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

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.

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