Blinded by belief

I’ve been sitting with the passing of Kobe Bryant for a few weeks now. I was a bit too young and removed to be aware of the rape allegations at the time. I wrote him off when I heard about it later.

I was never really a Bryant fan. My early memories were frustrated. I’d race home from school to find ESPN once again scheduled a Lakers beatdown of a terrible team. Rather than an actual game, between say the Pistons and Heat or Jazz. The Lakers, Bryant, were the only ones Australians wanted to watch, apparently.

Bryant had an incredible record. He was a champion, an MVP, and, until recently, third all time in NBA scoring. But I’d watch him throw up ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. Think about all the talent on the bench with half the opportunities. It felt like we were all giving him a bit much. Or, rather, he was taking it.

This feeling was really captured by Tara K. Menon’s reflection on Bryant in the Paris Review:

The details of the sexual assault case in 2003 make clear that Kobe’s self-obsession often came at others’ expense. In this case, a nineteen-year-old girl. The criminal case was dropped, but it seems almost certain he was guilty. He was definitely guilty of the aftermath: he hired lawyers to destroy a young woman’s reputation.

His apology, lauded by some as exemplary, was additional proof that he couldn’t see others fully. He was blinded by himself, just as he blinded so many of us for too long.

It’s a beautiful essay on the inability to let go of Bryant the hero despite what she knows of Bryant the person. He moulded her. She moulded herself after him. But note the repeated references to his self obsession.

No one held his hand and opened his eyes to another, more accurate vision of himself. He never saw himself clearly—not on his first day, not on his last.

Kobe’s impaired vision is fundamental to what made him one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. He thought he could do the impossible, and that belief made the impossible possible, again and again: playing through a dislocated finger , making both free throws after tearing his Achilles, forcing overtime with a buzzer beating 3 and then winning that game with a fadeaway three-pointer in double overtime, those eight-one points .

That belief is integral to success has been drilled into me. “Sooner or later the man who wins is the one who thinks he can” goes a line from one of my grandpas favourite poems. NBA commentators will often remark on how necessary it is for shooters. That they took the next shot as if they forgot the last one.

But Menon, Bryant, shows it can go too far. It can blind you to others.

This summer I read a great book about the process of basketball: the art of a beautiful game by Chris Ballard. The Kobe chapters are, somewhat predictably, about his legendary competitiveness. Note how early it starts.

He keeps bugging Brian Shaw, then a star player in Europe, to play him one-on-one. Eventually Shaw relents, and the two play H-O-R-S-E. “To this day, Kobe claims he beat me,” says Shaw. “I’m like, right, an 11-year-old kid, but he’s serious.”

Now Kobe is 13 years old and an eighth-grader in the suburbs of Philadelphia, skinny as a paper clip. He is scrimmaging against varsity players at Lower Merion High in an informal practice. They are taken aback. “Here’s this kid, and he has no fear of us at all,” says Doug Young, then a sophomore on the team. “He’s throwing elbows, setting hard screens.”

Bryant, now 17, is to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers guard and one of the premier defenders in NBA history. Cooper is 40 years old but still in great shape, wiry and long and much stronger than the teenage Bryant. The game is not even close. “It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him,” says Ridder, now the Warriors’ director of media relations. After 10 minutes, West stands up. “That’s it, I’ve seen enough,” he says. “He’s better than anyone we’ve got on the team right now. Let’s go.”

The examples are endless. Bryant’s belief in his own powers started young and apparently drove him to greatness. It was plain every time he took the court. You could see it in his eyes.

But Ballard also reveals the flip side. Of Bryant basically tormenting teammates through an obsession with winning. How, as Menon noted, his self-obsession often came at others’ expense.

Now it’s 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and a franchise player. Still, when guard Isaiah Rider is signed as a free agent by the Lakers, Bryant forces Rider to repeatedly play one-on-one after practice to house-break this newest potential alpha male. (Bryant wins, of course.) When Mitch Richmond arrives the next year, it’s the same. “He was the man, and he wanted us to know it,” says Richmond. “He was never mean or personal about it; it’s just how he was.”

Unfortunately, this is probably what I will take away from Bryant. He was a joy to watch compete. Not just gifted but amazingly driven to be the best. But there was also a nasty side to that. What drove him to greatness likely drove him too far.

He was blinded by belief.

As always my emphasis