory has always stayed with me, as it was the first time we met Kobe. We also got to take a photo with him.
Kobe epitomizes the term "franchise player." They are rare. Every team wishes they could find a "Kobe"-like franchise player to build around. Kobe gave his all, and I thank him for that.
— Mo Alonzo, Los Angeles
Bryant's greatness will be appreciated when he's gone
Greatest Laker of All-Time. I know there are many who would disagree but I truly believe people will feel that way more and more after he has finally left the sport. You never know how good something is until it's gone.
Only got to see him play once in a game against the Clippers. But I'm happy I was able to witness that. He had an amazing alley-oop dunk that blew the lid off of Staples Center.
Growing up in St. Louis, we did not have an NBA team, so I didn't follow basketball as much but knew about the great Lakers teams from the past. Once I moved to L.A. in 2007, I saw firsthand how important this club is to the city, and Kobe Bryant was the most important piece to those championships teams. Not only did he make the Lakers L.A.'s No. 1 team, he also got fans from all over the world to root for this city. A true ambassador of the game.
— Matt Hirschfeld, Los Angeles
It's been rough these few years and this season being his last, but he is Mr. L.A., Black Mamba, Vino, Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant.
Sean Van Arsdale, Lancaster
Catching his attention
To me, Kobe is someone who I've always admired. The result of his hard work is clearly seen through his actions. He's one who knows how to achieve what he wants and stays humble at the same time.
One specific memory I have of Kobe is when I watched a home game against the at the Staples Center.
There was one particular game where we were seated closer to the court.
Before taking his free-throw shots, I would scream his name out loud. He never did look over. This did not keep me from screaming his name even louder. Screaming from the top of my lungs, he finally looked!
I was able to get a snapshot of him. It was then and there where I was in awe that this great basketball player locked eyes with me through the lens. It was amazing to have been in his presence. Not only did it inspire me, but it made me cherish the moments I would have with my father. He and I would attend basketball games all the time. Now that we are separated, it saddens me. Now, when I do see Kobe ... I am reminded about the good times my father and I had at the home games.
The game of basketball is more than a hoop, a ball and its athletes. It's about the priceless and precious moments you spend courtside with the people you love.
— Kristina Protacio, Glendale
It was hard not to love Kobe Bryant
As a child in Southern California, it was tough to not fall in love with Kobe Bryant. As soon as I gravitated toward the Lakers, I gravitated toward Kobe. I don't remember much of watching Michael Jordan play in the '90s. But I grew up with Kobe, and for me, that's almost better.
I met Kobe after my sophomore year of college at the University of Northern Colorado. I was home for the summer and had an internship in my hometown with the Santa Barbara Independent. This was just a few months after the 2010 title. I was somehow assigned to cover his skills academy at UCSB. There was a small meeting with media before he went out and did a lot of work with the kids. In a room full of reporters with far more experience than 19-year-old me, I was chosen to speak one-on-one with him first. I only had five minutes, and I wasn't a great interviewer yet, but it remains my favorite interview ever.
I am now 24 and currently work as a high school sports reporter in North Dakota. My experience with Kobe convinced me that sports reporting was what I wanted to do with my life. And I know from that day I wanted to improve so that I could one day interview him yet again. I think I'm pretty far away from that at this point, but I'm not giving up on it.
When you think about it, Kobe was the most dominant player for, what, 10 or 12 years? And an elite player for another five? All told, that's extremely difficult in today's NBA when everybody is so much more athletic, I think, than what the '80s and '90s were. For Kobe to be so good for so long in this era, it speaks to how great his career really was.
— Parker Cotton, Dickinson, N.D.
A talented and spoiled man-child who has to have everything his way. The Lakers allowed it to happen, and I can see the results every day and they are not good.
Clive Grafton, Nipomo, Calif.
He was everything I love, and hate
Kobe represents everything I love and hate about sports. On one hand, his mastery! Watching him fly through the air was better to behold than any ballerina in Los Angeles. On the other hand, his hubris! When he wouldn't take responsibility for his scandal, or later even share the ball, Kobe became like all the other players who make me doubt male athletes and feminism can peacefully coexist.
My niece was only 7 years old when she asked, "What's assault?" I was so shocked I couldn't speak, so my 9-year-old nephew (who worshiped Kobe) replied, "It's when you hurt somebody." Kobe Bryant was the cause of one of the most heartbreaking conversations I've witnessed -- I'll never forgive him for spoiling the innocence of so many kids.
Do we discourage children from idolizing athletes, who all seem to screw up eventually? I don't have a solution.
— Ruthie, D.C.
