All too often, sports discourse navigates its way to the concept of legacy. Nearly every playoffs, legacies are built up or torn down at each other’s expenses: LeBron James fixed his legacy last year, but not before Dirk Nowitzki temporarily destroyed it by cementing his own legacy that was forever tarnished by Dwyane Wade (whose legacy was aided by Shaq who also aided Kobe’s legacy until Kobe legacied his own legacy for himself) and Baron Davis (whose legacy should have been a different legacy if only he cared enough about his legacy to legacify it). Much like this paragraph, the discussion means well, but can hardly stay out of its own way as it eventually crumbles into a convoluted mess of phrases and names.
Despite all this, the concept of legacy has a very important place in sports discourse. The way the phrase is used isn’t misplaced – rather, it is premature. A legacy, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It is impossible to receive said transmission when the ancestor is standing next to us. Legacy is dependent on time itself before it can take shape or form.
As such, discussions of legacy always strike me as overeager and impatient. Who are we to proclaim how Player X will be remembered in 20 years? How can we so boldly state that another decade of play from him and another decade of digestion from us will do nothing to change the opinions that were formed over the span of a two week playoff series? Where do we draw the line between friendly conjuncture, curious projections, and bone-headed stubbornness that the immediate shall sustain because the immediate is where we are most comfortable?
Against my better instincts, however, Kobe Bryant’s presumed torn Achilles turned my attention from the increasingly rare phenomenon of a fantastic April basketball game to thoughts of his legacy. In defense of my own hypocrisy, I do believe it is somewhat less presumptuous to hold these discussions as a player nears the end of his career, when we have historical perspective on most of his resume. Sure, there are final kinks to be sorted out, but a player’s crowning achievements don’t usually come near retirement. Even if they do, rarely do they change our perceptions of them. I’d offer the examples of Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, both hall of famers who only finally broke the title barrier at age 37, as proof.
Similarly, Kobe’s crowning achievements have, to the best of our knowledge, come and gone. Even if preseason hopes of a sixth title had borne fruit, the significance of that ring would have been more numerological, in the MJ-tying sense, than validating. We know Kobe Bryant is an all-time great, and we have seen him at his best; a final ascension of the Everest could not change that.
And yet, there has been something mythical to Bryant’s 17th season, something that, even if not directly transmitted to his ancestors, was magnified upon reception nonetheless. Because at some point in the past few years, Bryant had stopped being a basketball player and transformed into a character, the lead of a one-man autobiographic fiction.
His interviews had lost all sense of professionalism, as clichés and political correctness became profanity-laced outpour of self-confidence. In the 2011 playoffs, down 3-0 to the Mavericks, when Kobe implored us to “call me crazy, I still think we can win this,” or last week, when Kobe shrugged off a controversial no-call on a desperation Ricky Rubio heave by saying “We would have gone into overtime and won the game. It’s as simple as that.” Such quotes would have sent other players to the PR dungeons; when Kobe says them, we chuckle.
He had played through injuries in his finger, wrist, legs – a who’s who of body parts that most functioning humans would typically need to walk all the way to the bathroom, let alone play a sport for a living. In the Golden State game itself, Bryant had fallen badly twice before the Achilles tear, getting back up and staying in the game both times. Even after his injury, he still took the two ensuing free throws, leaving open the option of a return, and option that still, somehow, exists in the back of my brain, even as “6 to 9 months” decorates headers and flashes across tickers.
The twisting, contested 30 footers, the bold defiance of presumed chronological and physiological truths, the constant reminders by both him and those around him that his will is indomitable – they were at once both true and surreal. Bryant had taken human traits and stretched them to their limits. Not just in the sense that his physical accomplishments were cyborg-esque, but like a character in a skit who repeats his well-versed punchline often enough to entertain but just scarcely enough to sell us the illusion that what we’re watching is real. The effortless forays into double-digit assists when Steve Nash injured his hamstring, the 47 point game against Portland, even the two non-chalant threes to tie the game against the Warriors before he left for good – all of these toed the line between basketball genius and character actualization. This is Kobe Bryant, watch him do Kobe Bryant. Cue Laughtrack.
By the time it was decided, by either Kobe or Mike D’Antoni, that Bryant would hereby play all 48 minutes of every single game, it was no longer clear to me that Bryant’s legacy is, indeed, cemented. His truly magnificent prime was enough to decree that this would not be the best basketball Bryant we’ve seen, regardless of accomplishments, but truly magnificent primes aren’t necessarily what we remember. Kobe Bryant had become so much of a Kobe Bryant that sheer personality had become too tall to be overshadowed by such petty things as 5 titles and 30,000 points.
In the “rank your best players of all-time” game, Bryant will no longer move up. His team has objectively and subjectively failed this season, in which he has a part by default. But in the fickle game of human memory, a 34 year old pounding his way through the falling debris and the ensuing rubble can register louder than a 22 year old dominating in tandem with a behemoth, or a 28 year old scoring at will and making faces at Smush Parker, or a 31 year old raising his arms to the sky. This Kobe Bryant may not have been the best Kobe Bryant, but he was the most Kobe Bryant.