Player Capsule (Plus): Kobe Bryant and the Memories of Man

Posted on Tue 04 December 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

War does not require bombshells and brigadiers. It does not require bloodshed and hardship. War requires a single thing -- conflict. Overwhelming conflict, traditionally between two large bodies composed of untold masses of souls lining up obediently for the cause. That's all. We don't need two large bodies to have a war. All we really need is a single large body and a small group of rebelling forces with enough pesky guile to incite the larger body to make war. That's it. Perhaps you'd think this new type of war implies a recent phenomenon. One that rose with the advent of terrorism, small cell resistance groups, weapons of mass destruction.

That would be wrong. It's not new at all.

Warfare of the second type -- a large body against a smaller, self-sufficient group -- has always been a factor in society, and always will be. And not in the way you think. Weapons of mass destruction have always been ambling about -- the nuclear bomb is the belated antecedent of weaponized knowledge. Destruction can be wrought from grim dictate of the pen and the rogue idea, in the hands of a brutal tyrant or a careless fool. The biological weapon is a diseased form of an idealist's contagion. The terrorist is the next step in the artist who uses their words to incite fear and loathing among the sycophants who follow. These weapons began with the advent of independent thought. Their rule can be cruel and unusual. The tyranny of a good idea can -- and has -- ruled the world in its history. More than any one man could ever hope to achieve.

• • •

Kobe Bryant elicits fundamentally intense reactions. There's disgust from some -- the echos of scandal and a controversial style loom over his game, and detract from his brilliance among that faction. There's devotion from others -- the style that others so hate endears him to many in an overwhelming fashion. It's a rare few who watches Kobe Bryant and thinks "oh, that's neat, I can take it or leave it though." There's a core challenge to the fan in Bryant's play. A challenge to accept, to understand, to love despite his faults.

And faults? They're there, whether the devotees like to admit it or not. Becoming a devoted fan of Kobe Bryant necessitates becoming a devoted fan of a man who -- despite being one of the most gifted passers of his generation -- simply doesn't pass very often. Becoming a devoted fan of a player whose defensive effort waxes and wanes from an all-defensive peak to a ridiculously low-effort fluff on 90% of the possessions of a season. Becoming a devoted fan of a player who, inevitably, will make life a bit harder for himself every few possessions solely in the name of style.

In a vacuum, these are all things we learn to hate in other players. We learn to dislike the passers who keep avoiding their talent. We learn to dislike the players whose defense yo-yos through incredible highs and impossible lows. We learn to throw up our hands and yell at the player who takes the awful shot when there's an easy shot seconds away. But there's an element of self-respect and self-awareness in Kobe Bryant, in his most quiet moments. This is a man who rates out as one of the most knowledgable basketball scholars of his generation. He's studied the annals of the game, the breaks of history. He understands that he makes the game a bit harder for himself. Internalizes it. He knows that he often does things inexplicable at best and actively harmful at worst. Things that increase the difficulty of his road, or might make the team worse.

And -- surprise, surprise -- he doesn't care. In fact, he scoffs in the face of the people who do. Because much like Manu Ginobili can make his aesthetic keynote a fundamentally inconceivable three point shot, Kobe Bryant makes his aesthetic keynote the imposition of impossibility in any possession he can safely manage it. What should be a simple dish through the double team to Gasol becomes a double teamed bicycle shot. "And-1! And the foul?!" What should be a simple case of rotating on the help for some becomes a dread steal, with Bryant refusing to give an inch edgewise and refusing to let his prey escape the tendrils of his pressure defense. What should be a simple play in most playbooks becomes a one-on-five as his teammates turn to stone and Bryant takes a few pretty dribbles and hoists up a terribly ill-conceived high-arcing shot as time expires.

Swish. The crowd goes crazy.

• • •

Mikhail Bulgakov was a very good writer.

Mikhail Bulgakov wrote plays, novels, and vignettes. No piece better represents the stark way Bulgakov's own nature challenged the world around him as his early-career short novel, Heart of a Dog. In it, a mad scientist takes a dog off the street and transplants into the beast the spleen and reproductive organs of a man, causing the dog to transform inexplicably into a disturbing half-man with a nose for the grotesque and horrifying. When stated like that, it sounds like a silly romp through a now-worn science fiction premise. In execution, it was far more. The book was an examination of the ethical difficulties of enforced transformation, and a reflection of the Soviet's attempts to fundamentally change the Russian people to a nation of communist principle and moral.

Mikhail Bulgakov was fond of the story-within-a-story critical piece, even when it ruined all chance of his work seeing the light of day. Bulgakov wrote dozens of plays that were banned for production in Russia for his entire life. The aforementioned Heart of a Dog wasn't published in Russia until well after his death. His masterpiece -- The Master and Margarita -- was a vicious critique of the Soviet literary establishment baked within a masterwork of a two-frame story and high philosophical questions about life, art, and the general state of man. Writing his masterpiece took an incredible toll on Bulgakov, and realizing the dismal chances he would ever see his life's work published sent Bulgakov tumbling into depression and agony. His inability to get his grandest work published destroyed his health and placed the artist on death's door. Not less than a year after the completion of his manuscript, Bulgakov died.

Mikhail Bulgakov was a casualty of two wars. One was the first world war, where he served as a front-line surgeon and suffered several terrifying injuries that caused him to become hopelessly addicted to morphine for much of his life. The second was a war of ideas, a war balancing Bulgakov's harsh critique of the Soviet establishment against the establishment's disgust towards any and all criticism. There was a distinct irony in the way Bulgakov's work was treated -- Stalin himself was a noted admirer of Bulgakov's. But powerful men like Stalin never quite realize that ideas are bigger than any one man, even one as important as Stalin. Bulgakov's work continued to elicit censures and suppression throughout his life, despite Stalin's general appreciation for his work, with lower level communist officials continually rejecting his attempts to publish until finally levying a full-scale ban on the publication or dispersal of any and all work produced by Bulgakov in 1929, and maintaining it well beyond his death despite his pleas. Bulgakov continued to write, and to bury pieces he could never publish in a drawer he'd never return to. The man knew no fear. Unfortunately for the world, he also knew nothing of old age.

