Which Kobe Bryant Will Fans Remember?
Kobe Bryant has decided that this season will be his last, posting a "Dear Basketball" farewell poem on the Players' Tribune Sunday afternoon. Among even those of us who are not Lakers fans, his dynamic talent on the court and his eccentric presence off it will be missed. For the Lakers, however, his immense contract and crippling salary cap hit won't be.
It's fitting that Bryant chose to make his announcement on Derek Jeter's post-retirement publishing project. An aging star, a face of the league's premier franchise, whose salary by the end of his career reflected more his marketability and iconic status than his actual contribution to the team -- sound familiar? I'd never deny basketball fans the opportunity to say farewell to a player who will go down as one of the greats, as baseball fans did with Jeter. But Bryant remains a highly polarizing figure, one whose legacy will ultimately be much more complicated than the soaring stats and otherworldly plays for which he's immediately remembered.
It was nearly two years ago that Bryant, coming off a torn Achilles at age 35, signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension that has significantly hampered the Lakers' ability to go after big free agents. The Lakers have been in perpetual rebuilding mode, with Bryant looking like a shell of his former self, calling into question the wisdom of a contract that can't be justified beyond the desire to keep a franchise player as an attendance draw. (I'll reiterate my stance that any anger over his contract should be directed at Lakers ownership, not the player who was unwilling to take a pay cut given that the league caps individual salaries at a maximum, meaning he's been relatively underpaid his entire career.)
But even before the contract put a strain on the Lakers' immense resources, free agents were wary of coming to Los Angeles. As Henry Abbott wrote last year in ESPN the Magazine, agents and players alike felt that "Bryant undermined the team's rebuilding by alienating would-be free agent recruits." Much ink has been spilled over Bryant's selfish reputation, at times overstated, but it's clearly had an impact on the Lakers' ability to build around him. His contract extension in 2013 didn't just cost the team cap space -- it also cost them human capital.
His feud with former teammate and fellow legend Shaquille O'Neal broke up one of the most successful duos in the NBA, one that won three straight championships and emerged as the backbone of a new Lakers dynasty. Owner Jerry Buss made his choice, trading O'Neal to the Miami Heat in 2004 and signing Bryant to a seven-year, $136 million extension the next day. The pair have since apparently buried the hatchet, discussing the feud on O'Neal's podcast in August. Bryant himself even admitted, "I was an idiot when I was a kid."
Even when you look at Bryant's impressive career stats, there's some disagreement over where he ranks among the greatest players of all time. He's the only player ever to have accumulated 30,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 6,000 assists. He ranks 20th all-time in player efficiency rating and 15th in win shares. At .450, his career field-goal percentage is fairly average, and his reputation for taking a ton of shots have led many to dismiss his scoring records as mainly a function of volume and longevity. That view is supported by the fact that the player efficiency rating actually rewards players who shoot the ball more.
It's also impossible to talk about Bryant's complicated legacy without mentioning his 2003 rape case, though fans and writers alike sure are trying. Bryant's accuser refused to testify in the criminal case, which was dropped, and the two later settled a civil suit for undisclosed terms that included his public apology. Unlike some other recent cases of athletes accused of violence against women, I honestly don't know what to make of Bryant's guilt or innocence. Looking back on it now, the case serves as a prototype for the privileges a wealthy, famous man can expect -- the benefit of doubt from fans, the characterization of the accuser as a gold-digging cleat chaser -- and also for how such allegations are quickly erased from most people's memory.
It's all part of the enigma that is Kobe, a player so compelling and confusing that he can polarize how even just one person thinks of him. At the end of the day, I'll remember the legend -- the 81-point game, the 61-point game, the circus shots, the game-tying threes, the entire month of February 2003. But I'll also try not to forget all those things that make his memory not quite that easy.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at email@example.com