A few weeks ago ESPN caught up to Kobe Bryant in Brazil, where he was at the World Cup watching other outstanding athletes compete for a trophy—a likely place to find Bryant given his international upbringing, his love for the beautiful game, and his close personal relationship with athletic brilliance—and of course someone had to ask, given Tim Duncan’s fifth title, about his winning a theoretical sixth. This would pull Duncan even with Michael Jordan, one ahead of Bryant. And rather than simply scoff at something a year off that would require a 39-year-old Duncan to make an unprecedented third straight Finals run (following an unprecedented second), Kobe was, well, he was Kobe. “If you ask me if I’m OK with Tim [winning a sixth ring], I’m not,” he said. “I’m not OK with that.”
He said it with a smile, I bet, but a small, tight one, that one that says “while I don’t want this to sound serious, I totally am.” Because even if he was joking about it, deep down inside Kobe doesn’t want Duncan to win a sixth, not before he does. Kobe may not be the player LeBron James is anymore, but even at 35, he remains the league’s ultimate competitor. At that, at least, he’s already equalled Michael Jordan.
The thing is, at this point in his career, Bryant has about as much chance as keeping Duncan from a sixth ring as Jordan does. Kobe will be 36 by the start of next season, and while he played 78 games (and averaged 27.3ppg) just two seasons ago, that was, well, two seasons ago. He hasn’t played in a playoff game since 2012, and he’s got 54,208 minutes on those surgically repaired legs. He’s also got a massive contract extension—which will pay him $23.5 million next season and $25 million the season after that—that nearly guarantees the Lakers will not be able to bring in another superstar until he retires. As many big names who opted out this summer, none were ever seriously connected with the Lakers. Carmelo Anthony was recruited, but the Lakers weren’t even in his final two. And Pau Gasol, Kobe’s last lieutenant, decided he had a better shot in Chicago.
Which leaves Kobe, raging as only he can against the dying of the light. If he doesn’t win another championship, what of it? He’s won five, twice earning Finals MVP honors, and played in seven NBA Finals in 11 seasons. To compare, Magic Johnson won five titles, with three Finals MVPs, in eight Finals appearances over 12 seasons, and that’s considered the golden era of Lakerdom—Showtime. Kobe’s widely recognized as the second-best two-guard of all time behind you-know-who, and one of the 10 best players to have ever played the game, period. He’s a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer (and, oh, what a speech THAT will be), a global icon who has as much if not more one-name recognition than anyone he’s ever watched on the pitch.
Recently, he’s implied that life after basketball will be difficult for him. But what about life now? The Lakers off-season additions have been minimal—an amnestied Carlos Boozer, a cast-off Jeremy Lin—and they still don’t have a coach. The Celtics at least seem to have a plan behind their plunge into the depths. The Lakers? No one seems to know.
And part of this has to be laid at Kobe’s feet. It’s just the way he is, the way he likely always will be. He’s the last gunslinger, with nothing left to prove and seemingly no way in which to prove it. He stubbornly plays by the old rules, despite all evidence that those rules no longer apply. Take less money so the Lakers could rebuild? Why? Hadn’t he earned this? Nevermind that Pau Gasol, deserving of similar largesse, was only offered deals that would cut his salary in half. Or that Jordan’s huge payouts with the Bulls came under a vastly different CBA (and while he was still winning titles). So it was that the player who ushered in one of the Lakers’ best eras played an equally critical role in their downfall. The Lakers’ fortunes have more or less mirrored Kobe’s own of late since Kobe has virtually become the Lakers.
Go back to two years ago, his most recent healthy season. Kobe missed just four games, played 3,000 minutes, took a league-leading 1,595 shots (his sixth time leading the league in that category) and shot a perfectly respectable 46 percent. That was just two-and-a-half a shots per game fewer than the previous season. This is how Kobe welcomed All-Star center Dwight Howard, the would-be Lakers future: Howard played in two fewer games than Bryant and attempted half as many shots, despite shooting 57 percent from the floor. When Kobe went down with a torn Achilles in the final week of the season, that was it for the Lakers—swept in the first round by the Spurs. Your system cannot thrive with your best player out when your best player IS your system. Afterwards, Howard didn’t lash out the way Shaq used to—as Shaq himself has pointed out countless times, Howard isn’t Shaq. Instead Dwight simply left, signing a free-agent deal that summer with the Houston Rockets.
Bryant has no heir, not even any constant companions. He is a lone wolf, destined to exit the league in much the same way he came into it. So as Ray Allen follows LeBron like a disciple and Duncan carries on with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, Kobe heads into the new season with Boozer, Lin, a 40-year-old Steve Nash and a re-signed Swaggy P at his side. It’s a team closer to the 2005 version that missed the playoffs than any of Kobe’s title teams. Andrew Bynum couldn’t stay healthy, Howard couldn’t handle the pressure (or didn’t want to), and Gasol saw a brighter future elsewhere. Even if Kobe manages to stay healthy, the Lakers appear destined to miss the playoffs once again—something they haven’t done in consecutive seasons in nearly 40 years and have only done once in the history of the franchise.
What will Bryant’s legacy be? What will he leave behind besides memories? The five championships, the 81-point game, the 31,000 points—those are all amazing accomplishments, set in stone. Or bronze, as it may be. His No. 24 (and maybe his No. 8 as well) will one day hang from the Staples Center rafters, with a matching statue out front. But that’s all there is. In that sense as well he is another Jordan: When he leaves, the Lakers will have to start over from scratch. Compare that with LeBron’s desire to leave a lasting impression in Northeast Ohio, or Duncan’s living legacy in San Antonio—a franchise that seems well prepared to carry on winning even once he retires, with a new Finals MVP molded in his own image (in stoicism if not in actual game). Bryant’s overpowering will, so much like Jordan’s, is tragic in the sense that it tends to be indiscriminate in whom it destroys. In the end it even turns on itself.
If Duncan does wind up passing Bryant’s ring total, Kobe won’t be fine with it? This is a given. This is, after all, someone who’s never been satisfied with anything, someone who’s driven coaches and teammates mad even as they stacked hardware. He turned the jovial Shaq angry, severely harshed Phil Jackson’s Zen mellow. Kobe’s relentless, pathological need for more has gotten him to where he is today. On some level, he should be satisfied. He isn’t. And he probably never will be.
Follow me on Twitter @RussBengtson