Kobe Bryant felt like a friend
I'm only one year older than Kobe, so I essentially grew up watching him play and I always felt like I had so much in common with him. The love of basketball, obviously, but also other interests like watching movies, traveling to China, and being a resident in Orange Country. It always felt like Kobe was a friend. If I had a tough day at school or at work, I could always look forward to watching Kobe play if there was a Lakers game, and it would instantly cheer me up. For those two hours, I could get lost and mesmerized by Kobe's moves on the court.
Kobe had so many memorable moments on the court, and I shouted and screamed at the television through each and every one. But off the court, meeting Kobe in person was the most memorable. It was important because it was a chance to shake his hand, look him in the eye and say "thank you" for just being who he was and how much he meant to millions of fans like myself.
Kobe was such a polarizing figure on the court. I can recall endless conversations with friends, family, and basketball players during pick-up games in which people said they "hated" Kobe. Hate was such a strong word. I always asked, "Why?" They simply didn't like his attitude, or thought that he was selfish. But there was one thing you couldn't question -- his desire, hard work and determination. His intensity, fearlessness and ability to play through pain separated him from everyone else and defined him as a Hall of Famer and legend that he is today.
— Dru Chai, Tustin
Kobe is the G.O.A.T and to me he represents the will to win and not give up. I'm really gonna miss Kobe. Thank you for all the wonderful memories and championships.
Albert Gomez, Downey
Kobe Bryant is an icon
Coming out of college I worked at KCAL (Channel) 9 as a media sales assistant. As such, I was fortunate enough to go to, I believe, 22 games in three seasons, in which I had a 20-2 record. I always joked the Lakers should keep me around. Before that, I'd go to a game or two every season.
I was at the 81-point game in the rafters. I literally could touch the back wall. I had just moved from Los Angeles to Orange County for college, and didn't want to make the commute. But my friend pushed me to go, and I'll never forget the electricity pumping through my veins as I witnessed history.
There is so much good with Kobe, but I also appreciate the bad. It's funny, many events in his career I would relate to things happening in my life. 2013 was a tough year for me, and that's when he popped his Achilles. We both had to go on a journey of healing after that.
I missed my high school graduation to be at Game 2 of the 2002 NBA Finals against the . I had a sign that read "I'm missing my graduation to be here, Go Lakers!" That game I happened to be wearing my jersey, 'cause I had to spread the love, but I was put on the Jumbotron and everyone cheered. That was special too.
He's important to me because I've been able to relate to him even though I'm not a professional athlete. I'll always be grateful for that. And I'll never have it again with an athlete in my adult age.
— Jason Kornfeld, Santa Clarita
I'll never view basketball the same way again
Kobe Bryant is the game of basketball to me. I've been a fan since he was traded from Charlotte to the Lakers. I watched him grow as a player and person. Through all the coaching changes, different teammates and the number change. I moved to L.A. from Indianapolis nine months ago, and I am so happy I was able to watch Kobe play his last Easter Sunday game at Staples Center. His love for the game and his lasting impact on the game and the world is legendary.
I don't think I'll ever view basketball the same way. Kobe worked hard as a player and earned his respect. Kobe's five championships with the same team when the NBA was constantly changing is magical. His loyalty to the Lakers and the game is rare, and he will missed. I have a new love and respect for the game because of Kobe Bryant.
— Jazmin Zinnerman, Los Angeles
Kobe Bryant to me is a reminder of the old days when a superstar player would stay with one team his entire career. That just doesn't happen anymore in this day and age ...
Jeff Swanson, Everett, Wash.
Emulating his work ethic and drive
Kobe Bryant made [basketball] seem like more than just a sport.
During the time that I played organized basketball, I was our team's leader and I tried my best to lead like Kobe did. I never missed a practice, I played through every injury, I worked hard. He wasn't the player I based my game off of like other people probably did, but I based my values and work ethic off him.
He changed my whole perspective of basketball, made me fall in love with it to the point where for the four to five years that I seriously played, I would play six to eight hours a day. His values have shaped who I was as a player and who I am as a person.
— Afra Nariman, Los Angeles
A one-man show
I remember viewing in regret that his teammates never got better as they played with Kobe. I think that's what made Michael Jordan better. Every player who played with Jordan got better with time. No player has ever gotten better when playing with Kobe.
That's the game I saw, but it's hard to be patient with other players when your game is so elevated beyond.
— Nap Wade, Riverside
An older-brother type
I was 9 years old old when I was first introduced to Kobe. He was so cool. He was like an older-brother type figure.