Mikhail Bulgakov died at age 48, a tragic victim of a silent war.

• • •

"Il Fait à présent la Pluie et le beau temps." *

To some, basketball is a game. To Kobe Bryant, basketball is a war.

But here's where things get tricky. It's not a traditional war, as earlier described -- it's not some large-scale conflict between two teams as masses. That's an average basketball game, a brightly colored facsimile of a two-country war as played on a comically abstract field of battle. Kobe Bryant's approach to the game is different -- far before any pretense of the team or the franchise, his war is personal. Kobe vs the machine. Armies lined up to face down the barrel of Bryant's long gun. One versus many.

Bryant's war is one man taking on an entire defense, dozens of possessions a game. Few stars are as good at Kobe Bryant at simply taking ownership of a rogue possession -- turning, for one stirring moment, the game of basketball into a vicious 1-on-5 cage match. If you're one of the people who wonder aloud why Kobe Bryant elicits such stirring praise from his comrades in arms, or why Kobe Bryant is considered one of the best to play the game? Watch how he commands the audience's attention. Watch how he molds and shapes context around the vagaries of his goals and desires. Some stars shoot, over and over again. They'll hog the ball, play some hero-ball, refuse to work in the team concept. Bryant approaches it in a similar way. He wages war on the opposing team, hoping his own overwhelming force will be enough to guide his team through.

This all is_ described_ in a similar way as the hero-balling star, but that doesn't mean it's the same. It's not. The casual star molds their style to fit the game -- Kobe Bryant molds the game to fit the style. He's a showman with a command of his craft so effective that most who watch him can't help but revise their entire idea of what a star should do to follow Kobe's example. Understanding what makes one a fan of Kobe requires understanding the way his game depends on the viewer buying in to his dictate. It requires the viewer to see him take over a game and begin to fundamentally enjoy the takeover more than you would have enjoyed a series of expert shots from his supporting cast. Abandoning, at least temporarily, the idealization of teamwork and taking as your dictate exaltation of the individual. Better than anyone in the game right now, Bryant turns the game into a manifesto, a personal statement. Like Iverson, Jordan, Arenas at his peak.

He takes a game of many and produces a game of one. That's his gift.

* - "He runs the whole show, now."

• • •

There's exactly one person in the game today who reminds me of Kobe Bryant. Not a player, an official, an owner or a fan. It's the man who redefines coaching and changes the meta-game for those around him. It's the man whose machinations often cause the fans to throw their hands up in confusion and anger, whose adherence to the long game can make his individual actions immaterial or confusing. It's a man who -- above all else -- acts like a tremendous jerk and gets away with it on a daily basis simply by dint of his incredible talent and his tendency to change the game.

Gregg Popovich, that is.

There's a certain allure Popovich holds beyond his already considerable coaching talent. And it's exactly what makes Bulgakov and Bryant enduring as personal figures. They find themselves thwarted, at times -- by reason, by logic, by the fact that they're simply trying to fight a personal war too vast for one man. Kobe Bryant, for all his successes, has a lot of incredible failures where he shouldn't have flown solo or alienated his teammates with inexplicable jesting and harshness. Gregg Popovich, for all his titles and talents, has lost the Spurs numerous games stubbornly fixating on crazy tics like small-ball or Blair/Bonner, and he's gotten the franchise fined on multiple occasions on sole account of unnecessary rank churlishness. Mikhail Bulgakov, despite being by far the best Russian writer of his particular era, was unable to parlay his brilliance into any tangible recognition or praise simply because he refused to play the game in the way the Soviet censors wanted the game to be played.

In the final estimation, Popovich is among of the greatest coaches of all time -- and in my book, the greatest -- not for his coarseness and brackishness, but not despite it either. Will Pop's surly answers be entombed in the hall of fame, for all to remember? Probably not. But they will mark the memories of those who remember him, and they will form the first two or three stories that old hands will tell when the children of tomorrow ask what was so special about Popovich. When Bryant is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, the same applies. Bryant's hall of fame career will demand mention of his titles, his scoring, his will to win. All that fun stuff. But the first story old hands tell won't be that of Kobe's 81 point game, but that of his style. His absurdist 1-on-5 fixation that killed the Lakers as often as it helped them. The complexity of a man's failures is as key to their own greatness as the actions that make one great in the first place. Both Popovich and Bryant exemplify that.

Bulgakov once wrote -- semi-prophetically -- that "manuscripts don't burn." He was right. Although he himself once burnt The Master and Margarita in an effort to rid himself of it, he rewrote the book from memory. The ideas and theories underlying Bulgakov's brilliance were too overwhelming to prevent its eventual release, even by his own hand. His work was too good to sit in a musty drawer for the rest of his natural life. Bryant and Popovich -- luckily, for their devotees -- are not faced with the same restrictions. They do not have to file away their brilliance in a drawer and hope that someday an ex-wife will push it to publication. Popovich gets fined, not jailed. Bryant gets criticized, not silenced. Both will leave the league, someday -- and their remembrance will be vast, a multifaceted tapestry of accomplishment and challenge, of brilliance and mistakes, of obvious greatness and obvious prickishness. There will be complicated memories for complicated men, and stories to tell until the young get bored to hear them.

Manuscripts don't burn. And neither do legacies -- those that really make a man, at least.

• • •

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