When I was 10, I was listening to the radio and heard Kobe was gonna be at the Glendale Galleria signing autographs, and had to be there. I wore a jersey to this meet-and-greet and he signed a small basketball. He was the first professional player I ever met. The next day, I bought his shoes. It was important to me because, this was the first time I met a Laker.
He showed me how to play the game in a mental level, how that was more important than the physical aspect of the game.
— Mark Peaced
He was my idol
Growing up in Los Angeles in the late '90s. early 2000s, Kobe was my basketball idol -- the person you fantasize about being in the backyard shooting hoops as a youngster.
The basketball idol is an important part of a youth basketball player's development: Kobe idolized Jordan; players a few years younger than me idolized LeBron James. Now Stephen Curry is who kids try to be in the backyard.
The boyish capacity to idolize athletes fades with age, so most people only get one idol in their lifetime. Though I still regularly shoot and play pickup or adult-league ball, fantasizing about being anyone but my basketball idol would be weird -- I'm nearly the same age as Curry. Kobe will always be the player I think of when I envision hitting my next shot.
Kobe's fire, work ethic and willingness to do anything and everything to win had a big impact on my worldview. The secondary headline on Mark Heisler's article after Kobe's fifth championship perfectly encapsulates his career and his greatness: "He makes shots others don't take." I still have that headline laminated and posted on my wall.
I saw Kobe at Disneyland once a few years ago, and, overcome with excitement, I ran off and left my girlfriend in line at the Matterhorn in hopes of shaking his hand. The mob was huge and I felt bad crowding him when he was with his family so I wandered back to my confused and upset girlfriend and had to explain how/why he was so important to me. That girlfriend ended up getting me a signed basketball of his for my birthday later that year but then stole it when we broke up. I miss the ball more than her.
— Max Mossler, Northridge
The game needs more young players with Kobe's dedication, and so far only Stephen Curry has that dedication (would love to see Curry in purple and gold).
Billy Lynch, Los Angeles
I was there
I grew up with Kobe. Literally. I was 4 years old when he turned pro in 1996. Although I don’t remember much from his first few years with the purple-and-gold, he somehow became a fixture in my life. Growing up in Los Angeles with the Lakers being the dominant NBA franchise in the early 2000s, he was my idol. I tried to play like him, dress like him, and act like him, not realizing a lanky, skinny kid from Marina del Rey would never be able to dunk or play in the NBA. Shocking, I know.
When he won his first and only MVP award, I was there. When the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, I was there. When he tore his Achilles against the Warriors, I was there. When he made his return against the Raptors, I was there. Fast-forward past the fractured kneecap and torn rotator cuff to opening night of the 2015-2016 season, I was there. His 20th season, all with the Lakers. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers longtime PA announcer bellows the words, “And the other guard wears number 24” and the entire Staples Center crowd explodes with recognition. There were tears in my eyes as I knew, even before he announced his retirement, this would be his last opening night of his career. Tears of joy, knowing we will never see a player like Kobe again and how blessed I have been to watch him every single game. Tears of sadness, tears of disappointment, that he is actually retiring, tears of respect, for all he has given this city.
With Kobe’s retirement just around the corner, it’s not even about basketball anymore. The Lakers are rebuilding, and are not even close to being the team they will be in the future. It’s about Kobe. It’s simply about embracing and relishing this young kid from Philly who has made Los Angeles his home and has grown up before our eyes. “You asked for my hustle, I gave you my heart.” You gave us more than that, Kobe. You gave us a reason to believe, and for that I will always be forever grateful. Make these last ... games the most memorable you possibly can and remember, come April when you come out of that tunnel of Staples for your last home game, I will be there. Tears in my eyes, as we say goodbye to the greatest of all time.
— Kevin Lichtig, West Hollywood
Hated him before he became a Kobe fan
Kobe is a fearless, relentless competitor. When I first started watching basketball, at a young age, as a Kings fan, I hated him. Couldn't stand to see him win. Hated his fade-away. Hated how cocky he was. Hated everything about him.
Then, as I became older, I couldn't help but respect the drive this man has. It's like nothing like I've ever seen. He's completely obsessed with the game of basketball. That's when I became a Kobe/Laker fan.
Kobe Bryant has shown me how you should approach the game of basketball, or anything you love. He gave everything he had to the game, heart and soul. He is the most dedicated, hardworking, fearless competitor I've ever seen.
— Adrian Hernandez, Modesto
Tell me what Kobe Bryant means to you on Twitter @mattwilhalme
Lakers have big plans for Kobe Bryant's final game
Kobe Bryant has 35 points in Lakers' 130-110 loss to Houston
Want some Kobe Bryant merchandise? No problem, here's a $38,024 cap